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Q and A with Cynthia Marshall

by Mark Peres

November 4,2005

What is Communities In Schools: Why and how did it come about?

Communities In Schools (CIS) was founded by visionary Bill Milliken in New York City in the early 1970s. It was then called Cities In Schools, and is now the nation’s largest stay-in-school network, helping young people in 225 communities to stay in school, successfully learn, and prepare for life by connecting needed community resources with schools and individual students. CIS is guided by its belief that every child needs and deserves Five Basic Resources:

- a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult
- a safe place to learn and grow
- a healthy start - a healthy future
- a marketable skill to use upon graduation; and
- a chance to give back to peers and community.

Locally, CIS of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Inc. was founded in 1985 under the leadership of John A. Tate, Jr. (Jack Tate) and Ed Crutchfield, CEO of First Union. CIS is a formal partnership with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) and the school principals in each of 24 schools. CIS was established here at the invitation of School Superintendent Dr. Jay Robinson (now deceased) as a response to the growing dropout problem in secondary schools in this county. 

How does Communities In Schools go about its work: What do you do on the ground?

CIS takes a holistic approach to drop out prevention by addressing the barriers to education - the physical, emotional, and academic needs of children and families - through a wide range of tutoring, counseling, and mentoring programs; cultural and community service activities; health screenings and access to health care; and advisement for post-secondary education, financial aid, college scholarships, and career services through its ThinkCOLLEGE® program.

CIS works to ensure that every CIS student graduates from high school and enters some form of post secondary education or training or gainful employment. It builds a continuum of support by building personal relationships with students and following their progress from elementary to high school and beyond.

Each year CIS works to secure funding for a full time site coordinator in 8 elementary, 8 middle and 8 local high schools, each of whom builds relationships with 100-150 students and partners with school personnel and community agency professionals, who provide needed services and special programming at each school - removing barriers to learning, instilling hope and reinforcing the vision of graduation and life after high school.

Students are targeted for CIS support due to a variety of high risk indicators, including school absenteeism, performing below grade level in reading and math, fragile family income, as well as health, mental health and family issues. Students in foster care or families receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families(TANF) are referred to CIS staff by the Department of Social Services for special attention and programming.

The proof of our work lies in the numbers. In the last school year alone, 2206 students (k-12) were served by CIS. Of these students, 99% stayed in school, 91% were promoted to the next grade level (1832 promoted), 92% - or 171/185 of the high school seniors - became graduates - and 64 of these seniors received college scholarships totaling $91,792 in June of 2005.

A total of $511,794 in scholarships was awarded to 293 CIS graduates, including (freshmen and upperclassmen) at the end of the 2004-2005 school year, and currently they are attending 47 different colleges across the U. S. with 48 of the 293 in the UNC system. These private scholarships supplemented the federal Pell grants which each student was eligible to receive.

Some take issue with the notion that it takes a village to raise a child. What is your response?

Our children and grandchildren will determine the quality of life and economic stability of this community for all of us for the future - for TOMORROW. If each child leads a productive and satisfying life, everyone benefits. I believe that we have a personal and moral responsibility to cherish and to integrate ALL children into the life and economy of this community. We have a choice - to ensure that they are contributors to this community - or that they are a drain on our limited resources and tax dollars. If we consider that 80% of the prison inmates in NC are school dropouts and that the cost of prison per year is more than a year of education at Harvard University, do we really have a choice of which is more positive, more productive, more humane? Another perspective to consider is that it is in our self interest to ensure that there are well educated and caring citizens to care for us and our families as we age out of productivity. Finally, there is the "silent crisis" described by Thomas Friedman in his best seller, “The World Is Flat” - and we cannot ignore the need to inspire and support our youth to fill the desperately needed occupations such as teachers, medical personnel and technology-savvy employees.

How do you assess CMS today versus 20 years ago? What difference has Communities In Schools made?

We know that there are hundreds of CIS students who were potential dropouts but stayed in school and graduated - and many who continued their education and are back in Charlotte - contributing to the quality of life and economic strength of this community. One of these students graduated from Davidson College, now works for Wachovia and is studying for his MBA from Wake Forest. He is giving back as a passionate member of the local CIS Board of Directors. Two other CIS graduates who also finished college in North Carolina, are employees of CIS and working with students at Garinger High School. The circle is complete. People believing in and supporting children. It is simple yet difficult - but it works.

Very simply, children, youth, adults - all of us need to be connected in meaningful ways to other people to be successful. We are all hungry for COMMUNITY. In some cases, the pupil assignment plan may have increased the mobility of a highly mobile group of students and their families, who change their residence often because of economics, family instability and consequently, have few real roots in a neighborhood or community. Perhaps, some of us can remember attending school with the same friends for many years - building relationships with peers with teachers, adding to our sense of trust, security, and self-worth. CMS teachers have done a remarkable job, especially given all the additional roles we expect of them - father, mother, social worker, hall monitor, nurse, etc.

What is the future of Communities In Schools: How can citizens help?

CIS initiated its ThinkCOLLEGE program to demonstrate that IF campus tours, advisement and financial support related to post secondary education were offered to "first generation" college students, they would take advantage of the opportunities and succeed. The demonstration project worked! Now it is time for a community Call to Action - to establish (and fund) a community scholarship fund for all Mecklenburg County students - so that with one voice, this community can say to ALL of our young people: "You CAN obtain postsecondary training and education for the jobs WE NEED to keep Charlotte strong and growing!!"

We welcome the opportunity to set up additional scholarship funds - by families, by companies, by churches, such as the one established by Myers Park Presbyterian Church - its Patricia Fields Scholarship Fund - whereby academically and economically eligible students not only receive college scholarships but are matched with a personal "church buddy" who becomes their friend and mentor throughout their college career.

We need adult mentors of all ages for all students - for individual students to help them improve in reading or math -- and explore careers - and what it takes to get there. We also need groups of professionals, such as accountants and other financial professionals who would help families complete the Federal financial aid forms (FAFSA) in order to recevie the Federal Pell grant monies - primarily in February and early March of 2006 - workshops to be held at main and neighborhood branches of the Public Library.

We need college alumni who would help CIS host events for high school seniors or CIS college students who need networking opportunities in order to connect to jobs or additional training.

We need partnership programs between high school students and elementary school students - peer to peer mentoring and tutoring - which is mutually beneficial and rewarding.

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