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Natural Awakenings National

An Interview with Bill Milliken: Founder of Communities in Schools and author of The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic

Jun 10, 2011 12:03PM ● By Linda Sechrist

What is Communities in Schools (CIS)?

Milliken: CIS is the nation’s largest community-based dropout retention program for keeping kids in school to ensure that they get their diplomas, which is part of helping them learn how to prepare themselves for life. CIS is now in 3,400 schools, working with 1.3 million kids annually.

How did the concept come about?

Milliken: Early in the 1960s, a handful of caring, enthusiastic, dedicated people came together to hold classes in an effort to prepare students in Harlem to pass the high school equivalency exam and get their GED [General Educational Development] certificates. A member of our group came up with the concept of ‘storefront schools’, and by the late ‘60s, we had renamed them academies and prep schools, after the educational concept that works for wealthy, successful people.

Eventually, our work became known as the Street Academy movement and caught the interest of Wall Street business leaders and 16 corporations, including American Express, Time and others. The riots that hit New York City spurred awareness, waking people to the fact that the world was in big trouble.

Learning from our storefront academies, we recognized that they couldn’t begin to handle the flood of young people who need a second chance. The hands-on education our initial groups received taught us two key principles that would shape the future of our work: programs don’t change kids, relationships do; and our nation’s dropout crisis isn’t only an education issue—it reflects a larger failure of the adult community.

Such realizations led us to see what school could be: an integrated and holistic one-stop destination, where parents, extended family members and the community come together and combine scattered resources that already exist, putting these to work in the most efficient way. Then we added the concept of a site coordinator, who has the knowledge, training and time to connect students with the people who care and can back it up with expertise.

Mentoring becomes the bedrock. The school becomes the delivery point of resources in the categories of human services, health services, business, recreation, employment services, law enforcement, civic groups, universities, tutors, mentors and legal assistance.

What have you learned about why kids drop out?

Milliken: The years I spent working with kids on the streets showed me that the seeds of dropping out are sown long before students reach their teen years. Children can’t begin to learn if they’re convinced that nobody cares about them and that they’re worthless, or if they feel unsafe physically and emotionally.

Kids don’t drop out because of educational institutions, but because of many other issues. Perhaps their father spent time in prison, or maybe they don’t have enough food in their stomach or have been subjected to multigenerational poverty. Gangs are another part of the problem. To believe that every child comes to school with the same resources and support is wishful thinking.

What are the basics for keeping kids in school?

Milliken: Through experience, we have identified the five basics needed for every young child: a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult; a safe place to learn and grow; a healthy start and a healthy future; a marketable skill to use upon graduation; and a chance to give back to peers and the community. Fulfilling these needs is what keeps kids in school and prepares them to succeed academically.

How do you see the dropout rate affecting America’s future?

Milliken: A 30 percent dropout rate is morally wrong and economically insane. If we continue on our present course during the next decade, we are destined to become a second-rate nation. Unless we bring all available resources into play and weave them in a holistic way that fosters the five basics, this will be unavoidable. Just one example of how our present course is playing out is in the Philadelphia area school system, which loses the equivalent of the city’s entire population in dropouts every year.

This epidemic is not spread equally across the country or among races. Among minorities, the dropout rate is almost 50 percent. A report from Johns Hopkins University shows that 50 percent of the dropouts are occurring in just 1,900 schools in 27 states. We will be zeroing in on these dropout factories and need everyone to become involved.


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