ATLANTA – On Tuesday, January 31, Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) invited Communities In Schools (CIS) of Atlanta to join CHRIS 180, Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, Georgia Family Connection Partnership, and Atlanta Public Schools for a panel discussion to speak on the current climate in our community and how we are supporting our local children and teens. The panel followed a special screening of Indie Lens Pop-Up for The Bad Kids, an observational documentary chronicling one extraordinary principal’s mission to realize the potential of students who attend Black Rock Continuation High School.
“Believing in students, being a passionate adult who can guide them – that is what encourages the kids the most,” CIS of Atlanta’s panel representative and site coordinator Dr. Alisha Hill told the audience.
The Sundance Festival award winning film hits home with CIS of Atlanta, as our organization understands that simply getting to school and being able to learn may also compete with the daily struggles many students face including eating, avoiding drugs and abuse, and having a bed to sleep in every night. “These are very urgent and current issues,” says CEO Frank Brown. “But we know that when the needs of children are met, they can be free to learn in an environment where teachers can be free to teach.”
The Bad Kids is a coming-of-age documentary revealing that education combats the crippling effects of poverty on the lives of “bad kids.” The film shows the power of extraordinary educators who, like CIS of Atlanta, believe that, more than academics, it is love, empathy, and life skills that give at-risk students command of their own futures. The film will air on Tuesday, March 21 at 11pm on GPB, to find more information on the film go to http://www.thebadkidsmovie.com/.
Saporta Report, an online news source that shares insights about Atlanta and beyond, recently featured our Op-Ed "We are chronically failing, but it's not our schools." This Op-Ed was inspired and created after Governor Nathan Deal released an updated list of 153 chronically failing schools.
"As the headlines come and go about our current political climate and the state of our international relations, our students are dying. Several weeks ago, two metro Atlanta students were killed by senseless gun violence. Violence in communities where we live and work is on the rise. Teachers and administrators are trained in self-defense tactics to ensure their safety as they work in communities plagued by the violence that poverty makes more likely."
Communities In Schools (CIS) of Atlanta welcomed Fulton County Schools’ Superintendent Jeff Rose to Langston Hughes High School Tuesday morning to give him a tour of the CISA program. Site coordinators, teachers, counselors, social workers, and student mentors gathered in Ms. Woodson’s room, and the morning included a welcome from Principal Brandy Reeves, a delicious breakfast spread, and inspirational words from student mentors, teachers, and coordinators about how the program impacts their students and what the program means to them.
All six Langston Hughes High School student mentors in attendance, from freshmen to seniors, proudly stood and expressed why our program was important to them, and how it’s changed their lives, inside and outside of school. One student mentor explained, “When I first came to this school, I never liked to smile or wanted to be here. When I was introduced to Ms. Woodson, I became a better person, and progressively improved my grades and attendance. I always wanted to be a straight-A student, but didn’t know how. Ms. Woodson lets me know that if no one else has me, she does. She reels me in and helps me, and I know CIS of Atlanta is always there for me.”
Principal Reeves shared facts to show how CIS of Atlanta has improved her school, such as how number of offenses have dramatically dropped. Last year, Langston Hughes High School had 1200 out-of-school offenses. This year, they are down to 500. Even the school’s attendance is higher this year than it was around the same time last year.
“These students in here are like mini parents and have hit the ground running,” remarked Officer Burton of Langston Hughes High School. “CIS of Atlanta has been such an asset to Langston Hughes High School. This is the calmest, most productive year we have had since I began working here.”
Superintendent Jeff Rose expressed his gratitude for all that was shared, and concluded that, “I appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm and comprehensive nature. I see that this is so much more than learning; it’s about the relationships. And it’s not enough to have only educators and parents.”
In June, we received a call that two of our students, we nominated, from Forest Park High School – Amber and Auriana – were invited to attend the third annual Beating the Odds Summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. As part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher initiative, the summit of 130 college-bound students from across the country is dedicated to education and strengthening underserved communities. Students invited to the summit represented urban and rural areas, fosters homes, homeless shelters, special needs kids and other underrepresented youth; all of them have overcome significant barriers to make it to college.
Being a former Capitol Hill staffer and having had the privilege and pleasure of going to the White House on numerous occasions, I knew how special this moment would be for these two young ladies who probably would never get the opportunity if not for Communities In Schools (CIS) of Atlanta.
Let me give you a little back ground on our two students.
Auriana and Amber are the first in their family to pursue education beyond high school. This was no easy feat. Their chances of graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education was nearly impossible without the support from CIS of Atlanta.
Auriana graduated with a 3.8 GPA despite growing up as a homeless student, spending her high school years in an extended stay hotel, and transferring from school-to-school. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class. She’s now a freshman at Howard University studying business.
Amber is the epitome of dedication and perseverance. Due to the lack of focus and hanging around the wrong crowd, Amber had 14 credits – barely enough to be considered a junior. Through a rigorous work regime, Amber made up all lost credits and attained Honor Roll status in the 12th grade. Amber now attends Atlanta Metropolitan State College to study nursing. She hopes to transfer to a school in D.C. because of her experience.
“We only have our book bags"
It was a beautiful day when I arrived at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport in July. I arrived early so I could wait on the students. When I saw the young ladies, I asked them, “We’re going away for three days; where’s your luggage? Did you check it in?” They both looked at me and said, “No, all we have is our book bags.”
When I got to my hotel room, tears started flowing down my face. I felt embarrassed that I even asked them that question in the first place because we’re poverty-fighters. As a parent, I could never imagine being in a situation where I would send my children somewhere with people I didn’t know personally for three days with a book bag of clothes to go meet the First Lady of the United States.
We would never let our children go to the White House unprepared, so one of our chaperones went shopping and bought several hundred dollars’ worth of new clothing and shoes for the students the night before we went to the White House. These girls weren’t prepared for a trip, they needed feminine items and we even had to buy bras because one of the young ladies didn’t have one that fit. These are basic needs, but they really summarize the challenges that our children have and face that prevent them from going to school, graduating and achieving in life.
“Welcome to the White House”
The students were in shock that they were at the White House. It’s an amazing feeling when you walk up to that building. You’ve studied about it, you’ve read about it, but there’s nothing like walking through those doors and hearing someone say, “Welcome to the White House.”
We were at the White House from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event focused on sharing tools and strategies to help students successfully transition to college and complete the next level of their education. The panelists also provided down-to-earth advice to the 130 students about college, careers and life.
What I really loved about the First Lady’s approach was she was like a mom. She talked about how there’s no secret sauce. You have to get up every day, do the hard work, and understand that you have the same abilities as everybody else. Never forget where you come from because it will always be a part of you, but you don’t have to remain mentally attached to your roots either because growth demands your mind to be open to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Having that message come from someone who looks like their mother, it really resonated.
We will never really be able to understand the optical impressions that were made on our young African-American students’ minds to see a woman who looks just like them who can say, “I’m no different than you are. I came from one of the poorest sides of town in Chicago, but I went to an Ivy League school. My parents never went to college and they barely graduated high school. My parents didn’t have anything close to what I have right now in my life, but they sacrificed, showed me and pushed me to succeed academically and taught me to never settle for less.” Those are just powerful images. Anytime you can see someone who looks like you and has a similar story reach the highest pinnacles of success, it enables you believe that anything is possible.
I made sure that our young ladies didn’t just see the glitz and glamour, but I wanted them to talk to the butlers because anybody who understands history understands that African-American slaves built that White House. Butlers have been some of the most silent first-hand observers of history.
We took a picture with a butler who actually had been at the White House since President Richard Nixon’s term. He has seen everything from Nixon, to Clinton’s impeachment, to 9/11. He said something to me that really resonated with what I believe our mission here at CIS is. He said, “We’re servants for the President of the United States. We’re serving our country.” He didn’t look at his position as a job. He actually looked at it as taking care of the president as a responsibility for the good of the country.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Amber and Auriana that will motivate them to understand that despite where they came from, there’s no limit to where they can go. They made it to the White House because they overcame obstacles. They already have the resiliency needed to accomplish what they want to do in life.
Communities In Schools is committed to students and families
I believe this organization has a responsibility to expose children, not just to the White House, but to colleges, career opportunities, entrepreneurship and the military. We have a responsibility to expose some of the poorest children in the country to possibilities. If we give them opportunities, exposure, and support, we can watch them blossom.
I am the product of a single parent home. I didn’t grow up with a lot and I have a brother doing 15 years for voluntary manslaughter, therefore, I can identify with our students’ struggles. I can identify with having a household where no one finished college prior to me. I can identify with their worries about how to make things happen when you don’t have the family and financial support to make a seamless transition. But I can tell you, that it’s possible.
Just like that butler I met at the White House, my team takes the same approach – this is not a job. No matter where you are, you can serve; you can lead. Our mission is to stabilize homes, fight poverty, and serve children and families; we have to do whatever it takes. Our job is to be love agents – to love on these children and families when there is no one else to love on them – and to provide supports when it looks like all other doors have closed.
Amber, Auriana and the more than 4,000 students we support in Metro Atlanta are the reason why I get up every morning. They’re the reason why we fight through obstacles, like hearing “no” when we ask for funding, partnerships, or assistance. It makes it all worthwhile when you get a unique opportunity to expose a child to something that will be life-altering. Some of the children and families we support have the least, but they have a lot of love and resiliency.
This D.C. trip just doubled my energy and helped me understand why what we do is so important, why it’s necessary. It’s not me. It’s the countless, almost faceless people, who go to those schools everyday with our shirts on whose number one goal is to make life better for that child and family. They’re the true unsung heroes. I’m just a figure head who has been blessed with an opportunity to lead an organization that’s second to none.
The CEO of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, says that you must always be humble and stay hungry– that’s what I tell my staff. That’s what we’re going to do as long as I’m leading this organization - work every day to help every family and child where they are to get back on track. So that our children are empowered to stay in school and achieve in life.
Check out what Auriana had to say about her experience:
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution recently reported that more than 60 schools in Atlanta and surrounding counties are on the Georgia Department of Education’s list as the lowest performing in the state, which is required under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
Based on a research bulletin from the Southern Education Foundation, low-income students are now a majority of the children in America’s classrooms, which is a first in U.S. history. Among the 21 states with majority of low-income students, Georgia placed seventh with 60 percent of kids of low-income. Nine of the schools on the lowest performing list cited in the article are currently Communities In Schools (CIS) of Atlanta partner schools.
The inclusion of these partner schools on the state list is not only a reflection of academic need, but socioeconomic need as well. On average, 85 percent of students at our schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
CIS builds strong relationships with students, parents, educators and community members within its partner schools. We identify barriers that prevent students from succeeding in school and address these barriers by mobilizing community resources to meet students’ needs, while empowering students to realize their potential.
CIS National is making efforts to ensure student support services are included in the new version of NCLB currently being debated in Congress. But such changes at the national level take time. In the meantime, school districts are dealing with shrinking budgets, highlighting the need for Atlanta area corporate and foundation partners to support the schools and nonprofits with research based models and successful track records.
At CIS of Atlanta, we are continually working to innovate our model with unique partnerships. For example, we’re partnering with BlackRock, Emory University and Atlanta Public Schools for the Graduation Generation initiative at Maynard Jackson High School and its cluster of middle and elementary schools. This collaboration creates a pipeline of students who graduate high school on time, and matriculate and finish either college or vocational school. CIS of Atlanta also partnered with the College of Computing at Georgia Tech this spring to allow Clarkston High School students to participate in the Robotics Soccer Challenge. These are just two examples of our intent to innovate and modernize our drop-out prevention activities and to create partnerships with world class universities to move the academic needle.
Our results are proof that the CIS model works. Last year, 97 percent of our students stayed in school; 83 percent improved in attendance, behavior or academic performance; and 76 percent were promoted or graduated. In a recent opinion column in the US News & World Report written by Nina Rees, the CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, she mentioned CIS as one of the solutions to help turn around failing schools in our country.
CIS of Atlanta can replicate our success in all of the schools listed in this troubling article if given the opportunity and funding is made available to support our important work on behalf of low-income children and their families. Closing these achievement gaps is the modern civil rights issue of our time.
In a recent article published in The New York Times, F.B.I. Director James Comey delivered an unusually candid speech at Georgetown University in which he called for an honest discussion about race and the attitudes of law enforcement.
James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., made a speech at Georgetown University in which he called for an honest discussion about race and the attitudes of law enforcement.
The article quoted Mr. Comey as saying that some officers scrutinize African-Americans more closely using a mental shortcut that “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights” because black men are arrested at much higher rates than white men.
In recent public comments, President Barack Obama said that racial discrimination from police in Ferguson was “oppressive and abusive.” Obama calls for communities to work together to address tensions between police and residents without succumbing to cynical attitudes that say “this is never going to change because everybody’s racist. That’s not a good solution.”
I previously worked for former Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee as a senior legislative counsel for judicial and executive branch nominations like the U.S. attorney general, the F.B.I. director and other high-ranking Justice Department officials during my tenure from 1998 to 2003. Prior to my departure, I prepared Sen. Specter for Mr. Comey’s nomination to be deputy attorney general of the U.S.
So, I know that it’s rare for the F.B.I. director to give such a high-profile, yet brutally honest, summation of his perception about the uncomfortable history of mistrust between certain minority communities and law enforcement agencies across the country. In fact, Mr. Comey is a well-known and well-respected Republican and he is known to be a no-nonsense federal prosecutor at his core, so his commentary was really enlightening, brutally honest and thoughtful. The lack of the usual political backlash from the opposing party was equally surprising, as noted in a Washington Post blog written by Jonathan Capehart about the silence Mr. Comey’s race talk received from Republicans.
Mr. Comey is definitely on to something, especially when we look at statistics in Georgia in regards to the incarceration and suspension rates for African-Americans and their white counterparts. In 2013, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, 65,000 individuals in Georgia were arrested; however, 57 percent of these individuals were non-white despite the fact that people of color make up only 37.5 percent of the state’s general population. These statistics track the troubling yet real disparity in school suspensions between black and white students in Georgia: In 2012, 37 percent of all public school students in Georgia were African-American; however, they made up 54 percent of all in-school suspensions, 66 percent of out-of school suspensions and 50 percent of expulsion in the state’s school system.
Since more than 85 percent of the children we serve in Fulton County, DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta are African-Americans, we as an organization had to address this mistrust by bringing our children and local law enforcement officials together to develop a better understanding and to build trust so our children won’t become part of the above-mentioned statistics.
Communities In Schools of Atlanta is working with the DeKalb County Prosecutor’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to host the Straight Talk Student Forum at McNair Middle School. The program provides activities for CIS students twice per month, including discussions on topics such as gang, gun and family violence, internet safety, life skills and the importance of education. There’s potential for Straight Talk to conduct whole school assemblies at our high schools during which men, including former inmates and former DA’s, can engage in a forum style discussion about community-related violence prevention topics.
Straight Talk allows our students to develop positive relationships with law enforcement officials prior to a crime or incident occurring.
Frank Brown, Esq.
Communities In Schools of Atlanta
According to a new research bulletin from the Southern Education Foundation, low income students are now a majority of the children in America’s classrooms. The report found that on average 51 percent of students across the U.S. were low-income in 2013, as reported in a recent AJC Get Schooled blog.
Among the 21 states with majority of low-income students, Georgia placed seventh with 60 percent of kids of low-income.
The Southern Education Foundation research bulletin concluded:
“The trends of the last decade strongly suggest that little or nothing will change for the better if schools and communities continue to postpone addressing the primary question of education in America today: what does it take and what will be done to provide low income students with a good chance to succeed in public schools? It is a question of how, not where, to improve the education of a new majority of students. If this new majority of students fail in school, an entire state and an entire region will fail simply because there will be inadequate human capital in Southern states to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy. It is that simple.”
During the 2013-2014 academic year, 79 percent of students at our Fulton County partner schools qualified for free or reduced price lunches, while 73 percent of students qualified in our DeKalb County partner schools.
CIS of Atlanta organizes its service delivery within a framework of six focus areas that are critical to students’ success in school, including supporting academic and career enrichment, improving student attendance and behavior, providing support to families to meet basic needs, increasing parent engagement with their child’s education, and increasing community partnerships.
We recognize that in order for children to succeed in school, they must have their basic needs met. Students and families at our 17 CIS schools have access to a variety of support services, including a CIS Emergency Fund that allows families to pay rent, utilities, clothing, food or critical health care services in a time of crisis. Last school year, 40 families in CIS partner schools received emergency grants totaling more than $12,500!
We assist with several common and unique family situations. Like the two ninth- grade siblings who were referred to CIS services by their school counselor for uniform assistance. However, after meeting with the siblings’ mother, who was on long-term disability, the family was also in need of school supplies and food assistance. CIS of Atlanta provided $250 to support the students’ academic and personal needs. Due to CIS Emergency Fund assistance, the siblings became compliant with the school’s uniform policy and they averted negative consequences.
Similarly, we recently worked with a single mother of a high school student who began experiencing financial hardship due to her work hours being reduced. With a total of three children- including a newborn and a child in college- she became short on her rent payment. CIS of Atlanta’s Emergency Fund was able to provide financial support to the family and the high school student was able to focus on his academics and improve his behavior.
Georgia Legal Services recently compiled discipline statistics from all Georgia school districts and found disturbing inequalities in the punishments handed out to black students. According to a Dec. 27, 2014 article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, consistent research and data show black students are punished more severely for even mild transgressions.
For all the attention placed on problems that black boys face in terms of school discipline and criminal justice, there is increasing focus on the way those issues affect black girls as well.
Check out the New York Times story about one extraordinary metro Atlanta school discipline case in which a black female student and her friend were guilty of vandalism for writing graffiti on the wall of a gym bathroom. The black female student’s family could not pay the $100 in restitution, so the student faced a school disciplinary hearing and a visit from the local Sheriff’s Department who served her grandmother papers accusing her of trespassing misdemeanor and, potentially, a felony. Her friend, who is white, was let go after her parents paid restitution.
This type of disparate treatment is not a unique case, but messages at school are sent daily that actions by African-American children must be punished more severely than those by white children. It’s little wonder that the same dynamic plays out when those children are grown and confronting each other on the street.
At Communities In Schools of Atlanta, we’ve been proven to reduce the number of school suspensions among the students we serve. We reached over 1,300 students with intensive case management services in the 2013-2014 academic year, of which 85.3% were African-American.
In DeKalb County, 64% of caseload students had multiple out-of-school suspensions during the prior school year. However, by the end of 2013-2014, the numbers were reversed and 61% of our caseload students had NO suspensions during the school year.
How do we get such results? Our site coordinators provide integrated student services based on individualized plans developed through discussions with students and parents. For example, of the 371 CIS caseload students served in Fulton County schools, 77% students received some form of service from CIS intended to improve behavior, including incentive programs, individual counseling and group activities.
Our results show that our students improve their behavior, stay in school and get promoted. We invite you to join our efforts because together we will continue to improve outcomes for at-risk students and help #ChangeThePicture of education in our communities across the country.
Frank Brown, Esq.
Communities In Schools of Atlanta