Adult-Sized Issues, Student-Sized Empowerment

Dale Erquiaga
Mar 29, 2017 · 6 min read

Imagine not being able to afford glasses so you are unable to see the board clearly for all twelve years of your school career. Imagine being so hungry every day, you can only focus on eating your school-provided lunch as slowly as possible to make it last. Imagine every day putting on the same torn and unwashed clothes that your classmates will ridicule. Or not being able to make it to school at all because you need to care for younger siblings or a severely ill parent.

These are examples of what I’ve come to call, “adult-sized issues,” since they are well beyond the scope of what most of us would think a child has to deal with — yet for many students, these are their daily realities. That is especially true for those students who live in poverty.

And, for the first time in U.S. history, 14.5 million children live in some level of poverty and face life barriers that affect their ability to come to school or — when they do come — to focus on what’s happening inside the classroom. Those barriers take a toll: Studies show that students from low-income communities are three times more likely to repeat a grade and twice as likely to drop out.

Compounded by the challenges faced by students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners,these factors combine to place these students far behind their non-impoverished peers as they move forward on their paths through public school systems across the country. This is why CIS was created 40 years ago, to help empower those students to succeed in school and beyond, using a proven model that is now known as Integrated Student Supports.

Communities In Schools model

Over the past few months, as I’ve stepped into my new role as President and CEO of Communities In Schools National, I’ve had the opportunity to travel the country and see this work in action.

CIS site coordinators work in schools to assess the needs of a student (and in many cases, their family as well) and work to connect students directly to community resources that can help them. They don’t simply offer up a phone number and rely on the student to find their way. Instead, coordinators navigate for the student and family, to keep from adding one more burden to an already heavy load.

Jean Rebecca, site coordinator at North Charleston High School, knows those burdens first hand, because he lived them.

“I was one of the kids that had socks and shoes with holes, and our electricity and water were off more than they were on.”

With the neighborhood surrounding North Charleston filled with crime and poverty, he now knows as an adult that education is the best way out for his students. Jean works tirelessly to provide them with every resource available to help his students graduate and pursue their dreams. Jean created a support group for young men to help keep them out of gangs. The group offers the support and affirmation his students need in a positive setting that offsets the false sense of security that gang association can offer to youths living in poverty.

With poverty a greater threat to American students’ success than ever before, it’s no wonder educators and communities are desperate for a solution. They recognize the problem.

I can tell you, there is no one magic solution. Poverty manifests in many ways, and efforts to treat one aspect don’t necessarily fix another. I worked for the last few years within the Nevada public education system, observing first-hand the challenges that students, teachers and administrators face at every level. I eventually became the Nevada State Superintendent during the Common Core transition and worked closely with Governor Sandoval to build more supports into the system.

In the end, I concluded the education system itself needs an outside support for the students within the system. CIS meets this need.

Charlotte-Mecklenberg School Superintendent Ann Blakeney Clark recognizes that same important need — to provide one-on-one support that addresses those non-academic barriers to students.

“Many of the kids are beating their wings pretty hard every day to stay in the air,” she says. “I see CIS as being the wind beneath the wings of a kid.”

That’s why I joined Communities In Schools. I knew that, for over 40 years, the organization has constantly adapted its methods of holistically dealing with poverty, yet never wavered from the core principle of providing a caring adult who makes a difference in a students’ life.

That crucial principle is what we define as going “All In” … as being there for students without judgment, without criticism. Simply supporting the students and doing whatever it takes to help them succeed. This is precisely what Jean and site coordinators in 25 states and D.C. provide to their students every day.

A crucial part of our mission is to empower our students, to give them the confidence they will need after they graduate from high school. The CIS resources embedded in many of our public schools help provide those tools beyond the academic, including the social and emotional skills to handle whatever the future brings.

For example, take Melissa in Central Texas. She credits CIS for supporting her in high school and continuing to encourage her to pursue her dreams of college. Though it was hard for her to leave her home and family, she enrolled in Stephen F. Austin State University. Continued encouragement from CIS helped her transition to the next chapter of her education.

After she graduated, Melissa returned home and found an opening through the AmeriCorps program at her CIS affiliate. Two days later, she began working for the organization that had helped her achieve her goals. “I felt like I was going home.” Melissa said. She now works as a full-time mentor and tutor at a high-needs middle school and is applying to graduate school to earn a degree in social work.

This is the heart of what CIS does. By supporting students when they need it most, we know they will not only turn around and give back to the community. That sense of confidence and empowerment changes not just one student’s life, but can change all the other lives that student goes on to impact.

Another stellar example of student empowerment comes from my home state of Nevada. Chaparral High School principal Lolo James faced extraordinary barriers at his school, including high transiency, homelessness and gang activity. Passionate about education, and a firm believer that all students have greatness in them, he embraced CIS in every way possible.

The entire school benefitted from initiatives like a clothing closet, housing assistance, self-esteem classes, food and school supplies, even dental and eye care that CIS helped to coordinate.

The result? A stunning 80% graduation rate last year — up from 34% when he arrived four years ago.

2017 All In For Students Awards Recipients:

This is the kind of power that committed, caring adults in a dedicated organization with a wealth of resources can do for individual students AND an entire school. I believe, as does Principal James, that all students have greatness in them. If we believe in them, support them as they grow, they, like Melissa, will in turn support others.

I am hopeful after seeing how people like Jean, Lolo, Ann and Melissa go “All In” for students every day, we will ensure that all students have their own chance at success. Visit to see how you, too, can go #allinforkids everywhere.

Dale Erquiaga

Written by

President & CEO, Communities In Schools National

Age of Awareness

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