School Outreach Coordinators prevent dropouts in Federal Way

CIS School Outreach Coordinator Georgina Hernandez has been invaluable in helping families find the information and community resources necessary to ensure that children arrive at school safe, healthy and ready to learn. - Courtesy of Joan Tornow
CIS School Outreach Coordinator Georgina Hernandez has been invaluable in helping families find the information and community resources necessary to ensure that children arrive at school safe, healthy and ready to learn.
— image credit: Courtesy of Joan Tornow

Communities In Schools (CIS) is the nation’s leading dropout prevention organization, according to a recent independent study. In Federal Way, CIS partners with local schools to help students stay in school and succeed in life.

“The schools do a terrific job,” said CIS Board President Pete Gonzales. “But we are there to help with special needs that come up. We can find eyeglasses for a student struggling to see across a classroom, or a backpack for a kid without the means, or counseling for family circumstances affecting the child.”

Communities In Schools provides a vital link between local resources and students who benefit from them. In this way, CIS initiatives move at-risk youth toward productive citizenry.

One of the highly effective initiatives of CIS nationwide, and locally, has been the training of local volunteers to serve as mentors. Mentoring has been provided to participating Federal Way schools for five years. CIS has now added another dimension to its program. They are beginning to place School Outreach Coordinators at local schools.

During academic year 2010-11, the first year of launch, they placed a coordinator at Mirror Lake Elementary School and another at Sacajawea Middle School. And, this fall, they are hiring a coordinator to serve Federal Way High School.

“We are right on track in completing our first feeder pattern, providing support from elementary school through high school,” said CIS Executive Director Tracy Oster.

One of the reasons CIS has been so successful in preventing school dropouts is that they identify potential dropouts as early as fifth grade. Research has shown that fifth grade is a critical time for students because they are beginning to envision their futures. CIS initiatives encourage students to aim high so they can achieve their true potential. Mentoring and other supports help youth develop positive attitudes about themselves and about school.

Mirror Lake Elementary School, the recent recipient of a Washington State Achievement Award, is the first Federal Way elementary school to be provided with a CIS School Outreach Coordinator. The coordinator, Georgina Hernandez, has been invaluable in helping families find the information and community resources necessary to ensure that children arrive at school safe, healthy and ready to learn.

Principal Maggie O’Sullivan says that having a School Outreach Coordinator has been very helpful.

“Our core mission at Mirror Lake is academic. But there are all these gaps and needs among our students,” O’Sullivan said. “In some cases, we’ve been able to provide the needed help. The office staff and I do our best, but there are so many needs.”

She hastens to add: “There are so many resources, too.”

With an office nestled in the corner of the school library’s storage area, Hernandez provides the link between needs and resources. Coming with a strong background in social work, Hernandez has a deep understanding of the challenges faced by many families in the community, especially given the hard economic times.

Hernandez can be paged to the office when a parent arrives with a question or concern. Often, these concerns can be resolved on the spot. But, if the problem is more complex, she meets with the family to assess the situation and put them in touch with the appropriate agencies and resources.

Although there are many community resources upon which to draw, it can be bewildering at times for families to access these resources. A family may need housing, a lawyer or a food bank. A child may need dental care or help with homework.

In one case, it came to Hernandez’s attention that a family had become homeless. She soon made sure that the family had a roof over their heads while also finding a way for the children to successfully complete the school year at Mirror Lake. Hernandez’s fluency in Spanish is a useful skill in working with those families that happen to be Latino and are still learning English.

Hernandez notes that no two days are the same, but that every day includes a meeting with the school counselor. The two discuss any students who are acting out, withdrawing, or even disappearing due to absenteeism. Almost every day she meets with children who need a calming influence. At lunch, she typically hosts a small group of children who benefit from quiet time and a listening ear. Hernandez’s office also serves as the hub where the CIS-trained mentors meet with their respective mentees for an hour each week.

The day-to-day cases keep Hernandez busy. On top of this, she spearheaded two special outreach projects at the school this year. First, she coordinated a six-week parenting class held in the evenings at the school. This class, SPARK (Strong Partners and Relationship for Kids), was sponsored by the Children’s Home Society and was attended by about 15 parents who had the opportunity to learn the most constructive methods of discipline and child-raising.

Second, Hernandez extended the after-school program. Although the school already had after-school support for reading and math, Hernandez organized a more extensive array of after-school enrichment options, including basketball, soccer, art and several dance classes — Korean, Columbian and Zumba.  This program led to increased parent participation at the school and culminated in a multicultural celebration for which families spent days preparing special dishes from their countries of ancestry.  This smorgasbord of international dishes was an acknowledgement of how the school community values what each and every family brings to the table — in this case, quite literally.

The celebration included dance performances stemming from the dance classes. When students see their families coming to the school and participating in activities, they feel a closer bond with the school. And key lines of communication are both opened and strengthened among teachers, staff, children and their families.

“I see my job as completing a puzzle,” Hernandez said. “Teachers need to be connected to parents, families to community resources, and students to school. When all the pieces get connected, students can successfully graduate from Mirror Lake. It is an honor to help them achieve this goal.”

After graduating from Mirror Lake, students attend Sacajawea Middle School where an Outreach Coordinator is available for ongoing support. And, when they reach Federal Way High School, another Outreach Coordinator will continue this vital support in the journey to graduation.

The successful use of School Outreach Coordinators has been proven at the national level. Federal Way is now providing the evidence that we, too, benefit from this program. The only obstacle to wider usage is funding. With increased funding, CIS can place School Outreach Coordinators at more Federal Way schools.

Communities In Schools of Federal Way works to enrich the community through programs that empower all students to achieve academic success. Their vision is “All students in Federal Way graduate, poised for success.”

With CIS support, our schools can better meet the academic standards to which we are all so strongly committed. Federal Way, and our country, will become stronger as a result. To learn more, or to make a donation of time, materials, or funds, please visit


Joan Tornow, Ph.D., is an Educational Consultant and serves on the Board of Communities In Schools of Federal Way.


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