Communities In Schools (CIS), the organization that funds in-school counselors to support at-risk students, first arrived in Texas via Houston in 1979. Known for its familiar, upbeat motto, “We Keep Kids in School,” CIS was born from ’60s “street academies” in New York City where dropouts were given a second chance to complete high school.

CIS grew to serving nearly 3,000 students in three states by the end of the ’70s. When then-Gov. Mark White sought to create a statewide public education system in 1984, he adopted CIS as one of the model programs to help bolster at-risk students’ chances for academic success.

CIS expanded into Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio. Then-Mayor Henry Cisneros and wife Mary Alice championed the program, especially in the city’s inner city public schools in an effort to help reduce the dropout rate.

CIS launched here in 1985 as Communities in Schools-San Antonio (CISSA) at two Edgewood Independent School District campuses.

Now operating locally in 78 schools and 11 school districts, CISSA is expanding to alternative educational outlets, and into the more rural reaches of the county.

Representatives and supporters of Communities In Schools-San Antonio gathered Monday at the Omni San Antonio Hotel at the Colonnade to help celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary.

Community in Schools  founder and Vice Chairman Bill Milliken
Community in Schools founder and Vice Chairman Bill Milliken

Special guests included the Cisneros’ and Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4), a CISSA alumnus. But arguably the biggest star in the room was Bill Milliken, the founder and vice chairman of Communities In Schools.

Saldaña spoke about his experience with CISSA. About 17 years ago, the then-South San High School student was introduced to the local group’s TRiO Upward Bound program. Upward Bound aids high school students from low-income families and families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.

A Spanish-speaking Saldaña learned to speak English before graduating kindergarten. He overcame whatever academic challenges he faced as a youth. But CISSA helped place him in a prime position for future educational and professional success.

(Read More: Rey Saldaña’s Journey Home: South San to Stanford and Back)

Saldaña received a Gates Millennium full academic scholarship to attend Stanford University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and communication, and a master’s degree in policy, organization, and leadership studies.

Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks at a previous CISSA luncheon. Courtesy photo.
Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks at a previous CISSA luncheon. Courtesy photo.

“If there is any bigger tragedy in the United States, it’s untapped potential,” Saldaña said at the CISSA celebration luncheon. “Communities In Schools is unlocking potential for thousands of people.”

Henry and Mary Alice served as honorary luncheon co-chairs. He called Saldaña a “great community leader, all thanks to CIS.”

Mary Alice and Henry Cisneros. Courtesy photos.
Mary Alice and Henry Cisneros. Courtesy photo.

“I knew it was the right thing to do in welcoming CIS. It was an innovative way to engage kids in school,” Cisneros said.

Aside from remaining highly involved with Communities In Schools, Milliken has written four books, including “The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic!” He has served under three U.S. presidents, and received numerous honors related to education and public service.

He recalled on Monday his time as a grassroots activist in the early ’60s, working with disadvantaged youth in Harlem. Many teenagers were abandoning school because of a lack of basic life resources and support, he said.

“We actually started outside the system and put up these storefront schools for kids who had already dropped out. But I came to the conclusion that we needed to get to them before they drop out,” Milliken said.

“So in the ’70s I went inside the system to see if these schools could get those resources so that teachers could teach and kids could keep going.”

These are the challenges that CISSA faces. According to the Texas Education Agency’s 2012-2013 Region 20 performance report, one out of two San Antonio area students faces roadblocks to academic success.

Communities In Schools works by placing one or two site coordinators on a participating campus, serving students there every school day. CISSA works with more than 70 community partners – businesses, organizations – to provide students with essential resources.

As a result of its local efforts, CISSA serves more than 7,000 case-managed students annually with 94% improving in academics, behavior and attendance. In 2013-2014, 95% of eligible students served by CISSA graduated, and 99% of the served students stayed in school.

Nationwide, Communities In Schools serves nearly 1.5 million students and their families at more than 3,250 schools and education sites. A group of business leaders, educators, philanthropists and nonprofit executives guide the nonprofit CIS.

The Communities in Schools brigade during the 2014 MLK March. Photo courtesy of CIS Facebook page.
The Communities in Schools brigade during the 2014 MLK March. Photo courtesy of CIS Facebook page.

Milliken said officials with CIS national have a board retreat every other year to address how to reach and serve at-risk students that could benefit from the organization’s offerings.

“The goal is to reach all children. We’re going to have to do that through partnerships and training, pass on what we’ve learned,” Milliken said.

CISSA impacts the lives of students of a wide variety of ages and backgrounds.

While elected officials, parents, educational professionals and other stakeholders in communities nationwide grapple with issues such as dropout rates and access to resources, CIS can continue to carve a niche for itself in the 21st century, Milliken said.

“I think it’s just the beginning for us. The whole notion of wrap-around services, integrated services – these are words we were using years ago and now others are beginning to use and see,” Milliken said.

“People are realizing ways and systems need to be integrated, that if you keep building these fragmented systems, we’re never going to get to the kids.”

Milliken said the key person, in this case, is the “relational router” – the site coordinator who’s been trained to triage students who may be on the cusp of leaving school.

“Maybe some kids have had a tragedy in their family, or others who needs lots of care and service,” he said. “To have somebody there on campus, using all the available resources and bringing them together, is crucial.”

Luncheon attendees viewed a brief video in which three current CISSA students explained how their respective site coordinator, in addition to teachers and staff, helped them to overcome academic and personal obstacles.

CISSA did not release the last names of the showcased students: Alexandra from Harlandale Middle School, Jorge from John Jay High School, and Victoria from Loma Park Elementary School.

Victoria talked about how one family member’s battle with cancer distressed her to the point of falling behind on academics, and struggling to relate to her peers. Alexandra spoke of overcoming various barriers after she and her family moved here from Mexico. Jorge described falling in with a bad crowd.

Joined by their respective site coordinator, each student said he or she looks forward to a bright educational future due in part to Communities In Schools. Alexandra said she wants to be an immigration lawyer. Victoria plans to graduate from college. Jorge aspires to study mechanical engineering in college. Alamo Colleges did its part to help these specific students by giving them each a $1,000 educational award.

“Communities In Schools has helped me to realize my dreams and my goals are possible,” Alexandra said during the presentation.

People left inspired, celebrating 30 years of important work in San Antonio and knowing the work of CISSA going forward will be more important than ever.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.