Communities in Schools Site Coordinator, Ms. Garcia, stands with Amanda, a Dwight Middle School Student. Photo courtesy of CIS.
Communities in Schools Site Coordinator, Ms. Garcia, stands with Amanda, a Dwight Middle School Student. Photo courtesy of CIS.

AT&T believes in the Communities in Schools (CIS) mission and effectiveness. That’s why the telecommunications giant has invested $4.5 million in CIS nationwide, $134,00 of which goes to CIS San Antonio. The grant will be used to continue to support full time site coordinators at Roosevelt High School in NEISD and Lanier HS in SAISD.

The position at Lanier is a relatively new one for CIS. This is only the second year that the school has had a full-time site coordinator.

“Without (the grant) we really would not have been at Lanier,” said Jessica Weaver, CEO of CIS San Antonio.

The grant is part of AT&T’s Aspire program, which supports innovations in education aimed at high school completion and job readiness. Since its inception in 2008, the program has awarded $250 million in grants to school districts, institutions of higher learning, and non-profits like CIS. Other partners include Big Brothers Big Sisters, City Year, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, among many others.

Currently CIS San Antonio maintains a presence at 81 schools in 11 districts across Bexar County. Schools like Lanier, with staggering poverty rates require more consistency and holistic support than a part time or shared site coordinator can give.

“The poverty that the families are facing brings different obstacles,” said Weaver.

Students from Thomas Edison High School thanks Communities in Schools. Photo courtesy of CIS' Facebook Page.
Students from Thomas Edison High School thank Communities in Schools. Photo courtesy of CIS’ Facebook Page.

CIS’s mission is to make sure those obstacles don’t become the reason kids drop out, a mission that aligns closely with AT&T’s Aspire program.

“We have a lot of respect for the work CIS is doing on the campus,” said Renee Flores, AT&T regional vice president for legislative and external affairs.

Flores sees the program as an investment for AT&T. The company currently employs 29,000 people, and they need more. Like many tech employers, they are having a hard time finding the skilled workforce they need. Cultivating a diverse pipeline of STEM-educated potential employees is a priority. Nearly 75% of recent student hires have come from tech fields. Aspire has targeted some STEM programs such as Girls Who Code. As part of the White House ConnectED initiative, the company is also committed to providing $100 million worth of free mobile broadband access and tech support to selected Title 1 schools.

These initiatives also build a tech savvy customer base for AT&T, Flores said. Students who see the benefits of connectivity are going to need products and services to facilitate that in the future.

Because their investment is not merely altruistic, but also pragmatic, AT&T wants to see results.

“We are looking for measurable outcomes,” said Flores.

CIS has exactly the kind of track record Aspire is looking to support.

“I think (CIS) goes a long way toward getting students across the finish line,” said Flores.

The $4.5 million awarded this year will directly benefit 1.5 million students, according to officials. At Lanier HS, Christopher Christopher Cortez is responsible for 85 of them, and getting them across the finish line is exactly what he intends to do.

Christopher Cortez, Communities in Schools site coordinator at Lanier HS. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Christopher Cortez, Communities in Schools site coordinator at Lanier HS. Photo by Bekah McNeel Credit: Bekah McNeel for the San Antonio Report

Cortez’s day is shaped by target obstacles identified by Lanier HS’s leadership. SAISD requested a CIS site coordinator to assist with Gear Up at Lanier. The 2017 Gear Up cohort that Cortez inherited is made up of 85 juniors with a wide range of hurdles on the daily path to graduation.

Attendance was the first hurdle they identified. Cortez comes at the issue of chronic absence from every angle. Home visits, incentives, and accountability are nothing new, but he also tries to help students see their current habits as indicators of future success.

He asked one of his struggling students what she wanted to be when she graduated. She told him she wanted to be an RN.

Cortez painted a scenario of what might happen if a nurse was absent from her duties as often as this student was absent from class.

“Would you want to have you as a nurse?” he asked.

The message hit home.

Of course, Cortez acknowledges that it’s not always irresponsibility that keeps kids out of class. Sometimes it’s responsibilities, such as caring for siblings or holding down jobs to support their families. He tries to help families find solutions that don’t rely on their teenage children missing school.

This is one of many challenges students face in high poverty areas. Food insecurity is another, and for that Cortez enlists the help of the SA Food Bank. In his previous role at John Jay HS (NISD), he enlisted the participation of the mobile pantry, to great effect. Time and money are both tight for many families, the mobile pantry’s presence on campus helped them save both.

Cortez also sends students home with food for the weekend. He keeps a “clothes closet” of uniforms in his office, as well as numerous snacks.

Along with all the holistic support, CIS also focuses on academics.

“The majority of my caseload has failed one or more of the STAAR tests,” said Cortez.

He helps them follow up on core classes, and works with them in small groups for academic support.

Other small group meetings include XY-ZONE, a boys leadership group, and a girls’ support group. Both are led by Cortez, who serves as a positive male role model for many students who grew up without one. The vast majority of participants in these groups grew up without their fathers. Many, especially the girls, feel they have very few friends they can trust. Giving students a safe place to talk about the social obstacles to their education has a positive effect on students’ motivation and confidence as they set long-term goals.

The success of these initiatives is only possible through consistency. Cortez is at Lanier HS all day, every day. He can monitor attendance, because he is there when the students are not. He is there on the days when students don’t understand what the teacher covered in class. He is there every day, because the obstacles of poverty come up every day. 

Cortez, and all of CIS are committed to being there for the kids, from the beginning to the end.

“When it’s a tough day, we’re still there,” said Weaver.

*Top image: Communities in Schools Site Coordinator, Ms. Garcia, stands with Amanda, a Dwight Middle School Student. Photo courtesy of CIS.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.