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Relationship: The Stealth Reform

Our schools were not built to address poverty at as it stands today. In my city the rate of child poverty in the 1940s-1950s was closer to 20% than the 47% of functional poverty Black and Latino children face in Richmond, Virginia today. Welfare reform of the early 2000s created a system where parents aren’t fully supported unless they are working. However, the jobs for that many parents are qualified for do not increase their income enough to get them off of welfare. This, combined with the numerous challenges of living in poverty, create a situation that seems inescapable. This is where Communities in Schools comes in and how our schools can be transformed. Communities In Schools (CIS) is the nation's most successful dropout prevention organization serving at-risk youth in America. It is using a stealth approach to school reform that may just change the game by asking a simple question, “What if our schools focused more on relationships?” This past week I had the pleasure of participating in a discussion with Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, at the Leadership Metro Richmond symposium on January 14th at the University of Richmond. Cardinali made a key point about our schools that rang true with me. Our schools, built on a promise of economic and social mobility, were not built to provide this mobility on the scale we have today. However, by working in a collaborative fashion, CIS is leveraging the power of community resources to change lives in schools. They draw on organizations like the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, along with higher education resources and volunteers to connect students and families with people in their community who want to help. One of most powerful parts of the CIS methodology is that it builds these partnerships on the power of relationships. As Damon Jiggets, Executive Director of Peter Paul Development Center and formerly with CIS Richmond said, “Programs don’t save lives, relationships save lives.” CIS coordinators build relationships with students and families in order to find out what would help and then get them what they need. An example of their work is the video below.


Cardinali highlighted a key point about creating change in schools of poverty. In order to change the direction of a life you have to slow the decline. In the video above Seth Hill’s life doesn’t change overnight. First he entered an expulsion prevention program. The CIS coordinator got to know him and connected with him on a daily basis. Then a teacher suggested that Seth might benefit from a male role model. Seth’s mom was supportive. Finally, Seth started meeting with his mentor and he began to change course. However, he continued that relationship with the CIS coordinator.

This is how CIS operates. If the CIS coordinator had not talked with Seth’s teacher, if the coordinator had not reached out to another community organization, if Seth’s mom had not been involved in the process, it all could have failed. Every step of the change in Seth’s life was nurtured by a relationship. I have seen it happen again and again with my own students and families. Strong relationships are able to crumble systemic inequalities with simple tools like a kind word, a mentor, or even candy.
We can reform schools in a stealth way. If educators, community organizations, and parents start to focus on one key word to transform our schools --relationship-- we could challenge the status quo. We have seen the destructive power of language in the use of words like accountability, measurement, and data. What if we adopted a stealth reform that only required that we change our language and how we work together.

CIS operates in 26 states. That is not enough. We need community connectors in every high-poverty school in the country in order to lift up communities, not just test scores. As Dr. Harold Fitrer, President and CEO of CIS Richmond has said, “The reality is, we’re not going to fix our schools if we don’t fix our neighborhoods,” That won’t happen without community connectors like CIS site coordinators. Every school needs a person whose job it is to build relationships and connect resources. It could be a counselor, a teacher leader, a teacherpreneur, or a community volunteer. As Dan Cardinali suggested, “I have never seen a community that was not replete with enough resources to make a difference in the lives of families.” But, unless there is a bridge who can connect resources to students and families, we will continue to remake ourselves in the image of what we know, test scores, poverty, and excuses instead of possibility.

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Renee Moore commented on January 24, 2016 at 9:49pm:

Face of Hope

This story is so inspiring because it is so replicable. I've seen similar connections in local communities make life-changing differences for children. Yet, so many of these efforts remain a local program here, a crusading individual's effort over there. That CIS exists across several states is encouraging. Is there a way teachers or in an area not served by CIS can connect with them to help bring the program to their own area?

John Holland John Holland commented on January 29, 2016 at 8:59am:


Hi Renee,

I am going to forward your question on to our local affiliate CEO. Perhaps I can get you some information. 


Wendi Pillars commented on April 13, 2016 at 10:13am:


In order to change the direction of a life you have to slow the decline. 

This line made me really stop and think, John. This is critical. Instead of one-stop quick fixes to address the complexities of poverty, let's remember how our own most powerful relationships were fostered and nurtured over time. What's always difficult to reconcile with "time", though, is the sense of urgency and where to prioritize-- these are not "test kids", they are real, and this is their lives we are working with. The question then becomes a desperate "how?"

CIS seems to be finding that balance of gaining timely traction with the benefits of relationship depth. Please do share any info on how to replicate these ideals in our own areas.  

Thanks for your post. 

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