Remember how excited and nervous you were about starting high school? A new building, making friends, changing classes, managing all the homework – it’s a lot of change. Now, imagine if you weren’t so lucky as to have the financial and emotional support you needed to adapt to all these changes. For many CISE students, this is the case. Most face significant financial challenges. They may have unstable home lives, have jobs to help support the family, or live in homes where no English is spoken. All of this on top of the regular stress of starting high school make this transition especially challenging.
This is where high school advocates enter the picture. For each Catholic high school CISE students attend, CISE provides funding to offer extra support for these students. The advocates are there to help students navigate four years of high school. They make sure CISE students don’t fall through the cracks and connect them with the extra support and resources needed to be successful and make it to graduation. An advocate can be someone to talk to, someone to help the student have what they need, or even someone to help the student’s family find outside resources.
At Elder High School after the final bell every Tuesday and Thursday, CISE advocate Sharon Montgomery holds study sessions called “Learning Strategies.” On this day five CISE boys show up to receive tutoring and homework help. Ms. Montgomery shares, “I think the students and the school are lucky to be partnered with CISE. It is such a helping hand for everyone involved. The CISE advocate helps students realize that there are many ways and many resources to help them become successful. They just have to put forth the effort.”
Oliver, now a senior, attended St. William Grade School where he was awarded a CISE high school scholarship. As a freshman at Elder, Oliver was very unsure of how he would fit in or if he would be able to keep up with the rigorous academics.
When Ms. Montgomery was asked what success looks like to an advocate, she glances across the room at Oliver and smiles with pride, “He’s worked hard his entire four years and probably never missed a study session. He’s here for every session we have.”
Oliver recalls, “When I first got to Elder and met Ms. Montgomery, she helped me a lot with everything. That’s when I started realizing how much I can do and how much I can achieve; that’s how I’ve gotten this far.” Oliver has come a long way since freshman year. In March he was recognized as Elder Student of the Month and has been on the honor roll his entire senior year. Ms. Montgomery adds, “The rewarding part is when a student who wasn’t sure if he could be successful ends up on honor roll or achieves other goals. It’s an honor to work with these students as they enter young adulthood.”
At Seton High School the girls enjoy “The Wellness Room”. It’s a space set aside for studying, talking, counseling, or just unwinding. There you’ll find comfy furniture, salt lamps, rock fountains, and just about everything needed to create a peaceful atmosphere. The space is run by Jenny Jenkins, the CISE advocate and a social worker at Seton. Mrs. Jenkins describes the special challenges many CISE students face, “Financial challenges for sure, but that also effects so many other parts of their lives. Without adequate financial resources, oftentimes students don’t have their other needs fulfilled. A lot of them come in with some mental health issues already, mostly anxiety and depression. Most of them come in a little behind academically.”
Angela, who attended St. Joseph Grade School, is now a senior at Seton. She hopes to pursue a career in animation. Angela faces more challenges than most kids her age. Her mother does not speak English, making communication with the school very difficult. Angela’s father, who is the sole income provider for the family, recently had to move back to Guatemala. Angela talks about how the Wellness Room and Mrs. Jenkins have helped her navigate these difficult times, “I come in most every day during study hall and lunch. Sometimes she (Mrs. Jenkins) emails me during my classes to follow up with me on a situation we are trying to figure out. If I’m absent she always messages me asking if I’m ok or if I need anything. Just checking up on me.”
Mrs. Jenkins notes, “A lot of the CISE kids need a lot more. So, I work with the families. I might intervene and help them communicate with teachers. If there’s any mental illness, of course we support that, sometimes connecting them with outside resources. I always make a point to check in regularly and make sure they have what they need.”
Angela is grateful for the resources her advocate provides, “It’s helped me a lot, just realizing that I have someone who supports me, who I know is there for me and always being able to rely on that. Some students might not have that opportunity so I’m very grateful knowing I can do this because I have that support.”
There are many more stories of students in need of extra support. The caring work done by Ms. Montgomery and Mrs. Jenkins, and other CISE advocates is making a difference for these students. In the past few years, the graduation rate for CISE students attending Catholic high schools has risen dramatically, now up to 87%. The extra care and diligent work of the advocates is a key part of the success of the CISE students.
About CISE: CISE (Catholic Inner-city Schools Education) supports ten inner-city Catholic grade schools with 2300 students, PK-8th grade. Currently over 400 CISE scholars attend 14 Catholic high schools in Cincinnati. This year CISE was honored to award high school scholarship to 80 deserving students. Learn more: www.cisekids.org
Article & Photos by Debi Haines