Communities In Schools of Tennessee (CISTN) is part of the national Communities In Schools network, a leader in dropout prevention across the U.S. The organization’s mission is to “surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.”
The organization first entered Tennessee in four Nashville schools in 2012, and expanded to Memphis in 2014. Here in Memphis, CISTN started in Frayser, where it initially served 900 students at Westside Achievement Middle School and Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. Today, CISTN serves 10,000 students at 20 schools in the Shelby County Schools district and Achievement Schools District. It’s what Sonji Branch, executive director of Communities in Schools of Tennessee at Memphis, calls tremendous and unprecedented growth in a short time, but something that also speaks to why CISTN’s efforts are needed here in Memphis.
“Our mission is to surround students with a community of support,” Sonji says. “Over the 40-plus years of Communities In Schools’ existence around the country, what we’ve learned is a number of our students attending low-performing schools and living in high-poverty areas lack basic support.”
She points to Frayser’s 38127 ZIP code, one of the most economically challenged areas in Memphis as a prime example. Barriers preventing students from functioning at their highest level academically include the need for nutritious meals, proper clothing and school supplies. She argues school reform only works when student support is part of the equation.
Site coordinators work inside the partner school to create a plan that addresses the needs of students in that particular location, guided by the organization’s 5 Basic principles: 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.
Site coordinators become part of the school leadership that works together for solutions, based on needs assessments and understanding students’ academic performance, behavior and course work. Attendance often is at the center of concern, something driven by a student’s lack of transportation, proper school uniform or even eyeglasses.
The site coordinator works with the school’s entire student population while also identifying 10 percent of students who are at greatest risk of academic or behavioral problems because of attendance. Sometimes students are suspended for lack of proper school uniform. So uniform closets now provide a proper shirt if needed, an easy fix to keep that student in class. Students are referred for mental health services when necessary, and the site coordinator walks along that student and his or her family through the entire journey.
Overall, CISTN is determined to help as many of our schools across Shelby County, as possible, and to help our students achieve a brighter future. And, yes, we can all play a role in the effort. Private and corporate donations are important to underwrite the cost of providing needed resources, like supplying the uniform closets. Then, there are many opportunities to volunteer, as well. Learn more by visiting cistn.org.
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