Feature Article

Embracing the “Whole Child” – All Children, Every Day
By: Luanne L. Kokolis, Associate Superintendent
Rock Hill Schools, York 3
660 N. Anderson Road
Rock Hill, SC  29731

Responsibilities: school assignment, student transfers, school capacity, enrollment, and strategic planning. Direct supervision: student services, community outreach, adult education, transportation, athletics, and technology.
Dr. Kokolis has authored articles that have been published in national education journals and presented her doctoral research at the American Education and Research Association in San Francisco.
Dr. Kokolis was selected to become a member of Phi Kappa Phi, International Honor Society for Education. She serves as an adjunct faculty member with Winthrop University in the Educational Leadership graduate degree program. Dr. Kokolis represents the district on the South Carolina School Improvement Council Board of Trustees.
Embracing the “Whole Child” – All Children, Every Day
Societal pressures, economic stressors, and unresolved family circumstances cause many of our students to become disengaged. Public schools can intervene and remove the barriers.

The mission of Rock Hill School District is to provide all students with challenging work that authentically engages them in the learning process and prepares them for successful futures. The mission purposefully calls out “all students”.  However, due to societal pressures, economic stressors, and unresolved family circumstances, many of our students find it difficult to become engaged in the learning process. 

Road Blocks to Engaging All Students
The primary focus of public schools is to provide a rigorous academic program that imparts the skill set needed for the 21st Century learner to become a productive citizen.  Jamie Vollmer’s “Terrible Twenty Trends” defines the “Ever Expanding Expectations,” where public schools have become much more than providers of instruction and caretakers of learning (Vollmer, 2010, p. 106-113). Public education is the “be all, end all” for not only learning but for social, emotional, physical, and psychological needs.
How can public schools remove barriers that surround students who find it difficult to remain academically engaged during the school day?  What types of barriers do students and their families face on a day to day basis?

Many areas in the country are realizing shifts in community economic demographics.  Ours is one of them. The number of students who qualify for the federal government free or reduced lunch subsidy has increased by almost 30% percent over the past 10 years. The current student population of about 18,000 students documents 58% (or 10,000) receiving the federal subsidy.  The economic changes in demographics represent challenges for many of our students and their families as many have lost employment or have limited income face creating hardships that are oftentimes difficult to overcome. The change equates to an increased percentage of our students coming to school with basic needs unmet.  In addition, we have students who have been identified as homeless, students who do not have an adequate supply of food on the weekends, and families who do not know where to seek help during a family crisis or emergency.
The transient nature of families in lower economic circumstances poses a significant obstacle for students and teachers.  During the 2014-15 school year, 423 students moved to at least one new school within the district, 77 moved to two different schools and 12 moved to three or more schools during the school year.  Challenges are realized when a high concentration of movement is confined to a small number of schools the effects of moving in and out have both social and emotional implications. The impact is significant within the individual classroom for receiving teachers and students.  The transient student often has difficulty maintaining friendships and developing a sense of connectivity to the school.  The student is also faced with adjusting to a new school environment and a new set of classroom expectations.

We know that for students to be receptive, willing, and ready to learn, their basic needs must be met. Students who are undernourished, who do not get enough sleep, who have inadequate or limited housing, or who have unresolved health issues are not ready to receive and retain information. When family resources are limited, visits to clinics or doctor offices for check-ups, wellness visits, vision checks, or even sick visits place a strain on the family.  More often than not, the health and/or the wellness of our students is provided through the care of our school nurses. We have 3,000 students who have chronic health conditions that need to be monitored on a daily basis.  Along with daily first aide, the school nurses provide care for diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, developmental delays, heart conditions, seizures, and digestive disorders. Our 27 school nurses logged 140,000 health room visits during the 2014-15 school year. 

Removing the Obstacles

Our school district is purposeful in coordinating services for students and families in need of assistance. We are diligent in providing for basic needs using resources that are available through partnerships with our local social service agencies, our home school workers, the Rock Hill School District Foundation, city and county agencies, and partnerships with local businesses.  We provide the link to advocate for those who have no voice. One of our hallmark programs is “Back the Pack,” which provides nutritious food for elementary and middle school students each weekend.  Currently the program serves 693 students.

We employ three Family Outreach Coordinators who manage 418 referrals for student/family support services, basic needs intervention, no show/residency issues, social histories, and attendance intervention plans.  We are fortunate to have a Drop Out Prevention Coordinator in each high school.  The Drop Out Prevention Coordinators managed 399 students who were at risk of dropping out.  The students were provided with support services, assistance with family issues, referrals to community agencies, and if needed, were assisted with enrollment into focused learning programs.  During the 2014-15 school year, all intervention staff increased their level of interaction with DSS, law enforcement agencies, City of Rock Hill, Catawba Family Center, area churches, and United Way agencies to provide wrap around services.

Building relationships is a key component for fostering business and community partnerships.  School district administrators serve on many community boards and service groups.  Our community has consistently been proactive in support of the school district.  Last year we had 3,372 new volunteers who were screened and approved to render service to our schools.  In addition, the business community is very involved in the school district; each school has a business partner that supports the school’s initiatives.  The nurturing environment created within Rock Hill Schools exists because of a collaborative effort between the stakeholders, the community, and the district.

America’s Promise recently posted, “Diplomas Save Lives”.  Often times the students that are at-risk for dropping out or failing are disengaged from the school community.  As we embrace the “Whole Child” we are committed to saving lives by increasing the number of diplomas awarded each year.  The school principals, our teachers, and staff are purposeful in developing meaningful relationships with students who are not engaged.  All children need to have positive, caring interactions with adults who are genuinely interested in the well-being of the students.  The combined efforts of our district interventions are saving lives! Our graduation rate continues to improve from 73.5% in 2011 to a graduation rate of 85.3% in 2015.

Public schools will continue to attempt to meet the social, emotional, and physical needs of the 21st century learner, however, we must also look after the health and well-being of our students with the end goal of engaging all of our students in the learning process.  Rock Hill Schools truly places students first by providing a nurturing environment where students can learn, grow, connect, and thrive.  Check us out at www.rock-hill.k12.sc.us.  Follow us on Twitter at @RockHillSchools, Like Rock Hill Schools on Facebook www.facebook.com/RockHillSchools.
America’s Promise Alliance, http://www.americaspromise.org/.
Vollmer, Jamie. Schools Cannot Do It Alone. Fairfield, IA: Enlightenment Press, 2010.