Sunday, April 9, 2006

Lawrence Pullum of Southeast has a New York City lunch date with talk-show host Star Jones Reynolds. The 10-year-old student at Anita J. Turner Elementary School in Southeast won the opportunity through a February cookie bake-off sponsored by Communities in Schools, the nation’s largest drop-out-prevention organization, which is headquartered in Alexandria.

Judges Wally “Famous” Amos, Alma Powell and Susan Allen chose Lawrence’s fruit cookies as the winner of the competition. The fifth-grade student says he made a dessert with a golden, crispy texture.

“I wanted to make a healthy cookie,” Lawrence says. “I mixed the ingredients, and my mom baked them.”

Two hundred Communities in Schools affiliates in 27 states and the District provide services to nearly 1 million students each year with the goal of motivating them to stay in school. Founded in 1977, the nonprofit organization forms partnerships with local organizations to assist the nation’s young people in receiving the best education possible.

Turner is the first D.C. school to work with Communities in Schools, says Marcia Parker, the principal. This is the second year the organization has worked with the school, funding several programs.

For example, Communities in Schools donated “The Bluford Series,” a fiction series by Anne E. Schraff, to every at Turner student in fourth through sixth grade.

“Because the students are faced with so many obstacles, we are trying to give them opportunities to make wise choices,” Ms. Parker says. “Only you can determine what actions you will take.”

Because of Project Ujima, a weekly lunchtime mentoring program sponsored by Communities in Schools, 11-year-old Carmaleta Leftwich of Southeast has begun to consider a career in nursing.

Project Ujima works with youths 11 to 15 with the goal of reducing drug use, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and other negative behaviors.

“I like helping people when they hurt,” says Carmaleta, a sixth-grader. Her chewy oatmeal cookies were the second-place winner in the cookie bake-off.

Neil Denton, a fourth-grade teacher at Turner, heads No More Tears, which hosts strong male role models who come for monthly discussions with students and parents. The program also is sponsored by Communities in Schools

Gary Palmer, an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District in Southeast, was the first speaker.

“Life is more than what they see on TV,” Officer Denton says. “I want them to be aware of the consequences of their actions.”

Relationships, not programs, change people, says Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools. During the 1960s, Mr. Milliken worked in New York City’s Harlem with Young Life, a nonprofit organization that assists middle school and high school students, preparing them for the future.

While working with Young Life, Mr. Milliken says, he realized that young people need a sense of belonging and that Americans were improperly distributing their resources in their neighborhoods.

“If the schools are where the need is, then we need to bring the resources to the schools,” Mr. Milliken says. “Instead of the kids running all over town for help, we need people to work together as a community.”

In certain school districts, the No. 1 need might be anything from combating gang violence to providing eyeglasses, dental care or nutritious food, he says. In addition to paid staff, 55,000 volunteers nationwide tailor their assistance to the greatest needs at the individual schools.

“We have to build a bridge between the haves and have nots,” Mr. Milliken says. “We have to give kids a chance to have a good future.”

Having a personal relationship with a caring adult, creating a safe place for children, emphasizing that students need a marketable skill, promoting a healthy lifestyle and giving back to the community are the five basic principles of Communities in Schools, says Dan Cardinali, president of the organization.

Adhering to these guidelines helps remove barriers from the learning environment, he says. Nonacademic obstacles, such as divorce, gang violence and verbal or physical abuse are often the biggest reasons that children drop out of school.

Key indicators, such as attendance, behavior, academic performance, successful completion of a grade, the number of graduating seniors and the drop-out rate help Communities in Schools gauge its work. From 2003 to 2004, Mr. Cardinali says, 85 percent of the students tracked have shown improvement in the key indicators.

“Once you take out the other obstacles, school can be a wonderful place for a kid,” Mr. Cardinali says. “They can see a future of choices for themselves.”

Prevention and intervention also are at the top of Mr. Cardinali’s mind, he says. Further, if students have dropped out of school, volunteers work to re-engage them in completing their education, possibly in an alternative school.

“The public school did not work for me,” says Candace Thomka, 19 of Alexandria, who graduated in June 2005 from Landmark Career Academy, an alternative school in Alexandria that works with Communities in Schools. She had attended three local high schools.

“When I was in public school, it was about me being told what I was doing wrong,” says Miss Thomka, a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. She aims to earn her bachelor’s degree and join the Peace Corps.

“With Communities in Schools, it wasn’t just me being reprimanded,” she says. “It was being more of a friend than an authority figure.”

John Riley, 19, a senior at Landmark Career Academy, says his life has turned around since he became involved in Communities in Schools activities. He failed his junior year at West Springfield High School. Communities in Schools helped him get a job as part of the maintenance staff at Top Golf Kingstowne in Alexandria.

“Now I get paychecks,” Mr. Riley says. “I’m saving for a new car and college. The experience will help me out when I try to get a better job later.”

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