Taking the reins this year of the nonprofit organization Communities in Schools is an erstwhile educator in Scotland County’s public schools.
Maria Bingham stepped into the job of Communities in Schools executive director on Aug. 22, taking over from Katie Clark, who got the program up and running in late 2011. Clark, Scotland County’s Teacher of the Year in 2011, will return to teaching at Laurel Hill Elementary School.
“I was formerly a teacher and loved children and loved education,” Bingham said. “I heard about this opportunity and thought it was a good fit for me.”
Most recently employed as marketing director for Scottish Food Systems in Laurinburg, Bingham served for a decade as a dance and theatre instructor at Scotland High School and in Scotland County’s middle schools.
“I thought about the school setting, just working with kids and helping kids,” said Bingham. “I had missed that, being in the business world.”
Communities in Schools, operational since January, is a nationwide nonprofit organization that works to help at-risk students to continue their educations and graduate from high school. Communities in Schools of Scotland County currently works with students at North Laurinburg Elementary School and Carver Middle School.
“It’s a really good cause, trying to keep kids in school and getting them the resources that they need to be successful,” said Bingham. “Those resources are monetary of course, plus, more importantly, volunteers and mentors going into the schools and building relationships with the kids.”
The Scotland County branch of the organization is governed by a board of directors composed of local business people and community members. In addition to its executive director, Communities in Schools of Scotland County employs a site coordinator to work directly with students in each school it serves.
“We oversee their academic progress on a day-to-day basis: academics, any kind of social behaviors, attendance, we like to monitor that kind of thing to make sure that no severe problems arise,” said Janna Blue, Communities in Schools site coordinator at North Laurinburg Elementary. “If we do get into some severe problems, we find services in the community that those children can benefit from and help them navigate through those tough times.”
Services can range from academic tutoring to ensuring that students’ basic needs are met.
“They’re on staff to be in the field and be at the site of the school and identify kids that are at risk for dropping out,” Bingham said. “Even at that young age, in elementary school, there are signs of a child being at risk, and they work to get them the resources that they need. For example they may help to get them to the dentist or to the eye doctor if they need glasses and the family can’t provide that, or connecting them to tutors or volunteers who understand their needs.”
Students are enrolled in the program through referrals from their parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and other school staff members who work directly with students.
“Our students are selected by a referral process,” said Blue. “It could be a parent referral, teacher referral, even peer referral. Those are my favorite because it shows that our students see some things that they can identify in their friends and are bringing them into the program.”
Last year, some 80 students were enrolled in Communities in Schools between both Carver and North Laurinburg, but the program also works to assist students in all of the county’s public schools. School supplies donated through Communities In Schools’ Build A Backpack drive, hosted by Walmart, will be distributed among all schools to be given to students throughout the year as the need arises.
“There are two kinds of programs: some of the services that the site coordinators will provide will be for the whole school, say attending a program about a particular topic, or this Build a Backpack program benefits all of the schools,” said Bingham.
Part of Bingham’s mission with Communities in Schools will be expanding the program’s ties with businesses and churches in Scotland County and ultimately providing direct assistance to at-risk students in each of the county’s middle and elementary schools.
“One of the goals here in Scotland County is to grow the number of site coordinators, not to be at just North Laurinburg and Carver but to be in the other elementary and middle schools and probably even in the high school later on,” she said. “All of that just depends on the way the program progresses.”