A sense of community

Dressed in their Sunday best, fifth-graders at Bellwood Elementary dined in Thursday afternoon for their third Manners Luncheon of the school year, celebrating Cinco de Mayo with successful adults from our community. Sponsored by the Communities In Schools program at Bellwood, – a school dropout prevention program – the luncheon prepared students for a lunch date Tuesday, June 14, at The Country Club of the Highlands.

“For us, working with the kids at this level is giving them a message that education is there for you; you just got take it and grab it, and then you can do whatever you want,” said Jay Swedenborg, a CIS administrator, one of the group-members who first brought CIS to Chesterfield County Public Schools in 1993.

CIS of Chesterfield currently serves thousands of students in five of the county’s schools: three elementary, Bellwood, Chalkley, and Ettick; one middle, Salem Church; and Chesterfield Community High School, which also hosts The Eagle Academy, an eighth-grade program.

The organization as a single entity, the nation-wide organization of Communities In Schools, was founded in 1974, and is currently the largest dropout prevention organization in the United States, according to www.cisofchesterfield.org,, working in more than 3,200 k-12 schools.

As said by its website, the mission of Communities In Schools is to surround students with a supportive environment, “empowering” them to stay in school to have life-fulfillment. “By bringing caring adults into the schools to address children’s unmet needs, CIS provides the link between educators and the community. The result: teachers are free to teach, and students – many in jeopardy of dropping out – have the opportunity to focus on learning.”

For the CIS staff at Bellwood, luncheons and fun get-togethers offer students a taste of what life could be, of something they most likely had never before experienced. They see the June trip to the Highlands as having a lasting impression on more than just the young students’ sense of etiquette.

“A lot our kids, because of a lower SES (Socio-Economic Status), have not had the experience of going out to eat lunch at a country club, and that sort of thing.” said Amy Bartilotti, the site coordinator at Bellwood for Communities In Schools. “So by pairing them with other successful adults in the community, they get to have the experience of: ‘This is something I can do when I’m older.’ ”

Several mentor/volunteers made it to the luncheon that afternoon, including several mothers of students, Chesterfield County employees, and at least one lady from the United State Air Force working for the Human Resources Department at the Defense Supply Center Richmond.

“Truly, when you look at a room of successful people, it’s the education,” said Bartilotti. “That’s the one thing that provides you options and gives you freedom and helps you make choices. It’s something I cannot stress enough to these kids.”

For Barbara Micou, one of the founding members of CIS in Chesterfield, it’s all about Community: “The message we try to give our students is that not only do their teachers care about them but their community cares about them and wants them to be successful … It means it makes for a better place to live when schools are good and students are successful and finish school.”

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