Reading, writing, arithmetic...and addiction. In West Virginia, elementary school students need more than typical classroom lessons.
This state is one of the hardest hit by the nationwide opioid epidemic. Rural areas like West Virginia face crippling, widespread addiction and are seeing alarming increases in the number of infants born dependent on drugs. In fact, maternal opioid use is nearly 70 percent higher in rural counties than urban ones. West Virginia, in particular, has one of the highest overdose rates in the country.
But who’s paying the highest price for these addictions? Children.
A Different Kind of Homework
As parents struggle with the myriad problems caused by addiction, their children suffer – emotionally, physically and mentally. In the past five years, the number of West Virginia children placed in foster care jumped a staggering 24 percent.
What can be done to help these children? Well, one elementary school in Cottageville, WV is stepping in to care for their at-risk kids. The principal, teachers, and support staff are working together to address the unique needs of this population with interventions that range from in-school programs to collaboration with local police.
Tracy LeMasters, school principal, estimates about a third of her students don’t live with their biological parents - mainly due to drug abuse. She summarizes her students’ lives:
“No one is waking them up to get them to school. They’re often late because their parents are sleeping in because they had partied too late the night before. The child has no food. They are hungry when they enter the building. They don’t want to go home on the weekends.”
Knowing what these kids are facing, the faculty and staff try to meet practical needs, as well as academic. “We assume that everything needs to be provided here. So that means, if they need clothes, we’re going to give them clothes. If they need food, we’re going to get them food. You know, they need love, we’re giving them the hug,” LeMasters explains.
Tackling the Problem
One of the newest programs provided is called "Handle With Care." Members of local law enforcement contact the school district if they interact with a family overnight. This lets the staff know that the child had a rough night. They might not be at school, or they might struggle with poor behavior or lack of sleep that day. LeMasters also checks the local paper regularly to see if any parents have been arrested. She holds a “hallway huddle” with her staff each morning, to keep them informed.
School counselor Robin Corbin also initiated a mentorship program for the students. She meets personally with kids three days a week, but this limited-budget time is not sufficient. In response to the great need, Corbin recruited members of the community to become mentors for students. The adults meet with kids for half an hour each week. Through this extra support, children get the experience of an adult they can depend on – something they typically don’t have at home.
One Cottageville student shared her hopes for the future with PBS. Briana Sotomayor explained, “Hopefully, I won’t be on drugs, and I will be succeeding in my priorities and just succeeding in life.”
This simple statement sums up the hope of Cottageville staff for each and every one of their 137 at-risk students.
Image Source: iStock