AUSTIN (KXAN) — When schools shut down in March, Rukiya Mukarram didn’t know what the future would hold.

“At the time, we didn’t know, how long this thing was going to last. I thought they were going to go back after spring and finish graduation,” Rukiya said.

When that didn’t happen, Rukiya’s son Jibril was forced to finish his senior year of high school online. And that meant a non-profit organization that connected to the Mukarrams and other families in Central Texas through their schools faced a challenge as well.

The Mukarram family (Courtesy Mukarram family)
Daiyan Mukarram, Rukiya Mukarram and Jibril Mukarram (Courtesy Mukarram family)

Communities in Schools has worked for decades to stay true to its mission of education and dropout prevention. Normally, CIS volunteers and staff meet in-person with nearly 6,000 students on 96 campuses across seven school districts. In addition to education, CIS volunteers build relationships and help families experiencing homelessness, food insecurity and health issues.

For the Mukkaram family, that meant CIS helped them with gift cards, getting access to a laptop and helping Jibril with his high school fees.

The pandemic briefly interrupted the organization’s direct interaction with families like The Mukarrams, and it also presented barriers to traditional learning. CIS worked to overcome both those challenges.

‘We had to go into overdrive’

Communities in Schools met with students in person and address their needs before the pandemic (Courtesy Communities in Schools)
Communities in Schools met with students in person and address their needs before the pandemic (Courtesy Communities in Schools)

As many campuses remained closed for the rest of the spring semester, CIS used its case-management model to stay connected to virtual learning. It also worked to stay connected to families by picking up the phone and calling as many as they could reach.

“We’re already oriented to be able to support a wide swath of the community, but we had to go into overdrive in terms of connecting with families quickly to stay in touch,” said Suki Steinhauser, the Communities in Schools CEO.

First, it wanted to ensure basic family needs were met, providing $3,200 in transportation assistance through Lyft ride credits and nearly $260,000 in emergency financial assistance between March and June for things like rent and utility bills.

“When COVID struck, we recognized that a lot of our families, their parents had their work hours cut or they lost jobs, so right away families were at risk,” Steinhauser said.

CIS learned that staying connected to school was one of the biggest concerns for the families it serves. CIS worked with its donor partners to fundraise which yielded enough money to purchase 900 chrome books and tablets along with hotspots and one-year of internet access. Steinhauser says at least a quarter of the students had no technology in their homes.

  • Communities in Schools helped distribute laptops and technology (Courtesy Communities in Schools)
  • Communities in Schools helped distribute laptops and technology (Courtesy Communities in Schools)
  • Communities in Schools helped distribute PPE (Courtesy Communities in Schools)

Filling that gap has helped families stay focused on education, she says.

Communities in Schools surveyed parents over the summer and found 97% said the group helped support their child’s learning and helped them stay connected during closures.

“They (CIS) have been involved all the way for people who didn’t have the laptops. They set up the buses and made sure they had WiFi,” Mukarram said. “All of that is very very important, so they have been a big help as well as a good support group.”

Keeping up the good work

Sustaining that success means the non-profit must continue finding funding. Phone, email and social media outreach helped with this round, but the future depends on even more donations during an economically uncertain time.

“COVID is a marathon and we have to continue to support our families in need throughout Central Texas through the fall and probably on into the spring in special and intensive ways,” Steinhauser said.

In some cases, communities may be able to provide support for local non-profits. The City of Austin stepped in to help non-profits.

This summer, the city awarded $23.7 million dollars through the government’s CARES ACT stimulus package. Those funds were distributed to hundreds of Austin non-profits who received $20,000 each. That didn’t include Communities in Schools.

Slynovia Robb, deputy director of Austin’s economic development department, says it was important to apply those funds toward emergency relief, health and equitable economic recovery focused on the most vulnerable in the community.

“By providing the funds to keep on the business operations side, they (non-profits) then can assist individuals through childcare, education, the environment and animals,” Robb said.

The city is hoping there’s another round of funding because if the pandemic continues, the funds may not be enough longterm.

Update: CIS creates new program

Since this story was published, Communities in Schools has continued its effort to keep kids learning. Because it says many students have not re-engaged in school, affecting their school attendance, Communities in Schools has created the Communities in Schools of Texas Incentive Program and the Microgrant Program.

The incentive program works with campuses to locate students and get them re-enrolled and encourages them to continue attendance.

The microgrant program is made up of grants ranging from $1,000 to $14,000 that allows program managers and campus staff members to develop an innovative approach to their current work. They can use the funds to train teachers or other creative ways to help students stay engaged and in school.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.