Louis Walbrek is the Interim Executive Director of Communities in Schools, a nation-wide dropout prevention organization that works directly with local public schools. In Whatcom County last year, Communities in School’s site coordinators helped 5,026 students overcome barriers to success and stay on track to graduate.
What brought you to Bellingham?
I grew up in Seattle, and came to Bellingham for college. I did an internship with Communities in Schools my last quarter at Western. After that, I spent two years serving as an AmeriCorps member with Communities in Schools and never left. I’ve been with this organization for a little over four years.
Tell me about Communities in Schools?
We have seven site coordinators in seven schools across the county. We’re in three school districts: Nooksack, Meridian, and Bellingham. The site coordinators are in the schools 40 hours a week building relationships with the kids. Students are referred to us for a variety of reasons: some of them are self-referred, and some come from parents or counselors.
Our goal is to help students to stay on track to graduate—or when needed, to get back on track. We believe that high school graduation is the key to a healthy start.
Our program looks a little different at each school. Fortunately, we’re really adaptive. We believe that there are five basic things that all kids deserve to have a healthy start: good diet and nutrition, to feel safe, to have a one-on-one relationship with an adult, a chance to give back to your community, and a plan for after high school: a skill set, something they can use to get started in the job market.
Site coordinators bring in resources and volunteers; whatever is needed for their specific school to make sure the kids are fully supported. Anything from food and clothing, to academic tutoring, a mentor, or open gym to keep them active.
Do you work with the program across all the schools?
During my time as a site coordinator, I worked solely with the students and staff at Sehome High School. As the Director, I’m now in charge of hiring, training, and supervising our site coordinators at each of the schools we serve. I love having the opportunity to support the amazing work at each of the schools we partner with.
What do people not understand about Communities in Schools?
Depending on what school is in your neighborhood, you might think that particular program at that school is the only service we provide. For example, at Sehome High School, we have a really large peer mentoring program. Incoming freshman are matched one-on-one with a junior or senior that will be with them for the whole year, many continue for two years. A mentor shows them the ropes and gives them academic support if they need it. Sehome also has a graduation-coaching community-mentoring program. If you heard about us from Sehome, you might think, “Oh, that’s the in-school mentoring program.” It varies by school a great deal. We don’t do just one thing. What we do varies by school based on the needs of that community. Mentoring and tutoring are always great ways to get involved, but it does not give you a complete picture of Communities in Schools site coordination.
How do you know Communities in Schools is working well?
Communities in Schools relies heavily on data to inform our work. Consequently, our results keep getting better and better. 97 percent of the kids we work with are staying in school and being promoted to the next grade level. They’re improving their grades, their school behavior, and coming to school more often.
What do you love best about your job?
I love that I work in a school; I get to see all the amazing work that the teachers and paraeducators do. I get to see all the people that are going above and beyond to make sure that the kids know they care. I enjoy working with schools to keep pushing to do even more; to fill in the cracks. Most of all, I love working with the kids. Students come into our office every passing period. Our space is their space; our whiteboard is their whiteboard. There’s hashtag everything on here, five days a week. It’s a wonderful environment to work in.
What’s your favorite spot to relax in Bellingham?
There’s this spot near Squalicum Park: a trail by the water that goes under the train tracks. You can see Western and the Georgia Pacific site from a different angle, and it’s just beautiful.
I hope we don’t make it too crowded for you! What would be your perfect Bellingham weekend?
Gotta go on a hike. Disc golf at Cornwall Park would be a part of that. And, of course, a nice cup of coffee.
What new thing would you most like to see in Bellingham?
There’s this really neat place in Seattle that has indoor bocce ball for the long winter when you can’t get outside for yard games. Having something like that up here would be a lot of fun.
Is there a particular Bellingham restaurant that the world needs to know about?
Netos. It’s great. It’s a Mexican bakery on the other side of Shuksan Middle School. It’s a small restaurant, with baked goods, and it has a little store. They’re really connected to the community. They made us an enormous layered cake for our multicultural club’s end-of-the-year celebration.
What’s your favorite spot downtown?
Brandywine Kitchen. That’s a nice little spot.
What are people always surprised to learn about you?
They’re really surprised to find out that I like hacky-sacking with kids. Wait, foot-bagging, I’m sorry. Footbag is now the official name for international competitions!
If you had to enroll at Western today, what program would you enroll in?
I’d definitely be going back into a Masters program. I’m really interested in best practices for nonprofit leadership. My undergrad was a combined major in politics, philosophy, and economics. That’s pretty easy to build off in any direction of social work.