VIP Interview: Pando Initiative

By MeLinda Schnyder

   The name has changed twice but for nearly three decades the model has endured: “We help the schools so teachers and administrators can focus on learning. We help the community save money by connecting existing resources to people struggling in life and delivering it through the school, where students and families are located and accessible. We help the students experience tremendous gains socially, emotionally and academically,” said Nancy Hinten, executive director of Pando Initiative – known previously as Cities In Schools and Communities In Schools.
    Pando refers to the name given to the grove of some 47,000 trees in southern Utah that share a single root system. It is considered to be the world’s largest single living organism.
    “This root system describes our work at the Pando Initiative,” Hinten said of the organization that operates with a staff of about 30, a board of directors and more than 1,400 volunteers. “We assess, initiate and imagine what students can be when they tap into their potential and imagination. Then we act by extending across our community to make connections on behalf of vulnerable and needy kids, with the intent to help them thrive today and tomorrow. We ask ourselves to take the initiative but we also expect our students to do it too.”
    Imagine, Hinten urged, if 90 percent of Wichita area students earned a high school diploma rather than a mere 75.6 percent. Imagine, she said, the social and economic impact on individual lives and our community. With that goal in mind, the organization has reached more than 200,000 students since 1990, providing essential services that result in improved school attendance, behavior and academic performance. Pando Initiative is in 23 schools in Wichita, Derby and Haysville, cultivating educational and social growth while linking students to important resources for basic needs and health and social services. Nine out of 10 students they help are living in poverty.

VIP: How did the organization start?
NH: It was 26 years ago when a group of visionaries from the community came together to seek solutions to the school dropout issue. These visionaries included representatives from United Way of the Plains, USD 259, Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce BEST (Business Education Success Team), and eventually included corporate support from Boeing. They looked at various program models and decided on Cities In Schools. In 1991 we were granted status as a 501(c)(3) organization, starting at one school (Lawrence Elementary) and serving 71 children in that first year. 

VIP: Why is the organization needed?
NH: These visionaries recognized that the dropout problem is not simply a “school problem” but an economic one. Not graduating from high school costs everybody. The health of our young people and of our communities relies on our ability to collectively come together to solve this problem. If we could increase our local graduation rate by 10 percent, the benefits would be huge! Educated workers are the basis of economic growth. They are especially critical as sources of innovation and productivity given the pace and nature of technological progress. Each new graduate confers a net benefit to taxpayers of about $127,000 over the graduate’s lifetime. This is a benefit to the public of nearly $90 billion for each year of success in reducing the number of high school dropouts.

VIP: How many students do you help?
NH: We reach approximately 2,000 students each year with our program based in the 23 schools in Wichita, Derby and Haysville and an additional 6,000 through Reality U. Reality U is a financial literacy simulation that helps students identify their career and lifestyle aspirations and links that with their current GPA. The simulation causes students to understand the importance of education to their financial future.

VIP: Tell us about the school-based program.
NH: We help so teachers can teach and parents can support their student on their educational journey. The challenge is that many students and their families are disengaged from school. Life is overwhelming and a daily struggle for survival. Over 90 percent of the students we serve through our core program live in poverty. We place a staff member in each of the 23 schools we serve to connect students and their families with the resources they need to stabilize their life.     This staff member is joined by community volunteers, perhaps a social work practicum student or cooperative education student, and staff from other social service agencies to work with approximately 80+ students identified by the school as struggling with attendance, behavior and/or academics. This dedicated team, led by our full-time student support advocate, ensures that each student’s basic needs are being met (not hungry, appropriately clothed, good hygiene and vision) and that they have the appropriate tools to do their work in school (school supplies). They then go to work to establish individual goals for each of these students to work on to move them toward success in school and in life.

VIP: How is Pando funded? 
NH: It is a constant struggle to sustain existing programs, especially when school funding is at-risk and government support is declining. United Way of the Plains accounts for approximately 45 percent of our budget. School districts contribute about 17 percent and other sources include grants; in-kind donations of school supplies, incentives, food, clothing, shoes, dental kits and hygiene products; special events; and business/corporate sponsorships.

VIP: How can readers support Pando?
NH: Engage with our mission: to connect with students to help them engage and thrive in education and in life! You can help create a path for student success by volunteering (mentor, tutor, reading buddy, Girl/Boy Power, Reality U booth) or participating in one of our events: 100 Men Who Cook (sponsor, be a chef, tip a chef, enjoy the food) or STAR Luncheon. We’re also looking for community volunteers to conduct school supply drives in July through your place of worship, business or organization. We also encourage donating to United Way. Learn more at thepandoinitiative.org.