I had been in Kershaw County just a few months when I got one of the worst phone calls of my professional career. At about 8 a.m. on a gray Saturday morning in early December of 2007, I was coming inside from a morning run, and the phone was ringing. I vividly remember a momentary pit in my stomach; a phone call early on Saturday morning is rarely good news. I had no idea; however, how tragic the news would be. A young man in our community had been shot and killed the night before in a gang-related incident. There had been a lot of discussion during the first months of my tenure as to whether or not there was a gang problem in Kershaw County. Obviously, this wasn’t going to be a question any more.
After the initial shock came the community reflection that had to occur. How did this happen? Why did this happen? How was our community failing its young people? What did we need to do? It was a painful look in the mirror. What strikes me in retrospect is that the discussions did not include significant finger-pointing. People were seeing this as a problem to be solved by the whole community.
Several months later, in November of 2008, The ALPHA Center hosted a meeting of community stakeholders from all segments of our county -- a tremendous cross section of citizens including representatives from education, business, faith-based organizations, human services and local and state offices. Candid conversation took place about what was needed to create a truly positive future for all of our youth. The day was draining, but exciting.
The plan coming out of this meeting was to seek a federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. At the time, many people were calling our efforts the “gang grant.” But the stakeholders who put together the framework for the grant realized that this was about so much more than “gangs;” it was about nurturing our children in a much broader and more long-term sense. It was about creating a community atmosphere and support system for our young people that would make involvement in self-destructive behavior an unthinkable option.
Ultimately, this tremendous community collaboration resulted in our community receiving a five-year, $5.7 million grant during the summer of 2009. Kershaw County was one of 29 grant recipients chosen from over 400 applications from across the country. I believe that what made our proposal stand out is the fact that grant services would be delivered from existing community providers versus having to create a bureaucracy to deliver these services. This approach enabled the grant to be “up and running” within a relatively short timeframe. It also enabled the grant to utilize the significant expertise that was already in place within the community.
Through the grant, a wide variety of services were put in place to support young people and their families, with a particular focus on prevention. These services include after school and summer programs, counseling programs, expanded anti-drug, alcohol, and violence curriculum, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports or PBIS (a proactive approach to school discipline), preschool literacy and parenting services, school resource officers in elementary schools, youth court, Job Readiness for Teens or JRT (a program which provides employment skills training), Transitions and Truancy or TNT (a program which addresses school attendance issues and transitions students back into the regular school setting from the alternative school) and Bridge (a program that supports students coming back into the community from incarceration). The grant also funded the installation of digital cameras in all of our school buses.
Through these services, more than 2,100 students have been touched in one or more ways since the summer of 2010. Also, because of the grant, another $300,000 federal grant to support mentoring was received and is administered through the United Way. Aside from all the good the grant has done for young people and their families, it also brought approximately $6 million into the community during a very difficult economic time. Partnerships with the School of Social Work at the University of South Carolina and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands have also grown out of the grant.
What have been the results? The percentage of first-time offenders diverted from Family Court has increased by 75 percent. (This is especially significant when one considers that one Family Court case costs upwards of $3,000.) Recidivism at the Continuous Learning Center, the District’s alternative program, has decreased from 20 to 4.5 percent. PBIS has resulted in a 17.5 percent decline in office referrals in our elementary schools. Almost 60 at-risk students in grades 5-8 are being mentored by community members. Unexcused absences have been significantly reduced in all grades. Eighty-six percent of students receiving substance abuse counseling have met their treatment goals. Three hundred students per year have benefitted from high-quality summer and/or afterschool programs. These are just examples of the powerful impact the grant has had.
Five years later, the takeaway for me is that this is a strong tribute to what can happen when our community chooses to come together and simply does what needs to be done.
May there be more such collaboration in other areas of our community as we move into the future!
I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.