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It's In You.


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Mythbusters

Unlike our slightly whacky friends on the TV series Myth Busters, I offer you no exploding crash dummies, no spontaneous combustion, no free falls from deadly heights…just the facts. Here at CIS as we tell the Communities In Schools story, we come across some interesting myths. While most are understandable, some must have their roots in Comic-Con legends. Here are some fun myths/facts:

  1. CIS is part of Fort Worth ISD. CIS here in Tarrant County owes its beginnings to Fort Worth ISD because Trustees allowed CIS its first shot at establishing credibility inside two Fort Worth high schools and we are still serving them 23 years later …But no, CIS is not part of Fort Worth ISD. CIS is an independent non-profit organization that now serves 46 schools in 10 school districts. BUSTED!
  2. CIS picks the students we serve. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Educators inside our schools pick (actually refer and recommend are better terms) our students based on their observations of risk factors and student/family needs. To further dispel this myth, CIS is required by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to provide hard documentation that the students we serve meet TEA at-risk criteria. BUSTED!
  3. TEA pays for CIS programs. Well, if 15 cents on the dollar is “paying for” CIS, then yes. The truth is that Legislative funding for CIS is administered by TEA. Here in Tarrant County, school districts pay about half of the costs for their CIS programs, TEA pays for about 15% and the remaining 35% is generously provided by local community organizations, foundations and individuals. So no, TEA does not pay for CIS programs. BUSTED!
  4. CIS social workers come from the planet Krypton and are more powerful than locomotives, can leap tall buildings in a single bound and are faster than speeding bullets. Well, the powerful locomotive part is of course correct, but the rest…maybe not so much. Miracle workers – yes; angels – probably so, but super-heroes from Krypton? No; much more down-to-earth and real than that. BUSTED!
  5. CIS is dropout prevention; students drop out of high schools, so CIS is a high school program. This one is partially true. CIS serves students in 16 high schools, but the remaining 30 schools are middle and junior high schools and elementary schools. Why? Because dropping out of school is not an “event” that happens in high school. It is a “process” that begins in early childhood. Our goal is to interrupt that process all along the way so that the dropout event never takes place. BUSTED!
  6. CIS is a school. Oh my! Not even close to our skill set. We do the things inside schools that professional educators wish they could do for students and families but cannot. BUSTED!
  7. CIS chooses the schools we serve. Superintendents and Principals know which schools need a CIS program and they set their priorities for expanding CIS into additional schools. Our job is to raise the matching funding so that we can say YES when they ask for new programs. BUSTED!
  8. CIS is a great place to work. It turns out that the votes are in on this one. CIS has been recognized by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce as a “best workplace for women” in the mid-size company category. TRUE!
  9. CIS is the largest employer of social workers in Tarrant County. This is true also and we are always looking for the next great social worker(s). Apply now. Visit our website at www.cistarrant.org for more information. TRUE!

These last two are not really myths, but I just couldn’t pass up a chance to reach out to some great social workers. I hope this helps to clear up some misconceptions, but let us know if you have questions.

– Mike Steele, President and CEO of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County


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Research-Based “Warm Fuzzies”?

If you have even a passing acquaintance with Communities In Schools, you know that CIS is based on decades of research about why young people drop out of school and what it takes to keep that from happening. This research drives the CIS program model. The model is school-based. It is a comprehensive, wrap-around service approach that depends heavily on collaborative support from dozens of partner organizations who are experts in their own fields. It serves not just students, but whole families. In educational circles, the concept is known as integrated student services.

We also talk a lot about “intensity” and we implement the CIS model in ways that maximize the number and regularity of interactions with individual students. This supports the understanding that occasional brushes with caring adults don’t change the courses of young lives. In fact, our founder Bill Milliken puts it best when he says “Programs don’t change people; relationships change people”.  And this, you may think, is where the research-based stuff goes out the window and the “warm fuzzies” begin. But wait! Not so fast, my friend.

Paul Tough’s 2012 book called “How Children Succeed” recounts the work of numerous other researchers. For decades, society has worked under the premise that cognitive ability (how much we know) was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. But, it turns out that certain psychological traits were more reliable predictors of what allowed high school students to make it through to graduation. Those traits, including an inclination to persist at boring and often unrewarding tasks, the ability to delay gratification, the tendency to follow through on a plan…also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace and in life in general. This led to some obvious questions like, why do some young people have these traits and some don’t? Can these traits be taught and learned? How?

Most answers turned out to be rooted in childhood development and the medical fields of neuroendocrinology (the study of how hormones interact with the brain) and stress physiology (the study of how stress affects the body). Don’t bail on me here…I promise to stay in the shallow end of the research pool.

Scientists have reached a consensus that the key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress. Cascading chemical signals through the brain and the body are triggered in reaction to intense situations…..stress. In fact, the evolutionary rush of chemicals designed to save our life from lions on the savanna, is a massive and damaging over-reaction to the stresses of the 21st century. What was designed to give us a momentary surge of protective energy is activated for months on end as stresses about hunger, homelessness, family violence, abuse, grief and loss, and countless other stressors that overwhelm some children. Eventually, stress-management systems overload and break down under the chemical strain. Stress physiologists have found a biological result of this phenomenon as well. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which is critical to self-regulatory activities of all kinds. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And all of these have a direct impact on their success in school.

These self-regulatory processes are generally referred to as executive functions. Here is where the research shakes hands with CIS. The reason that researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success. Furthermore, it turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects for early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators. Parents and substitute or supplemental family figures (hello CIS social workers) who are able to form close, nurturing relationships can foster resilience in children that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment and can even reverse the chemical imbalance that caused the damage. Executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.

So it seems that close, nurturing relationships do not just make for happier children. Research indicates that kids with these relationships are also be more likely to graduate from high school, to stay out of jail, to delay pregnancy, and to have more positive relationships with their own children…breaking family cycles of damage due to childhood stress. For those of us at Communities In Schools, this is changing the picture of education; one student and one family at a time.

Using words like “relationships” can sound all warm and fuzzy but in fact, even this part of CIS is rooted in cold, hard science. The effect is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical. Yes…research-based warm fuzzies. Who knew?

– Mike Steele, President & CEO, Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County


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Tidbits for Thought

CIS is about keeping kids in school because we believe education determines our future. Hopefully this is one thing that everyone can agree on – at least at some level. Keeping kids in school may be the biggest opportunity to change the things that need to be changed and create a future that is rich in independence, confidence and the desire to be self-sufficient.

There are several challenges that get in the way of children’s success and make staying in school difficult.  Most of them don’t have anything to do with the work required in school but rather the nurturing of the heart and dealing with basic needs of life.  Teaching is about engaging the brain and heart and requires different kinds of resources – maybe more than one teacher can present. The heart is as critical as the brain to performance, wellness, and emotional stability.  When children find meaning in their life, and have a mentor to help them define their path and deal with the obstacles they are confronted with, they learn to be independent and learn to succeed in life.

Questions I ask myself:
1.       Doesn’t it make sense to seek out children in need and create an environment that nurtures the heart so we can engage the brain?
2.       Does the combination of CIS Social Workers and quality teachers in our school district provide the best approach for dealing with the life challenges that get in the way of education?
3.       How do children in a negative environment, with no mentor to help them find meaning in their life, find the way to create a future for themselves and build confidence?
4.       Can we change “takers,” those people looking for someone to give them something, into “contributors” by providing an environment that nurtures and teaches independence and self-sufficiency?

The concept of helping others to help themselves is far from new.  A basic example that we have all heard, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”, is what  this is about and, we need to find a way to begin teaching children why “learning to fish” will prepare them to improve their future.

The problem isn’t access to education, it’s helping children and families overcoming the obstacles and helping them to understand the relevance of education and it’s positive effect on our future.  We should be asking the questions “What do you want your future to be? What do you want it to be for your children, your community, your world?”

-Michelle Jenkins, CIS Board Member