Education · Social Work

Helping students achieve academic success, one barrier at a time.

I work for an awesome agency. Communities In Schools is the nation’s largest dropout prevention agency. I hate saying it that way, so here’s a more positive spin: Our mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. Our goal is to ensure that every child graduates from high school (tall order, I know), and we work towards that goal by connecting students to support services, enrichment experiences and community resources to help alleviate barriers that are hindering their academic success. Wow. I as read what I just wrote, I am overcome by what a ginormous task that is. We don’t downplay our jobs as easy. We are up against a lot of risk factors when it comes to the students that we work with.


First, there are individual risk factors:

  • Has a learning disability or emotional disturbance
  • High number of work hours
  • Parenthood
  • High-risk peer group
  • High-risk social behavior
  • Highly socially active outside of school
  • Low achievement
  • Retention/overage for grade
  • Poor attendance
  • Low educational expectations
  • Lack of effort
  • Low commitment to school
  • No extracurricular participation
  • Misbehavior
  • Early aggression

I have students that can check off just about all of these boxes. Of course, the more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to go down the dropout road, or so research says. But do you know what can help kick these risk factors to the curb? The CIS Five Basics, which was created by our founder, Bill Milliken.

  • The First Basic: A one-on-one relationship with a caring adult
  • The Second Basic: A safe place to learn and grow
  • The Third Basic: A healthy start and a healthy future.
  • The Fourth Basic: A marketable skill to use upon graduation.
  • The Fifth Basic: A chance to give back to peers and community.

Do you know why mentoring programs get federal funding, and lots of grant money, in general? Mentoring is an evidence-based practice that leads to positive outcomes in young people. That first basic is essential. Can you recall an adult in your young life that made a difference? I’m guessing that there is at least one person who made an impact on you. Think about these young people, with lives full of risks factors. Having just one positive person in their life, even if they only see them once a week for an hour, is more than huge. It’s epic. It’s like having your own personal motivator. Someone who believes in you, provides you with real-life experiences and reality checks, offers suggestions and helps you with decision-making. Someone who points our your strengths, is real with you about your screw-ups, but helps you learn from them instead of making you feel like trash. Mentors are major.

Moving on. One thing I have learned since starting this position in 2012, is that dropping out of school is not an event. A child does not wake up one day and say “Hey, today’s a great day to ruin my future!” That goes for most of the decisions they make on a daily basis. What we have discovered through research, is that dropping out of school is a process, and it begins early. There is a huge push now for reading fluency and comprehension by third grade. Obviously, third graders still have much to learn in the way of the written word, but to be able to read, and not struggle with it, is highly important by the time a child finishes third grade. That is because up until third grade, you are learning to read. After third grade, you are reading to learn.

Think about it. What subject, or any area of life, can you get by without reading? Nada. Zip. Zilch. Not even math. So when a student is not on level with reading skills, due to any of the risk factors above or something else that is adversely affecting his concentration, then that child is setting out on a long and arduous journey  through his/her education. Children get discouraged and frustrated when they don’t understand things, and many of them do not ask for assistance when they need it. Therefore, many children get by with the bare minimum, yet their skills are still below where they should be. And it compounds every single year.

I work with 7th and 8th graders and I am honestly shocked by the lack of writing, vocabulary and reading skills in some of them. Many of them are getting support classes in the big areas like math and reading, and while that is definitely needed, I question how effective it is overall. I also wonder how much their confidence is affected by their lower skill level. It can only lead to fewer questions being asked, less homework being done due to not understanding, less risks being taken as a learner. I see it all the time in the kids I work with.

Likewise, kids these days don’t seem to have high frustration tolerance, which reminds me of my 9 month old. Now that is a child that goes from zero to 60 when you don’t get the bottle in his mouth in the allotted 4.5 milliseconds. This low frustration tolerance leads them to giving up very easily. They are also so afraid to fail. Where is this pressure coming from? Society. Parents. Schools. Siblings. Neighbors. People at the grocery store. The MEDIA. All of the above and then some. Mistakes are proof that you are trying. This is a key phrase I use over and over again. We have to let these kids know that life is full of ups and downs. We are never going to perfect at anything, even if we are super talented. Perfection doesn’t exist. We just have to be as good as we can be, and that involves trying our best every single day. I also wish students weren’t so afraid to ask for help. They are embarrassed, prideful, fearful, etc.

Next, I will delve into the family and community side of my job.

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