The mission of Chatham County Schools (CCS) is “to graduate globally competitive and confident students by providing a rigorous and relevant curriculum in a supportive, safe and nurturing learning environment.” This is a lofty mission, and it’s difficult to achieve when many students face serious challenges both inside and outside of the classroom. That is why the work Communities In Schools of Chatham County (CISCC) does is so important. Joelle Brummitt-Yale, CISCC board member, says she values CISCC “for being the piece that schools don’t have time to address. CIS Chatham works to help youth be ‘well’ and that includes academically, socially, and behaviorally.” Taking a holistic and targeted approach to helping students succeed in school and in life is especially illustrated through CISCC’s school-based program.
Chatham Middle School (CMS) in Siler City is one of two sites where the school-based program is implemented. Students who attend CMS live in a community with many identified risk factors that impede their learning and the likelihood that they will stay in school. These factors include, but are not limited to, poverty, discrimination, housing instability, hunger, poor health, limited extracurricular activities and high levels of daily stress. The CISCC school-based model places Student Support Specialists directly inside schools where they serve as the single point of contact in addressing students’ needs. Tych Cowdin has been the CISCC Student Support Specialist at CMS since the fall of 2014. Since then, he has built strong relationships with school administrators and community partners to secure vital supports that are tailored to students’ and families’ individual circumstances.
Cowdin has one foot in the school and one foot in the community, and he brings them together beautifully. The support that he provides can be as basic as asking local businesses to provide school supplies, volunteers to provide academic assistance or partnering with a local church to provide students in need extra food on the weekends. Support can also be more intensive in the form of small groups and one-on-one check-in addressing bullying, anger management, and dealing with grief. Support can even be after-school enrichment activities. Whatever the needs are, the goal is to combine strong one-on-one relationships with evidence-based programs that leverage resources and remove barriers that keep students from succeeding.
According to Abby Bishop, School Counselor at CMS, “Tych has had a major impact on the students at CMS. He has a caseload of students he serves, but he also has a presence at the school where all students know him and want to work with him. He does a wonderful job of being around and being available to students.” Ms. Bishop is grateful for the many programs and services Cowdin has coordinated such as: summer camp placements, Cooking Matters, yoga classes, Strengthening Families Program, and many more. He works with CMS students about their behavior and focuses on the social/emotional development of each student so they have better academic outcomes. Bishop says, “Tych relates to the students and they feel comfortable opening up to him. He’s such a huge asset to our school! Tych is not only loved by all CMS students, he’s also loved by the CMS staff!” CMS principal Chad Morgan agrees. He said, “Cowdin’s “impact on the school has been just monumental,” and that his “greatest asset to our school is his ability to build relationships. He focuses on building relationships with all stakeholders…and his energy to serve is contagious.” Morgan adds that Cowdin does “not just start programs for the sake of starting programs. He listens, reviews data, and seeks feedback from all stakeholders to ensure the programs implemented match the needs of the school.” The needs assessment, student support plans, and ongoing monitoring of student data are all elements of the proven CIS school-based model; but, as Communities In Schools founder Bill Milliken said, “Programs don’t change kids-relationships do.”
Cowdin says, “It really boils down to a lot of mentoring. Kids often don’t have anybody they can view as a role model or somebody to talk with or look up to—somebody there at school they can have a relationship with.” Attendance, Behavior, Coursework + Parent and family engagement are the focus areas guiding CISCC’s school-based work, but this ABC+P model only works with strong relationships inside and outside of the school.
The program’s positive impact is reflected in what community members and partners are saying. Recently, participants in the Hispanic Liaison Youth Program in Siler City participated in a focus group as part of a community assessment for the Building Integrated Communities Project out of UNC Chapel Hill on how the youth cope with daily stresses. The draft report stated that the youth may not be able to tell you what ‘programs’ helped them, but they talked about the “great person at Chatham Middle who built relationships with the kids, was enthusiastic and cared about them.
Erika Guy has been volunteering at CMS regularly for the last two years, conducting school-wide seminars, small groups, and helping coordinate the healthful cooking classes, and she speaks highly of the collaboration that has been fostered at CMS. She said to Cowdin, “I cannot adequately express how much fun it has been to collaborate with you over these last two years. What I missed the most when I left my job in Boston, was working with a team of similarly motivated folks—always thinking creatively about how to make the lives of kids just a little bit better. I have found that with you and Abby Bishop, CMS and CISCC.”
Thinking creatively and working together to make the lives of the children and families a little bit better—essentially helping add to their overall wellness— that’s what it’s all about.
To learn more about CISCC school-based model, the work done and partnerships made, please contact Tych Cowdin, Program Director/Student Support Specialist, Chatham Middle School at email@example.com or (919) 663-0116 ext. 413