How a Missouri district boosts student learning by providing necessities
Howell County, home to the West Plains Schools, is Missouri’s third-poorest county. Educators, administrators and staff frequently see students and families struggling with unemployment; housing insecurity; a lack of access to health care, food, transportation and mental health support; and other issues.
Such struggles can directly affect students’ academic performance, says Amy Ross, the district’s director of special services. West Plains’ Building Bridges of Opportunity program has been addressing those needs since 2013 by coordinating and supplying necessities.
In August, the 2,250-student district saw record-breaking attendance at the program’s fifth annual back-to-school fair, with 537 preschool and K-12 students helped by more than 100 volunteers. Students received complimentary school supplies, clothing, hygiene items, backpacks and shoes; underwent head checks for lice; got vision and hearing screenings; and received fresh haircuts and other free services.
District leaders expect the number of families reaching out for help to grow. Some 600 kids were served multiple times during the 2018-19 school year.
“Although the first couple of weeks are busiest for school supplies, we address whatever the barrier is that would impede learning for that individual student,” says Ross.
Over the past year, district staffers have continued to work with local nonprofits, businesses, individuals and colleges to provide students with groceries, ACT test tutoring help, household items, eyeglasses and college application funds. Community partners have also provided money for medical copays and for gasoline so a student could visit a specialist; batteries for cochlear implants; laundry services; root canal services; and basketball and cheerleading uniforms.
When district employees see a need, they complete a Google Doc form that goes directly to Cindy Wright, Bridges’ program director, and Ross. That need is usually met within 24 hours. If they are unable to fulfill the request using district resources, Wright reaches out to area businesses or community members. She also delivers supplies to counselors at the county’s five K-8 rural schools, which serve close to 1,200 additional students.
Wright and Ross attribute the growth in requests over the past year to parents sharing their positive experiences with the Building Bridges of Opportunity program. And there has been continued outreach through mainstream television, radio and print media in addition to updates on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. For example, a recent callout for help resulted in a bike donation for a student to use to travel home after tutoring.