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WCSD: Community partnerships are helping combat suicide, dropout rates

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Note: This article contains mentions of mental illness and suicide. If you are in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.


Washoe County School District’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday heard an update regarding the district’s three partnering programs – the Children’s Cabinet, Communities in Schools and the Dean’s Future Scholars program – and how they are helping students. 

Since the 2018-19 school year, the Children’s Cabinet has partnered with the district to provide suicide prevention programs. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the U.S., and state law requires school districts to have a suicide prevention curriculum, although there is no funding for the mandate. 

As part of the program, parents sign permission allowing their child to be screened. Students flagged as having medium to high risk are seen by a licensed therapist that day, and their parents are contacted. 

Screening administered to seventh-grade students through the Children’s Cabinet program has determined that since the 2019 school year about 31-35% of screened students are at risk for suicide. 

In 2021, self-reported surveys showed one-third of students felt sad or hopeless every day for two or more weeks during the past year. 

“These are really hard-hitting numbers, and it shows us where our kids are at and what they’re feeling, and the importance of intervening at the middle school level,” Kim Young, director of the Children’s Cabinet, said.

As part of the screening, students were asked if they could identify a trusted adult within the school setting. About 19% said they were unable to identify a trusted adult, and of those, more than half were classified as medium to high risk of suicide. 

Kids who are dealing with depression and anxiety, and are at risk for suicide, are also more likely to deal with chronic absenteeism, student behavior and academic performance issues. 

Preventing drop-outs

Communities in Schools of Western Nevada Communities in Schools (CIS) is part of a national initiative to prevent students from dropping out. It has been part of the district since 2014 when it established its first programs at Hug High School and Libby Booth Elementary School. Since then, it has expanded to include 15 schools with more planned. 

CIS provides site coordinators, needs assessments, integrated student supports such as academic assistance, behavioral interventions, and college and career prep. 

“Students don’t decide during their high school year to drop out,” Nicole Willis-Grimes, director of CIS, said. “It’s because of barriers they face day-in, day-out that many of us cannot even imagine, which is why we are in elementary schools all the way to high schools.” 

CIS’s goals are to improve attendance, course performance, behavior and social-emotional learning. During the 2022-23 school year, nearly 9,000 students and families were served across 13 schools, with 670 case-managed students. Of those, 95% of case-managed seniors graduated or received a degree, 54% improved attendance, 75% made academic progress, 82% improved their behavior and 80% made progress toward their social-emotional learning goals, according to data from WCSD.

Growing lifelong learners

The Dean’s Future Scholars (DFS) is the longest-running program of the three discussed at the board meeting. It was created in 2000 by Bill Sparkman, former dean of the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Reno. The district became a partner in 2001. 

According to DFS assistant director Manuel Ortiz, the program was founded on the basis that historically, low-income students and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds are underrepresented in higher education and are more likely to face academic, social, cultural and economic barriers throughout their educational careers. 

The program includes mentoring throughout the school year and summer programs ranging from three weeks in middle school to eight weeks in senior year. It also provides STEM programming, dual credit programming, UNR credits and paid internships and college scholarships. 

More than 1,500 students have been served across 40 different schools. Since 2014, the average graduation rate for DFS students has been 96%, with a 71% overall college enrollment rate. Of those who attend UNR, 88% of those stay in college. 

Since 2023, students have been awarded 248 bachelor’s degrees, 55 master’s degrees, and two doctorate degrees from UNR. 

“Thank you so much for your incredible work in our district,” Trustee Smith said. “We are incredibly honored to be your partner.” 

Trustee Alex Woodley said he has T-shirts from each organization. “If you ever wonder if what you’re doing is positive, I’m a recipient of all of your services and one of the kids that you helped. You’re not just partners with the school district; you’re partners with the community.” 

Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose is a proud Native Nevadan whose work in journalism and publishing can be found throughout the Sierra region. She received degrees in English Literature and Anthropology from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She is an avid supporter of high desert agriculture and rescue dogs.

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