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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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My First Semester as a CIS Project Manager

Alfi Thazhathel is a new Project Manager serving in Crowley ISD.

I joined Communities In Schools in fall of 2013 as a Project Manager, eager to begin my career in Social Work, especially working with students at a school.

The training sessions were intense–it seemed like there was so much information to absorb! My fellow co-workers encouraged me along the way, reassuring me and empowering me as I moved toward my first day working inside the school.

On my first day at North Crowley 9th Grade Campus, I was introduced to the school staff, a friendly group who welcomed me with open arms. I truly enjoy working with each and every staff member. They make me feel as if I am making a difference and a vital part of the school’s team. Similarly, the students at the school are very respectful and understand that I am there to help them succeed. In just a short time, we have developed strong relationships–they view me as someone who is always there for them.

Even in a short time, there have been many successes to celebrate.  I have coordinated school-wide events, class field trips, and other activities for the students. I have provided effective individual services and case management, with many students showing improvements in grades, attendance, and behavior. Low self-esteem and anger are prevalent at my school, and group sessions with students who struggle in these areas are already proving very successful at addressing the issues.

As with any job, there are some challenges, mainly paperwork! It can be difficult to keep up with intense documentation as time flies by each day. However, a critical part of the CIS model is accountability and tracking the effective and performance outcomes of our program. Student data allows us to analyze our practices, improve where needed, and monitor students’ progress throughout the year. Another challenge is finding adequate time to meet with the students, to provide them with the in-depth support we desire for them. We are constantly trying to strike a balance between providing them with the support they need for individual or group sessions without interrupting classroom time.

Despite the challenges, I truly enjoy going to work every day. I can see the difference I am making. Seeing students come in to my office with a frown and leaving with a smile truly makes my day. The dream I had of making a difference in the lives of young people is slowly coming true. I am thankful to be a part of the CIS team.

Alfi J. Thazhathel, LMSW


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Happy New Year

Believe it or not, it is 2012. With the start of the new year here at CIS we are saying goodbye to a close friend, Yvette Hanshaw who has helped CIS grow into 38 schools in seven school districts. She accepted the position of Director of Development for the College of Communication at TCU. We already miss her smiling face.

We are also saying hello to a new school, Sharrod Elementary School in Arlington. We are interviewing now to find the perfect social worker for that school.

As we returned from the holiday break, we also learned that two of our staff members are now engaged! Congratulations to Myra McGlothen and Alejandra Morado…….2012 will be a big year for the two of you.

One last thought – In our December e-newsletter we asked for help to restore the right ear for one of our elementary school students who was born without the outside part of her ear. Her family needed about $5,000 to move the process forward and we received generous gifts that moved them closer to that goal. Members of the extended CIS family always seem to come through when we need them. Thank you for your generosity.

Have a happy and prosperous new year.

-Mike Steele, President & CEO


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The Holidays

The holiday season is a time of reflection and thanks. Family is always my first thought, but I am lucky enough to have a great family at work too. That family includes our Board members…..all of whom came to us because of their passion to help kids and specifically to help them secure an education……the kind of help that lasts a lifetime and into future generations. But at this time of year, my heart really goes out to our staff. None of these wonderful people are here because of great salaries. CIS people, social workers, financial, marketing and other office staff find their way to CIS and stay with CIS because they know CIS is making a difference in the lives of thousands of kids and their families. It is not everybody who is lucky enough to get paid for doing something that they really love. I am thankful for the opportunity to be associated with so many wonderful and dedicated people. Those of you who know me know that I love my job……you hear me say it all the time. I also hear it from CIS people all the time. So I want to wish a very happy holiday season to everybody in the CIS family…..a very special family.

– Mike Steele, CEO


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Aim Higher. Fight Harder.

I was very blessed to always have the support of my parents when I was in school. My parents have always encouraged me to be better than them; to aim higher and fight harder. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and continue on to get a college degree. I am the new Marketing and Special Events Coordinator at CIS (8 days strong) and I am excited to be part of such an incredible agency.

During my initial interview, Yvette Handshaw, Vice President and Chief Development Officer, shared a student’s success story with me and I wanted to ask her if it was okay to cry! I was so inspired and touched by the story I had to choke back my tears. I’m pretty sure it’s not appropriate to cry during an interview. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be part of CIS.

In my position I will be working with committees, board members and other staff to bring awareness to CIS and raise money so we can keep Tarrant County kids in school. I am here to do my part so that our at-risk students can aim higher and fight harder too.

– Alejandra Morado
Marketing & Special Events Coordinator


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Tarrant County in 2030: What does this mean for education?

Every 10 years, the U.S. government sets out to count all of the people in the country. This helps our leaders to ensure that money is allocated fairly – that there are the right roads, houses, infrastructure  and most importantly the right number of schools. The 2010 census showed that Tarrant County was the fastest growing county in Texas at 25% (Fort Worth outpaced all major metro areas in Texas at 38.6%). This growth rate was driven by growth in the Hispanic population but saw increases in African American and Asian population as well. This resulted in more multicultural cities and suburbs. On the whole, a lot to be excited about.

But there is something else to these numbers. More than 28.3% of the population is under the age of 18 (meaning that they are school aged and need public education). Additionally, 8.5% of the population is under the age of 5 – meaning that they need preschool and Head Start education to get them onto the right track. Some other notes:

  • 21.2% of children live in poverty
  • Black and Hispanic children are three times more likely to live in poverty that white children
  • 13% children receive SSI
  • 29% drop out of high school
  • 59% of Tarrant County’s students are economically disadvantaged (and that is rising as a result of the recession)

The bottom line is that there are a lot of school aged students in Tarrant County who need help. Many of them are at risk of being left behind. Their economic disadvantage translates into lower TAKS passage rates especially in math and reading. Getting left behind in school leads to increased dropouts. And high school dropouts are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as graduates thus repeating the cycle.

One of the key ideas to this census data is that with this growth comes more students just like the students we are currently serving in Tarrant County. Students who will need help to stay in school and be successful. Our state’s economic prosperity depends on an educated and effective work force. Our state’s liberty depends on having responsible citizens.

What will Tarrant County look like in 2030? Undoubtedly it will be larger, more diverse, more non-English speaking, and more spread out geographically. By 2030, estimates show that Texas will add 13.6 million people – the equivalent of adding another DFW, San Antonio, Houston and Corpus Christi.

What will that mean for education?

– Stacy Landreth Grau, Ph.D.
CIS Board Member
Neeley School of Business and Texas Christian University
Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Marketing

(Sources: Texas Kids Count (www.stateoftexaschildren.org); 2007-2009 American Community Survey, US Census Bureau; Texas Education Agency; Intercultural development research association; US Census Bureau; Texas County Profile by the County Information Project, Texas Association of Counties; Looming Boom: Texas Through 2030 by James P. Gaines January 2008)