The education nonprofit Communities in Schools wants to provide their services in every Title I eligible school in the country, and, thanks to a recent $165 million investment, they are about to be 1,000 schools closer to that goal. 

Rey Saldaña, the president and CEO of the nonprofit, former member of the San Antonio City Council and Communities in Schools graduate, sees the grant from the Ballmer Group as a step toward a “rich vision for public education” that puts an emphasis on serving the whole child, rather than just academics.

Saldaña gave the keynote address at the National Education Conference’s Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award luncheon Friday. The two award recipients were Avis Williams, a superintendent from New Orleans and Brenda Elliott, chief of the office of school improvements and supports with the District of Columbia Public Schools.

“The vision can’t just be about reading and math achievements,” he said during the speech. “Those are noble goals. They’re challenging, but they’re not comprehensive enough to meet the moment of crisis in our communities. They’re not comprehensive enough to meet the attacks on public education.”

San Antonio-area schools could be getting added services as part of the investment after already adding services to 50 schools since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to San Antonio Communities in Schools CEO Jessica Weaver. 

The organization brings community resources into schools by embedding a trained local coordinator whose sole focus is helping connect students with additional support to help them learn, advance in grade level and graduate. 

Those resources could be a variety of things, Weaver said, from mental health professionals to food pantries, or groups like Girl Scouts that partner to bring a variety of experiences into under-resourced schools.

“There might be entities or partners, that really, that’s not their model is to be in the school, but they would love to be able to serve students,” Weaver said. “So we can make those connections, and we can expand those resources to our kids.”

The program began with four schools in San Antonio in 1985 to embedding in 160 schools with another 100 schools utilizing the program for mental health supports.

Nationwide, the organization serves more than 1.8 million children in 3,270 school and community sites in 25 states and the District of Columbia. The new grant will expand that reach to almost 4,000 schools and an additional half million children per year. 

But to Saldaña, the organization was “just Mrs. Reyes,” referring to Gladys Gradilla, formerly Gladys Reyes, the coordinator with whom he built a relationship over three years at South San High School. She would later help him successfully apply to Stanford University. 

He credits those early conversations with his future success, and going on to be elected as the youngest City Council member in San Antonio’s history. He later became the regional advocacy director for the Raise Your Hand Texas foundation and the chairman of the VIA Metropolitan Board of Trustees.

“She is the reason for me, in many ways, beginning to see a future that I hadn’t ever even thought of for myself,” he said of Reyes. 

Current City Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia is also a graduate of the program.

With the world of education facing unprecedented challenges from mental health needs to staffing shortages and political division, Saldaña said Communities in Schools is facing new challenges, as well.

“There is a net that we are trying to build inside schools,” he said. “And at the same time that we’re trying to envision that, to respond to what the real community challenges are, there’s also pushback. There’s also attacks about a more narrow vision of what schools should be.”

The rich vision is the best answer to that pushback he said, changing the system to serve all students equally.

“Our argument is that we should change the system inside schools to not just teach students to survive these odds, but to level the playing field,” he said. “We need to build schools that are hubs of community support and we need to find the caring adults inside schools who see our students and find them when life throws an unexpected curveball.”

Steve Ballmer of the Ballmer Group, which made the $165 million grant, said the investment is a way to show what investing in public education can do.

“This investment is designed to show how school site coordinators using the CIS model can meet students’ needs on an ongoing basis in order to improve high school graduation rates and, ultimately, economic mobility,” Ballmer said in a statement. “With schools being asked to do more than ever, CIS has demonstrated how important it is to have dedicated staff who receive comprehensive supports to ensure K-12 students and families have access to high quality resources that meet pressing needs in real-time and help overcome barriers to learning in the classroom.” 

The Ballmer Group was co-founded by philanthropist Connie Ballmer and her husband Steve, who is the former CEO of Microsoft, founder of USAFacts and chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Saldaña said the investment from the Ballmer Group was just a start.

“This is the idea of investing millions to unlock billions,” he said. “Really, it is this question of building momentum for real-time resources, real-time relationships inside schools at a time that schools need more help than they ever have.”