Equity in Schools
For more than two decades, the Communities In Schools of Virginia network has been the leading implementer of the community school framework in the commonwealth. For tens of thousands of Virginia’s students, the ability to engage in school is like a fraying rope that, without added support, could snap in an instant.

CIS weaves a web of support around these students, using a relationship-driven approach. Since March 2020, the site coordinators CIS embeds in every partner school have been meeting kids wherever they are — in school, online, on their front porches — to identify their needs and help navigate barriers to success. Our connection to and relationships with our students have made a difference.

For example, one high school student came very close to being one of the 3 million students now considered missing from the public school system nationwide. She started a new high school in the 2019-20 school year, determined to succeed but burdened by years of personal challenges and difficulty engaging in school.

Fortunately, her school is a CIS school, and the site coordinator quickly became a key partner in the student’s successful adaptation by helping her identify and stay focused on her goals. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the relationship that had been forged became more critical than ever.

Already aware of the student’s vulnerability in the face of the instability ahead, the site coordinator conducted multiple home visits and engaged the student in exploring art as a tool to help her navigate her anxiety about virtual school. Without this support, the student was at high risk of dropping out. Instead, she graduated in June 2021 with a plan and vision for her future.

In 2019, at the direction of the General Assembly, the state Department of Education established the Virginia Community School Framework in support of maximizing the potential of Virginia students by removing nonacademic barriers to learning. This framework acknowledges that equitable ability to engage in school is only possible if support is provided in four key areas: basic needs, emotional and mental health, student engagement and motivation, and family and community engagement. It also reflects substantial evidence of the impact community schools have in making critical resources available — increasing equity and removing barriers that can make or break children’s chances to ignite their potential.

If the growth of the CIS-VA network during this most challenging time is any indication, our schools are hungry for this framework.

For the 2022 school year, CIS-VA’s partner schools have grown by 23%, and we have added four school divisions. District leaders are recognizing that integrating nonacademic supports such as food and supplies, social-emotional learning programs, college and career development, mentoring, and brokering of mental health and social services resources is essential to ensuring that two years of disruption don’t jeopardize thousands of bright futures. American Rescue Plan Act funds have been instrumental in this growth, but for the most under-resourced schools and districts, numerous competing needs still make investment in integrated student supports difficult.

This year, CIS wraparound supports are available to more than 83,000 students in 123 schools in 19 school districts across Virginia. But there are thousands more students, especially in historically marginalized and underserved communities, who would benefit from the integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership practices our affiliates can provide.

As policymakers continue to consider allocation of state funds, CIS-VA has proposed the creation of a Community School Fund to help districts across the state invest in a community school framework that best serves their students and communities. To remove barriers for our most vulnerable students, we first must remove barriers that prevent high-need, under-resourced districts from investing in long-term, evidence-driven solutions.

A Community School Fund would catalyze transformation in our schools, helping make Virginia a leader in advancing equity and redefining successful education in a post-pandemic world. Thousands of futures hang in the balance — and when students succeed, Virginia succeeds.

Published in the opinion section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 6, 2021

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Daniel A. Domenech is chair of the Communities In Schools of Virginia board of directors, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. Contact him at: ddomenech@aasa.org

Mark E. Emblidge is president and founder of Communities In Schools of Virginia, former president of the Virginia State Board of Education and former chair of the Richmond City School Board. Contact him at: vlime@earthlink.net

The CIS of Virginia network includes six affiliates — Chesterfield, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, Petersburg, Richmond and Southwest Virginia. Last year, 4,145 of the highest-need students received more than 36,000 intensive and individualized services. To learn more, visit: www.cisofva.org.