Community schools are essential for kids facing poverty and trauma, says elementary teacher Danielle Harris.
There’s a quote that West Virginia teacher Danielle Harris likes to share when folks ask about her job: “You cannot be what you cannot see.” To understand how that relates to teaching math, science, and social studies to fifth graders, you need to know a little about their lives.
“Students in the area where I live only see a small number of people grow up to be successful and do well,” Harris explains. “Instead of seeing parents who are doctors and attorneys, they see parents struggle in poverty and become addicted to opioids.”
Harris knows that for many kids at New River Intermediate School in Oak Hill, W.Va., she is a role model. For some, she is the most stable adult in their life.
These students are growing up in a stretch of Appalachia the Washington Post dubbed a “virtual opioid belt.” More than 20 million prescription pain pills were shipped to their county alone between 2006 and 2012, leading to a surge in the rates of overdose deaths and incarcerated parents. Most of Harris’ students face the instability that comes with poverty; many also experience neglect and abuse.
But New River is now a community school, which means students have access to resources that Harris says could be life-saving.
They have two full-time counselors on their campus who schedule one-on-one sessions with students facing trauma. There is a full-time physician’s assistant who can give kids check-ups and immunizations, prescribe medicine, and perform routine labs. For many students, she is their primary care provider. New River also has a coordinator who connects local nonprofits and families who need their services.
This year, the school also has a full-time health and mindfulness coach who works closely with children who have behavior issues. She visits all classes to teach meditation and coping skills.
Harris saw the benefits—how it helped her students stay calm and focused. Now she leads students in meditation every day. “Today we worked on affirmations while we meditated and when we were done they shared,” Harris says. “To hear them saying, ‘I’m smart,’ and ‘I can do this’—it’s really powerful stuff.”
Lately Harris feels more empowered, too. She says participating in the 2018 West Virginia teacher strike awakened her passion for education advocacy. Harris spent those two weeks taking shifts on the picket line and riding a school bus to help deliver meals to students, who depend on the free breakfast and lunch they receive at school.
Now, in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Harris remains a vocal advocate for her students.
She wants candidates to understand and embrace the community schools model. “Our president should support this holistic approach to education by increasing the number of healthcare workers and behavioral support specialists in schools,” she says. “They should fight for universal pre-K so every family can get their kids on track. It’s about equity and justice and doing what’s right.”