Communities in Schools

Ally Christianson, clinical support specialist for Communities in Schools, talks with a local student.

Her father had been missing for two days. On her birthday, he was still gone.

The girl, a student in Glynn County Schools, did not know if her father had been put in jail again. Her birthday, though, was ruined by his absence.

She shared this with employees of Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention program in Glynn County. They hear this kind of story from students often.

CIS workers help students who face challenges, trying to meet their needs and help them succeed in school.

Neglect is among many forms of trauma some local students carry with them into school each morning. Trauma often hinders a student’s success in the classroom, causing them to struggle to learn or to behave well.

This school year, CIS added a new position to provide support to these students. Ally Christianson, a licensed clinical social worker, became CIS’s new clinical support specialist in August.

CIS workers’ ultimate goal is to help a student reach graduation. The nonprofit works with Brunswick High School, Glynn Academy, the Glynn Learning Center, Risley Middle School, Glynn Middle School, Burroughs-Molette Elementary and Goodyear Elementary.

They’ve seen great success through their work. Last school year, CIS had a 100 percent graduation rate at Brunswick High and Glynn Academy.

The CIS model uses community resources as much as possible to help meet the needs of students and their families, said Tonya Barbee, clinical program manager for the organization.

The nonprofit was finding often, though, that students with intensive mental health needs who CIS would refer to community organizations and agencies could not make it to those appointments, due to lack of transportation, lack of insurance or other issues.

“We just felt as an organization that we really needed to help meet this unmet support,” Barbee said. “That’s when we really decided that we would like to bring somebody on full time as staff to be able to provide this support during the school day.”

Christianson brings experience working with children who come from hard places, she said.

She rotates between schools every day, meeting with students one-on-one and sometimes in group sessions.

“Our site coordinators at each school identify kids whose clinical needs are potentially affecting their academics, and then they facilitate a referral,” Christianson said. “And then I come in and assess that child.”

The student can then be added to a case list to work with Christianson, after their families sign a separate consent form.

Students are first identified to work with CIS by school site teams that include administrators, teachers and guidance counselors. They identify students most often who have truancy or behavioral issues or are performing poorly academically due to certain barriers. CIS currently case manages more than 400 students total.

Students who have a trauma history will need added support to find success in the classroom, Barbee said. Early intervention is also key to preventing the onset of chronic issues later in adulthood, Christianson said.

Trauma comes in many forms, and many who hear the word assume the worst, Christianson said.

“What we see a lot out here is kind of chronic trauma, just chronic and compounded,” she said. “So it’s ongoing things, and it’s lots of different experiences that kind of add up over time.”

Examples of trauma include seeing a parent incarcerated, living in a home where there’s substance abuse issues, experiencing or witnessing domestic violence or feeling unloved or unwanted. Other more extreme forms of trauma, like sexual abuse, have also been experienced by local students.

Experiencing trauma leads to an array of issues for students when they’re at school and affects their abilities to learn. Often, they struggle to focus, Christianson said.

“They’re kind of in what we call a ‘hyper-vigilant’ state all the time,” she said. “… When you’ve lived in trauma for a long time, you kind of function in a part of your brain that doesn’t allow you to learn new information, to process new information, to even have reasoning skills, to be able to regulate your emotions.”

Those parts of the brain are not fully developed, she said, when a child lives in a chronic state of stress.

“So of course, all of that directly translates to the classroom,” Christianson said.

CIS will receive referrals for students who misbehave in class, and sometimes the primary problem is that the students cannot regulate their emotions.

“We think, ‘Oh gosh, it must be ADHD,’” Christianson said. “Well, in fact, it’s just that hyper-vigilance.”

The student doesn’t always understand naturally that they’re safe in school or know how to regulate emotions so that they behave well. That’s where Christianson’s support comes in.

She talks with the students and uses trauma-focused, cognitive behavior therapy. She helps them with mindfulness, coping skills and social skills development, and she also assists them with making connections between their past traumas and their current thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

She also tells them, sometimes for the first time, that their reactions are normal to what’s going on in their lives.

“Your body is doing exactly what it should be doing, in light of what’s happened,” she tells them.

This knowledge can empower students, particularly older students, she said.

“They recognize for the first time, ‘OK, this isn’t about a deficit in me,’” she said. “‘There’s not something wrong with me.’”

She can also make teachers more aware of what additional support a student needs.

Barbee and Christianson said they’re thankful that the school district allows CIS to provide these services in schools.

“We would not be able to do what we do without the support of the school system, and they are extremely supportive of us,” Barbee said. “And we are just very grateful to have such a strong partnership.”

Community members wishing to support CIS will have the opportunity tonight to do so. The nonprofit will host its annual “Sham Rockin’” fundraiser from 5 to 8 p.m. today at the Conquer Office, located at 16 Boardwalk Plaza on St. Simons.

Tickets cost $60, or $110 for two tickets.

“It’s how we continue to maintain what we’re doing and the services that we’re providing in the schools and for the students and the staff,” Barbee said. “We feel really passionately about that. We want to continue to expand.”

The event will include live music from Thunderbird and beats by DJ Doctor Weave. Local restaurants will supply food.

For more information about the fundraiser, please call Casey Cate at 912-22-4641.

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