Students Need Strong Community Partners: Lena’s Story

Cat in the Hat2How can we help the student? This is the first thought many school and support staff have whenever an issue with one of their students arises. But many teachers are already overwhelmed with large classrooms populations, cuts in teacher assistants, and heavy testing schedules. Add to that the challenges faced by students arriving to the classroom hungry, with inadequate clothing, and a lack of support or resources at home. This can lead to disruptions in the classroom.

For years, Children First/Communities In Schools (CIS) has recognized that when a child arrives prepared for school, their chances for success are exponentially increased, while the likelihood of dropping out of school is decreased. With one in four children in Buncombe County living in poverty, and over 54% of students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program ( a leading poverty indicator), there were many students arriving to school ill-equipped to focus on their schoolwork.

In order to help meet this need, Children First placed two staff members, called Success Coordinators, in two of the highest-needs schools- Johnston Elementary and Emma Elementary Schools. There, they work with a team of school and support staff to assess the needs of students and provide integrated student supports, or supports that target academic and non-academic barriers to achievement. This is achieved through targeted interventions and a multi-tiered system of support. The range of resources they provide includes food, school supplies, health care, counseling, academic assistance and positive role models.

Children First/CIS is unique  in that it provides many of the resources that students need through its other programs: Family Resource Center at Emma, Latino Outreach Program, Project POWER AmeriCorps, and after-school Learning Center/Summer Camp program. Combined, these Children First/CIS programs provide a food pantry, immigrant outreach, academic assistance, enrichment activities, mentoring and tutoring, parenting classes and emergency financial assistance. These services are available not limited only to students of Johnston and Emma Elementary, but to all families living in the 28806 zip-code, which comprises the highest rate  of poverty in Buncombe County.

DSC_0534Courtney Crenshaw is the Success Coordinator at Johnston Elementary and Lisa Barlow is the Success Coordinator at Emma.  These are two of the highest need schools in Buncombe County, with up to 90% of students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program.

Courtney works at Johnston Elementary during the mornings, then goes to the Children First/CIS Learning Center at Deaverview in the afternoons. Lisa is placed at Emma Elementary School part-time and part-time at the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center at Emma.

These Success Coordinators are in the unique position of being able to work with the students in school, during after-school in the student’s communities, and oftentimes make visits to the home where they are able to engage with the whole family.

Courtney tells of a series of interventions she was able to have with a high-need family.

Lena is the mother of 6 children with ages ranging from 2 months to 7 years. She had no phone and no transportation, was unfamiliar with school staff and policies, and was understandably overwhelmed. A teacher had been trying for months to arrange for a meeting with Lena to discuss her two oldest boys. With no phone, the teacher found it impossible to make this meeting happen.

Courtney had already established a relationship with Lena and was able to act as a liason. She even drove Lena to the teacher meeting and attended it with her.

Later, she went to check in with Lena at home, and recalls there was not a lot of furniture. “She had just moved in, and 6 children need a lot of stuff.” Courtney recalls. “I got a phone call from the CF/CIS Learning Center Coordinator and was told a donor had some bedroom furniture they were giving away. I walked over to Lena’s, and within the hour, the furniture was in her apartment. Now all of the children have their own beds.”

The children have a better night’s sleep, which greatly increases their ability to stay focused at school. This is just one example of how providing much-needed resources can remove barriers to achievement.

“I am so happy to work with Courtney,” says Lena. “She helps me with the school, and the boys with their homework. Their grades are getting better since she started helping. I tell my two boys to mind her like they mind me. She is like their mom at school.”

Later, Courtney and her fellow site leaders at the Children First/CIS Learning center at Deaverview, a safe-haven after-school program, taught a math workshop for the parents, so they would be better equipped to help their children with their homework. When Courtney went to Lena’s home a few days later, she noticed the children and Lena were huddled around the kitchen table working on their math homework, and Lena was using the techniques she learned at the workshop.

“She told me how proud she felt being able to help her children with their homework,” says Courtney.

Strong community supports are vital to promoting success for students both inside and outside the classroom. When students arrive to school well rested and fed, with the tools necessary to complete their assignments, their chances for staying focused in school are greatly improved, thus increasing their chances for success. We can come together as a community to help provide resources to help ensure success for all students.

You Can Be Part of the Solution

Help local students by volunteering with a school or after-school program. Click here to view multiple volunteering opportunities, courtesy of the Hands-On Buncombe website or to volunteer with Children First/CIS, contact Kaitlyn Breiten at 828-259-9717.

Below are some of the community partners present in our schools:

Project POWER/AmeriCorps

Children First/CIS Success Coordinators

Mentors and Matches

Click on United Way 211 for a full list of local educational support programs


This story is part of a series collected by The Success Equation. Under the umbrella of Children First/CIS, the Success Equation is an initiative that unites community to reduce and prevent the root causes of poverty so all children can thrive. Get involved! Learn about action steps, volunteer opportunities, and help share these messages by going to To find more, go to