News: CJ Exclusives

CIS Proves Effective For Dropouts

Nation's largest dropout-prevention program has proven record

Dropping out of school is a hot topic again at the national, state, and local levels. President Bush, in his State of the Union address, asked the First Lady to lead a $150 million effort to help at-risk youths, with a particular focus on boys, stay in school and have a successful future.

Gov. Mike Easley’s Education First Task Force is charged with creating a plan so that all students graduate and have the opportunity for post-secondary education or enter the job market.

The News & Observer of Raleigh Publisher, Orage Quarles, is spearheading the High-Five Initiative, which has a goal of reducing dropouts and increasing graduation rates in Wake, Durham, Johnston, Orange, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools.

The dropout problem is not new, but to solve any problem, first one needs accurate and timely information. Getting school districts to provide that information has been challenging. There is a significant disparity between reported dropout rates and graduation rates in North Carolina. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction reported a 5.72 percent dropout rate in 2001, but in the same year, the Urban Institute reported that North Carolina’s graduation rate was 63.5 percent. Without spending too much time arguing the details, suffice it to say that about four of every 10 students in North Carolina drop out of school. The social and economic implications are staggering.

According to The National Dropout Prevention Center, each year’s class of dropouts will cost the country more than $200 billion during their lifetimes in lost earnings and unrealized tax revenue. The center also reported that more than 75 percent of North Carolina’s prison inmates are high school dropouts.

An accompanying report by The Alliance for Educational Excellence explains that we could save $1.4 billion in incarceration costs annually, or about $2,100 per male high school graduate, with just a 1 percent increase in high school graduation rates.

The center also identifies several critical components for a successful dropout prevention program, which include: a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult and a safe learning environment. So, is there a solution? Absolutely… Communities In Schools (CIS) and it is efficient, effective, and inexpensive. Don’t let that last word throw you… yes programs can be both effective and inexpensive, but let’s start with the word that makes that possible.

Communities In Schools is the largest dropout prevention program in the nation. Founded in 1977 by Bill Milliken, CIS serves more than 2 million children across the United States. In a nutshell, CIS, working with school personnel and parents, targets children at highest risk for dropping out and helps them succeed. CIS does not serve all children, however, an entire school climate is enriched when a CIS site coordinator is part of the school team.

Jimmi Williams, executive director of CIS of Greater Greensboro, says it best: “CIS works. It works because it’s simple (not to be confused with easy). It is a way for the community to invest time, money, and energy into the success of children by tapping existing resources and getting them to the kids who really need them.”

And there you have it: the heart of what CIS is all about. CIS identifies the highest-risk students, determines the impediment keeping them from succeeding, and helps fix the problem. If a child doesn’t have a caring adult in his life, CIS gets him a mentor. If a child is struggling with math, CIS gets him a tutor. If a child is failing because he can’t see the blackboard, CIS gets him glasses. CIS has one goal to keep kids in school so they will succeed in life. CIS uses whatever strategy is needed to reach that goal and does not employ the one-size-fits-all mentality that permeates our education system.

CIS is also effective. While CIS students are those at the highest risk of dropping out, once part of the CIS network, 96 percent of the students stay in school; 92 percent were promoted to the next grade, and 95 percent of CIS seniors graduate from high school. The best way to understand how effective CIS is, is to meet one of the young people the program serves.

Acton Archie is a fine young man and a former CIS student from Charlotte. Growing up, Acton moved from one public housing development to another — 12 times in 12 years. His father was murdered when Acton was a second-grader; his mother was a drug addict. Each day was a struggle, walking past drugs and crime on the way to and from school, and waking up with no power or water in the house. Acton remembers that many days he worried about whether he would even have a home when he returned.

As a teenager, he made some bad choices, struggling through the ninth grade, often absent, with no direction, personal interests, or career expectations. A caring grandmother and a strong faith in God kept him going — and CIS provided a helping hand as well. The CIS site coordinator at Acton’s high school made sure he had transportation to school, dental and health care, and connections to community support personnel. She also became a mentor and a friend. He was exposed to college and career experiences and encouraged to form goals for himself.

Did it make a difference? “Without CIS I would have probably ended up like my friends,” Acton said, “either dead or in jail.” But thanks to his own dedication and hard work, and a little help from CIS, Acton is now a senior at North Carolina State University, majoring in business management. Acton is definitely prepared for life.

That leaves the third word: inexpensive. Governed by a savvy board of business leaders and led by a top-notch entrepreneurial staff, CIS uses existing resources, leverages investments, and relies on an army of volunteers to meet the goal of keeping kids in school. For every $1 invested by the state, the CIS network raises an additional $16 in goods in services.

In addition, last year 13,665 volunteers contributed more than 250,000 hours of manpower. That is why CIS is inexpensive. CIS spends an average of $220 per child per year. In stark contrast, SmartStart spends about $2,000 per child served annually and since 1993 the state has invested $1.5 billion in SmartStart. Mike Stephens, chief operations officer of CIS of NC, said, “If we received a $1.5 billion investment, we could put a CIS program in every county with a coordinator in every middle and high school for over 40 years.”

CIS is working hard to serve North Carolina’s children. CIS has programs in 32 counties and serves more than 76,000 students. But there are 350,000 children who need CIS services. So to those in leadership positions, to solve the dropout problem the answer is, in the words of Jimmi Williams, “simple”… invest in CIS.

“The Communities in Schools track record of helping young people prepare for life has is absolutely amazing,” said Graeme Keith, chairman of the Board of CISNC. “The CIS program is the finest that has ever been developed to prevent school dropout, and we must find a way to continue expanding this program throughout our state.”

Paige Holland Hamp is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal