Shortly after the doors open at Hillcrest Elementary School, dedicated workers check in and tackle their daily tasks. These workers aren’t teachers, but they’re essential to the school’s operation.
These critical workers are students.
In one of the forever-long hallways, older students partner with younger kids to read books and eat breakfast. The older students are known as Reading Buddies, and their job is to help the younger students read as much as possible.
This is just one of the many job opportunities available to Hillcrest students through a program known as Meaningful Work, which is being used in nine schools across the Campbell County School District.
“The jobs provide kids an opportunity to be connected to their school,” said Hillcrest Principal Brad Gregorich. “It allows students to engage in school in a different way.”
The jobs are calculated to help Hillcrest run a little bit more smoothly or perform at a little higher level. Some jobs, like messengers or building deliveries, help reduce the staff’s burden while giving the student workers a sense of responsibility. Other jobs, like the Reading Buddies, help maximize reading time in different ways because, as Gregorich pointed out, it’s easier for younger kids to buy into the extra reading when helped by an older student they look up to.
The program is available to all students, but it was specifically introduced as a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) strategy for the school to help students who would benefit from additional positive adult interactions and support.
Students apply for a long list of potential jobs, which were selected by the PBIS Committee at the school. QR codes are posted around the building and outside of classrooms, and students can use their iPads to scan a code, which will show them all of the job’s responsibilities and allow them to sign up for it. All students who apply get a job, even if it’s not the specific one they requested.
They get assigned to jobs, train in those jobs and are assigned a staff supervisor, much like the process an adult would go through for a new job.
Grace Barnett, a 10-year-old fourth grader, used to be a Reading Buddy but now is a Kindergarten Wrangler. The name pretty much explains the job, but as soon as she was asked about her position, she reached beneath her sweatshirt and pulled out a laminated name tag. It was clearly a badge of honor to Barnett.
“I love working with kids,” she said. “I love helping kids.”
She’d been a Reading Buddy previously, and in her new position she willingly forfeits some of her own recess time to help out the kindergartners.
That kind of selflessness is common to the program, said Nicole Schatz, a Hillcrest fourth grade teacher.
“A lot of these fourth graders’ jobs have very little to do with the fourth grade,” Schatz said. They get to do meaningful tasks that benefit students in other grades and they care about things outside themselves.
Hillcrest’s counselor, Theresa Buchanan, saw the program encourage that sort of mindset in students. One of the popular jobs requested by students is filling backpacks for Blessings in a Backpack, she said.
“They said they wanted this job because they wanted to make sure their classmates had food for the weekend,” Buchanan said.
Schatz said it was clear how much the students had bought in to the program. There were always lots of kids outside her door waiting to scan the QR code at the start of each quarter.
“They get nervous about whether or not they’ll get the job,” Schatz said.
She recalled one student of hers who benefited from the Meaningful Work program.
He was “aloof,” Schatz said. He always needed to be prodded and motivated throughout the day just to keep him on task. He was often required to miss recess to finish his work.
But then he got a job through Meaningful Work, and it was like a switch was flipped. Schatz said it was another student who pointed it out to her, that she hadn’t had to prompt and cajole the young man like she’d had to before.
“He’s been so much more responsible and on-task,” Schatz said.
The overall picture of the program at Hillcrest is similarly positive, Gregorich said. The 2020-21 school year has seen an increase in students signing up for jobs. In the first quarter of the year, 31 students were hired. In the second, the number jumped to 51 students. The third quarter saw a modest decrease with 48 students hired. But the fourth quarter saw a resurgence with 55 students finding jobs, bringing the year’s total to 185 students.
Behavior infractions or numerous absences could result in the loss of the student’s job, and teachers use that reality to make real-world connections that will benefit their students for the rest of their lives.
Hillcrest is proud of its office referrals, which have drastically decreased since implementation of the program. In the 2019-20 school year, there were 102 office referrals, and in 2020-21 there had only been 36 through Feb. 23.
Gregorich doesn’t casually assert that Meaningful Work is wholly responsible for the drop, but he calls it a significant “piece of our puzzle.”
Across town at Paintbrush Elementary, the results are even more stark. In 2019-20, the school had 171 office referrals, and in 2020-21, there had only been 24 through Feb. 23.
Principal Jenni Gilson is very proud of those numbers.
“We really attribute that to Meaningful Work just because of the positivity that it’s building with kids,” Gilson said. “There’s other outlets out there that are helping them. It’s been awesome to have that and see it with the kids.”
Both schools celebrate the good work of their students by recognizing top-notch employees, Hillcrest by the month and Paintbrush by the week.
“Their pictures are posted and then we have staff members write in just a quick little statement of what makes them the great employee of the week,” Gilson said. “That’s posted for the week and it’s in a place with lots of traffic so everybody gets to see it, so they’re pretty honored when they get that. Interest in jobs has gone through the roof.”
The academic benefits of the program were not able to be gauged because of COVID-19 canceling the summative assessments at the end of the year, Gregorich said. But the office referral data leads him to believe, even if just anecdotally at this point, that the program is helping the academic success of his students for one simple reason: They’re in classrooms more.
“You have to find the meaning in the work,” Schatz said. And the kids do.
“They’re able to request a day off, just like in a real job,” Schatz said. “But they never request a day off.”
Schatz sees the program as helpful in addressing the holistic nature of education.
“It’s the greater good of it all,” she said of the program. “We’re teaching human beings, not just students.”
Social service agencies provide a myriad of services to Campbell County from supporting senior citizens to helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The past year has been difficult for the city of Gillette and Campbell County because of the COVID-19 pandemic and downturn in the energy industry. As a result, they will not be able to give as much to agencies as in the past.
The county commissioners are asking local agencies to reduce their requests for the upcoming fiscal year. The city of Gillette hopes organizations will be mindful of the tough economic times the city is facing when making their requests.
“This last year was hard for everybody,” said Commissioner Rusty Bell.
During an economic downturn, the need for many social service agencies increases. But unlike previous downturns, Gillette isn’t seeing much of a corresponding population decrease.
“Just like our departments, we’re asking everybody to do more for less (money) for more people,” Bell said.
The Campbell County Senior Center followed the commission’s cue when it only asked for $293,625 for fiscal year 2021-22. This marks a 25% drop from what it got this year, $391,500. The agency also cut its request to the city by 23%, from $338,000 it received in fiscal year 2020-21 to $258,570 next year.
The reductions were made because of the “circumstances we’re dealing with in the community,” said Ann Rossi, Campbell County Senior Center executive director, adding that no cuts to programs are expected.
Commissioner D.G. Reardon said he was surprised and impressed by the center’s lower funding request.
“They took the budget message seriously,” he said.
“We’ll be good for next year,” Rossi said. “We got some dollars we had set aside from fundraisers that we will use to supplement our budget if needed.”
Most organizations have reduced their requests or kept them the same as what they got in 2020-21.
“Most of them are aware of the funding issues that we’re looking at,” said City Councilman Gregory Schreurs.
“I think we’ll be able to help at some level. That’s something our board is going to have to discuss,” Bell added. “We’re certainly not broke, but we certainly have less (than in past years).”
City proposes increase to Optional 1% cap for agencies
City staff recently recommended that the Gillette City Council increase the city’s cap of 5% of the Optional 1% Sales Tax it gives to social service agencies to 6%.
The city’s funding cap for the upcoming budget is about $14.7 million based on sales tax receipts from April 2020 through March. That number could change depending on what the most recent sales tax receipts look like, said City Finance Director Michelle Henderson.
At 5% of Optional 1% Sales Tax collections, social agencies would receive about $734,844, but with the proposed 1% increase, that number goes up to $881,813. A year ago, a 6.5% cap was in place with about $960,000 divvied up among the agencies.
When the city set the 5% cap several years ago it had more money, but needed to set a limit so it could get a handle on how much it was giving the nonprofit agencies. Now the situation is the opposite and 5% is not enough, said Mayor Louise Carter-King.
Getting lives back on track
The city of Gillette fielded requests from 19 organizations for fiscal year 2021-22 funding totaling $912,070. Three of those are new requests: AVA Community Arts Center ($3,000), American Legion Post 42 Baseball ($15,000) and Energy Capital for Humanity ($10,000), but the city did not recommended approving the requests. American Red Cross, which received $9,000 this year, did not ask for money next year.
Two agencies requested more funding from the city in 2021-22: the Edible Prairie Project, from $5,000 to $8,000, and Campbell County Adult Treatment Courts, $10,500 to $15,000.
Chad Beeman, Treatment Courts program coordinator, said the additional money would help offset a decrease in treatment court slots. On average there are 30 spots in the program, but that has been reduced to 26 for the upcoming fiscal year. The Wyoming Department of Health reduced the program’s budget by almost $30,000 in the last year, and “we’re needing to make that up locally or find other grant sources.”
The city did not recommend allocating the extra $4,500, but Councilman Billy Montgomery said he would like the city to consider giving the full amount requested or split the difference between the request and recommendation because of the program’s importance in helping people get back on their feet.
Campbell County Juvenile Family Drug Court had the largest increase of any program asking for county funding, going from $8,100 this current fiscal year to requesting $30,372 for fiscal year 2022.
Reardon said this popped out to him, but when he found out the reason for the increase, he said it made sense.
As a result of deep budget cuts at the state level, the program lost a grant from the Department of Family Services Community Juvenile Service Board. The grant was for $21,372, and the program hopes the county will make up for the lost grant to give participants mental health and substance use treatment.
The total amount requested by the 15 social service agencies asking for county funding through the Optional 1% Sales Tax is $950,932, which is 5.5% less that what was approved in FY21. It also is a 16% drop from FY20, when $1.1 million was granted.
“I don’t see why we can’t fund most of them at the levels they requested,” Reardon said.
‘We’ll take whatever we can get’
Sacrifices are necessary to get through the difficult days that lie ahead, but agencies still need money to maintain their services.
The Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation is requesting the same amount it received this year, $69,000.
“We’ll take whatever we can get,” said GARF Executive Director Margie McWilliams, adding that “I always ask for what we need.”
The agency received $36,000 in CARES Act money to make up for lost grants during the pandemic, which she said “kind of kept us flowing last year.”
But the future continues to be a concern because domestic violence and sexual assaults are not going to go away anytime soon.
GARF typically serves 400 to 500 people a year, and while that number has not changed much, some people are requiring more services than in the past. Some may be looking for work at a time when jobs are at a premium while others need additional food and school supplies, she said.
Fortunately, there are local agencies for GARF to coordinate with to help address some of those needs.
“We’re very lucky to have the resources we have,” McWilliams said. “They’re so very much needed to keep our community healthy.”
‘Doing as much as we possibly can’
One of those other local resources is the Council of Community Services.
The agency is asking for the same amount it received from the city this year, $80,000. It also has followed the commission’s cue and reduced its request to the county by 15%, from $31,500 in 2020-21 to $26,775 in 2021-22.
The agency has received some CARES Act money, $119,465, and that has helped, but it does not cover everything, including employee wages.
“We’re doing a lot more work and giving a lot more to the community without getting money to really pay for that,” said Mikel Scott, Council of Community Services executive director.
Among the services the agency offers Campbell County include the Soup Kitchen, Food Pantry and the homeless prevention voucher program, which gives rent vouchers to families so they can avoid becoming homeless.
“The $80,000 will help fill in the gaps,” Scott said, adding that the money would go toward programs that aren’t fully funded by grants like the Soup Kitchen.
“We’re doing as much as we possibly can to keep people housed, to keep them well, to keep them fed,” she said.
Campbell County experienced an increase in deaths in 2020 that mirrored similar trends in Wyoming and the country as a whole.
The 333 deaths among Campbell County residents last year was an increase from 285 deaths in 2019 and 272 deaths in 2018, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
In the United States and Wyoming, the third-leading cause of death in 2020 was COVID-19.
The five most common causes of death in the Cowboy State last year were heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and different types of accidents, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
There were 41 COVID-19 deaths recorded in Campbell County in 2020. Through March 31, the county has had 61 COVID-19 related deaths overall.
Throughout the state, 528 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 or a COVID-19 related cause last year, part of the 700 coronavirus-related deaths in Wyoming since the pandemic began.
“Our data has shown steady, small increases in deaths for several years largely due to our state’s aging population,” said Guy Beaudoin, Vital Statistics Services deputy state registrar, in a press release. “But before the COVID-19 pandemic hit we never would have predicted the large jump we saw in 2020.”
Wyoming recorded 5,983 total deaths in 2020, an increase from the 5,121 deaths the state recorded in 2019.
“It’s clear that COVID-19 was a driving factor for increased deaths in 2020 in addition to the small growth we would have expected due to Wyoming’s overall aging population,” Beaudoin said in the press release. “It’s not nearly as clear what caused the other ‘excess deaths,’ but possibilities include COVID-19 related deaths that were missed or the avoidance of either routine or emergency medical care during the pandemic.”
Nationwide, the trend held.
The roughly 377,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths in 2020 ranks behind just heart disease and cancer, which caused about 690,000 and 598,000 deaths respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The age-adjusted death rate in the United States increased by 15.9% from 2019 to 2020, rising from 715.2 to 828.7 deaths per 100,000 population, according to the CDC.
The National Vital Statistics System records and reports statistics on yearly deaths gathered from U.S. death certificates each year.
Wyoming showed an increase in suicides from 170 in 2019 to 181 in 2020. However, there have been greater year-to-year increases in recent history. Since 2011, the most Wyoming suicides came in 2012, when there were 171, which rose significantly from the year before when there were 129, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
The number of suicides rose in Campbell County last year as well. The 13 suicides in 2020 stood as a significant increase from the seven in 2019 and eight in 2018, according to Campbell County Health.
The Wyoming Department of Health said the pandemic does not seem to have affected the number of marriages, divorces and births in the state.
Last year in Campbell County there 285 marriages, with 261 in 2019 and 257 in 2018.
There were 212 divorces in the county in 2020, on par with the 230 in 2019 and 208 in 2018.
Birth rates stayed fairly stable as well, with 597 in 2020, 616 in 2019 and 587 in 2018, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.