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ELKO — There are many factors that can impact a child’s ability to do well in school, from having an empty stomach to lack of health care.

Communities In Schools of Northeastern Nevada, a local nonprofit organization, helps identify the needs of Elko County students and works to fill in the gaps.

Executive director Melissa Aguirre said the organization works to connect children with community resources.

“Our focus is to keep kids in schools,” she said.

Aguirre said CIS has a community approach and doesn’t re-create programs that already exist, but develops new programs as needed.

In order to keep programs running — such as hunger prevention, counseling, health and wellness education, early childhood education and the Fellows Academy — CIS depends on community support through volunteerism and donations.

“We couldn’t run alone,” Aguirre said. “We depend on our partners.”

The local organization works to think outside the box, she said, and find resources for children beyond the Elko County School District’s scope of funding. 

About three-and-a-half years ago, an advisory council made up of community members met to identify the needs of students in Elko County. This was the launching point for the local chapter of the organization.

Communities In Schools has about 180 affiliate groups around the United States and the mission of the organization is “empowering students to stay in school and achieve in life.”

In addition to the local CIS board, the organization has several staff members, many of whom work through the service program AmeriCorp VISTA. CIS receives grant funding for those staff positions.

Aguirre said that at the schools where CIS has the deepest presence, a part-time site coordinator is available to help students, as well as encourage parents to become involved.

The organization can also provide confidential, short-term interventions for students who need help.

Hunger prevention

Communities In Schools of Northeastern Nevada provides breakfast and after-school snacks to students at several schools, as well as a backpack program.

Aguirre said that when the local CIS chapter first began, then-Northside Elementary School Principal Kevin Melcher found through his interactions with students that some weren’t eating breakfast in the mornings.

“Some students were depending on school lunches as their main meal of the day,” Aguirre said.

Elementary school-aged students can come in at no cost to receive a free breakfast before school at several locations.

“We want kids to feel confident coming in and we don’t want them to feel labeled,” Aguirre said.

During the 2009-10 school year, CIS served 31,892 breakfasts and after-school snacks.

At least one or two volunteers are needed at each school site with a breakfast program each morning. Older student volunteers also help out.

“We rely greatly on volunteers,” Aguirre said. She said it only takes 20-25 minutes to help out with the breakfast program and “it’s an easy way to get involved in the community.”

In addition to breakfasts and after-school snacks, CIS also has a backpack program. Backpacks full of food are sent home with students in need to help them get through the weekend.

On average, Commun-

ities In Schools of Northeastern Nevada sends more than 200 backpacks home with students each week. Last year, 2,969 backpacks were distributed to area schools.

“The program is targeted toward elementary school students, but we pack enough food for their siblings,” Aguirre said.

She said community groups often organize food drives and donate items for the hunger prevention programs. Individuals and community groups, such as Faith Lutheran Church, also volunteer their time every few weeks to stuff the backpacks.

Early childhood

education

When the CIS advisory council initially met more than three years ago, members identified early childhood education as an area that needed to be addressed, Aguirre said.

The Little Red Caboose Preschool in Carlin opened about two years ago and is the only early childhood education program in the community.

Through a collaboration between CIS and a number of other agencies, the preschool prepares the students for kindergarten by working on language, motor and literacy skills.

By the end of the last school year, the first class of students made an average 22.75 percent improvement on the Brigance kindergarten readiness test.

CIS also worked with several other agencies, including the Wells Family Resource Center and Great Basin College, to continue to offer preschool services in Wells this year.

Fellows Academy

CIS also supports the Fellows Academy, a program for high school students at Elko and Spring Creek high schools.

This is the second year for the Fellows Academy, which is run by CIS, Elko County Juvenile Probation Department and Elko County School District. The program expanded this year to serve twice as many students.

The Fellows Academy focuses on academic development, career exploration and life skills training.

During the 2009-10 school year, there was an 88 percent decrease in truancies, 26 percent decrease in detention hours, 35 percent decrease in the number of student absences and an 138 percent increase in student grade point average among Fellows Academy students.

Aguirre said case managers work one-on-one with students during one period of the school day and students earn elective credit. She said it’s important for students to “just have someone who cares about them” and who can hold them accountable.

The program also incorporates service learning. Some Fellows Academy students from Elko High School go to Grammar No. 2 Elementary School once a week to serve breakfast, she said.

Health and wellness

Local students can receive free counseling services under a program Aguirre said has been “amazingly successful.”

Master’s degree students in counseling at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, provide counseling for local students either in person or over a video network that complies with federal privacy laws.

Students can be referred for counseling by their parents, school employees or a probation officer.

Aguirre said students can receive as much counseling as they need in order to develop needed skills and goals.

“Not all insurance companies cover counseling,” she said, adding that there also aren’t too many counselors in the area.

During the 2009-10 school year, 87 students received 677 hours of direct clinical mental health counseling and 1,170 hours of indirect counseling services.

Aguirre said that during the first year of the counseling program, students were having trouble getting to appointments. Now the organization works to make sure students have the transportation they need.

Students in the Fellows Academy, for example, can receive counseling if needed during their class period. Aguirre said the organization also works with parents to educate them about counseling.“We’re working to build up education in the community that there’s nothing wrong with counseling,” she said.

In addition to the counseling program, CIS works to make sure students stay warm during the winter. The organization has a closet full of coats they can provide to students who don’t have winter clothing.

On the public health side of things, CIS also provides free or low-cost immunizations.

Last year, the organization provided 4,045 immunizations to 2,533 adults and 813 children at sponsored or co-sponsored clinics.

For more information about Communities In Schools of Northeastern Nevada, to volunteer or make a donation, call 738-7255.

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