CIS: Meeting Kids Where They Are

“We believe that each student deserves every opportunity to remain in school and gain the tools they need not just to survive, but to thrive.”

I have the pleasure of sitting on the board of directors for Communities In Schools (CIS) of Central Texas, which serves 36,000 students on 52 campuses in five districts within Travis, Hays, Caldwell and Bastrop counties. Its been an eye-opening and moving experience to see dedicated community members coming together to improve the lives of students across Texas, and even at a national level.
CIS is the brainchild of youth advocate Bill Milliken, a man determined to improve the lives of all students, no matter what life challenges they face. Milliken wanted to bring community resources in to public schools where they could be accessible, coordinated and accountable. Nationwide CIS is represented by 181 local affiliates that serve 1.3 million students.
Last week I toured Webb Middle School, a Title 1 school serving a population of students that are 98 percent free and reduced lunch and from a challenging part of Austin. Webb also has a 35 percent mobility rate, so students come and go from the school quite often. These students have so many reasons to struggle and yet they persevere. The leadership at Webb was impressive, supportive and loving. Teachers and administrators at Webb understand that in order for students to succeed in school they also need to have stability outside of school. Between the school leadership and CIS staff they go above and beyond to ensure students and their families have shelter, food, supplies and even counseling support.
The staff told us stories of students asking for help finding a place for their family to live, requests for help buying groceries or support for a family going through difficult times such as divorce or a parent incarcerated. Its heart breaking to hear how much students have to deal with even before coming to school each day.
Principal Garcia said he credits the school’s success to a team of compassionate leaders with shared values. He was able to hire a staff that shared his belief of meeting students where they are.
CIS has helped create and manage 14 school groups at Webb that students participate in such as theater, sports, college prep and a families group. The CIS staff also provide activities for students to participate in during the summer months. The summer events often provide stability and much needed supplies and food for children that often are lacking when they do not attend school regularly.
The assistant principal at Webb said, “CIS has been a lifesaver for us and it embedded in our culture.” CIS places full-time staff on campuses to work with students on non-academic barriers to learning. With the support of AmeriCorps and other volunteers they are also helping mentor and tutor students as well. The various social services offered benefit students by meeting and adapting to the needs of every student.
During the 2009-2010 school year 99 percent of CIS of Central Texas students served intensively completed the school year and 95 percent advanced to the next grade level or graduated. In a country where almost 1 in 3 of our students drop out, those CIS numbers are a ray of light and offer encouragement. The passion and support of CIS staff paired with driven school staff is changing the lives of students nationwide.
We highlight innovations in learning here on Getting Smart.  In some cases they are digital innovations.  In the case of CIS, it’s a web of youth and family supports that reduces barriers to learning.  On one hand it’s not that innovative because it’s been working for two decades but, on the other hand, this web of support is far from universal.  It works.  Make sure there is a CIS in your community.
Learn more about CIS of Central Texas and the Communities In School on their sites. See other great success stories from the national office here.

Caroline Vander Ark

Caroline is President of Getting Smart.

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