Making the Grade: Program aids learning by providing kids’ basic needs

Education experts know there’s a lot more to learning than lessons. Students’ lives outside the classroom have a significant impact on how they perform in school, but teachers and administrators often lack the resources to address problems such as poverty and hunger.

Knowing how key outside support can be, a group of concerned citizens launched the Communities in School program back in 1972. At the time, it was called “Street School” and operated out of the Rich’s department store basement and, later, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Midtown.

“We keep hearing we’re a best-kept secret, even though we’ve been around for 40 years,” said Frank Brown, an attorney who took over the organization’s helm three years ago. “Our mission has always been to surround children with community support to get them to stay in school and achieve. Our goal is to knock out the nonacademic barriers that keep children from coming to school – health care, clothing, food, you name it – and we work with partners to bring those resources into the schools.”

When Jimmy Carter went to the White House, the program launched a national office in D.C., and the concept quickly spread to 26 states. It currently serves about 1.5 million students, and metro Atlanta is one of the top 10 affiliates, working with 65 schools in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. In Atlanta, the focus has been on helping the approximately 1,400 students impacted by the district’s cheating scandal, many of whom are in the lowest performing elementary schools.

“We put a full-time person in each school,” said Brown. “If we find we have 15 or 20 kids experiencing the same problems – smoking, risky behavior – we do group interventions. We do parental workshops and economic interventions. If a parent comes and says the lights are off or the water got cut off, we do whatever keeps that child from being in a chaotic, unstable home. We then connect families with social services so we’re not just doing ‘whack-a-mole.’ We want to galvanize the family to help those students graduate.”

Brown says 92 percent of students the program has supported stay in school, get promoted and graduate. His goal for 2021 is to boost that percentage to 95. At the West End Academy, CIS site coordinator Lisa Wilson is working to make that happen by offering tutorials, job placement assistance, internships and help to teen parents.

“I work with girls on life and leadership skills and meet with them twice a month in school to talk about real-life issues,” said Wilson. “We have a partnership with Ebeneezer Church to do a life-skills session and some community service once a month. We get students experiences that will place them in jobs. And I am constantly going into the community looking for resources.”

One of those resources is the Hank Aaron Foundation that provides scholarships to students who need clothes for job interviews or a place to stay. West End Principal Evelyn Mobley calls CIS “merchants of hope.”

“They have resources I don’t,” she said. “They have helped students who tell me they don’t know where they’re going to sleep that night, they’ve paid utility bills, they’ve gotten students shelter during holidays. Removing barriers so our children can learn is a big deal and they do an awesome job.”

CIS’s impact has been measurable, Mobley adds. “We’ve seen a 4 to 5 percent increase in our graduation rate, so we’re moving the needle with students who would have been dropouts. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. “

Brown said the secret to CIS’s success works in every school situation. “We love on children to help them see that achieving educationally is the way to a better life.”

Information about the Communities in Schools program: