West Virginia School Aims To Meet The Needs of Students Whose Parents Are Battling Addiction

By Britni de la Cretaz 12/30/16

The elementary school's staff works to ensure that the children receive proper nutrition, clothes, and emotional support.

Teacher and kids eating lunch.

In West Virginia, an elementary school is rising to meet the needs of its students affected by the nationwide drug epidemic.

As reported by PBS NewsHour, Cottageville Elementary School is stepping in where parents struggling with addiction might be failing their children, through a variety of programming and resources. Tracy Lemasters, principal of the school, tells PBS that some of the impacts they see include no one “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.”

The school estimates that up to one-third of its students do not live with their parents, another effect of the opioid epidemic. The number of children living with grandparents or other relatives, or ending up in foster care, has increased in recent years. In West Virginia, the number of children placed in foster care has jumped 24% in five years, to more than 5,000. Nationwide estimates put the number of children living with grandparents at 2.9 million in 2015.

At Cottageville, Lemasters says the school works under the assumption that none of its students’ basic needs are being met, and works to provide everything a child might need. “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,” she tells PBS.

The school has a part-time guidance counselor who meets with students (the school can't afford a full-time counselor), with a volunteer-based mentoring program filling in the gap in services the rest of the time. Lemasters also keeps up with students whose parents have been arrested, so she can be on the lookout for those children.

This school is one of many that is seeking to find ways to support its students that are affected by the addiction problem. Other programs, like Preventure, which was developed in Montreal, try to identify students that could be at high risk for developing addictions themselves and try to reach them before it happens. Others, like recovery high schools, address the problem once kids have already fallen into addiction.

The work Cottageville Elementary is doing comes before all of that. Ten-year-old Briana Sotomayor, a student at Cottageville who was recently adopted by a local family, won the school’s drug prevention week essay contest with an essay titled “A Better Life.” Briana told PBS that by the time she is in her twenties, “hopefully, I won’t be on drugs, and I will be succeeding in my priorities and just succeeding in life."

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.