A pilot program designed to connect at-risk students with community resources is gearing up in two Boonville schools.

The Boonville R-1 School District is using state funding to partner with Communities in Schools of Mid-America to place “site coordinators” in both Hannah Cole Primary and Laura Speed Elliott Middle schools.

The site coordinators work with students, figure out what could be keeping them from doing their best in school, and connect them to resources in the community that can help them with everything from finding food and having clean clothes to wear, to tutoring and mentoring, said Kelly Stanford, chief strategy officer at Communities in Schools of Mid-America. If those resources aren’t available, they try to work with people in the community to create them, she said.

“It’s about bringing together resources and helping students overcome barriers to success,” Stanford said.

A lot of those barriers are a result of poverty, and they can keep students from doing their best in class, or even keep them from getting to class, she said. Boonville’s economy has changed a lot in the last 10 years with the loss of industry, and it’s changed the needs of the student population, Marriott said.

Marriott said she believes families and school staff are doing everything they can to meet the needs of Boonville’s children, but everyone is limited by factors like time and resources, she said.

“This is just another piece the school district can offer,” she said.

Central Missouri Community Action, civic groups like the Lion’s and Kiwanis clubs, and local churches are always asking what they can do to help, Marriott said. The coordinator can work with those groups to figure out how they can work together to make sure their support isn’t overlapping or leaving gaps, she said.

“We truly appreciate everything our local organizations do for us,” Marriott said. “We just want to do a better job of supporting them in supporting us.”

Every community has people who care deeply about the schools and want to help, but it’s hard for school staff to coordinate that, Stanford said. School staff members, including teachers, nurses and guidance counselors, are more than willing to help, but they also have full-time jobs with a tremendous workload they need to focus on, Marriott said. Having the site coordinator takes that responsibility out of the hands of school staff, who can then focus more on their defined roles, she said.

The first step in the program is a needs assessment. The site coordinator works with school staff to identify the barriers their students face, and what resources are already available in the community, Stanford said. Marriott expects mentoring and tutoring to be identified as major needs, she said. She also knows some students can struggle with basic needs, like hygiene products, clothes and food.

“These are the types of things that we’ve thought of, but we may find there are other priorities when we do our needs assessment,” she said.

Students can be referred to the coordinator by their parents or school staff, or they can seek it out themselves, Stanford said. The coordinators work individually with students, assessing their needs and coming up with goals, and a plan to achieve them, she said.

“Every student has got a different set of situations that are going on in their life,” Stanford said.

One student might be doing fine in class, but struggle to get to school on time. The coordinator would work with them to see why that is, and work with the student to find a solution, she said.

“Maybe they’re in serious pain because they have dental work that hasn’t been done, and it just hasn’t been identified my anyone,” she said. “Then the site coordinator will work to find dental care so the student can come to school every day.”

The mid-America branch of the nationwide not-for-profit Communities in Schools works in 57 schools across Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma, Stanford said. It works in many small and rural school districts in Kansas and Oklahoma, but Boonville is the first smaller district the organization is working with in Missouri, she said.

Communities in Schools came to Marriott’s attention during discussions the district has had about the needs of its students, the superintendent said. Marriott and Laura Speed Elliott Principal Leslie Reardon visited a school in Pittsburg, Kansas, that Communities in Schools is working in, and they thought the program could fill a gap in Boonville, she said.

Once Marriott and Stanford connected, Stanford went to Jefferson City earlier this year to pitch the idea of working in Boonville to state legislators and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Stanford said.

“It's a common experience in small communities across the state that school districts are facing children and families with increasing needs and are increasingly overwhelmed by those needs, Stanford said. “So there was a pretty uniform recognition that these kinds of supports would help the pressure that the schools in their districts are facing.”

Other districts in the state quickly showed interest, so the Missouri General Assembly allocated $200,000 to cover 90 percent of the pilot project in two Boonville schools. The district used federal grants to cover the other 10 percent.

The district was able to fund two site coordinators this year, and it selected Hannah Cole because it’s where students first enter the district, and Laura Speed Elliott because middle school is a challenging time when students face personal obstacles in growing into young adulthood, Marriott said.

“Hopefully, through us advocating and demonstrating success in the program, we can expand that in the future,” she said.

bcrowley@gatehousemedia.com