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Nonprofit for at-risk students faces an uphill year of its own

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Communities In Schools officials like telling the Alexis Grady story.

An honor student in her sophomore year at East Carolina University, Grady and her younger brother have been raised by their grandparents after their mother, Angela Marie, died more than two years ago.

Instead of falling through the cracks, as many other students in her situation have done, Grady is on track to become the first member of her family to graduate from college.

“A big part of whom I am and where I’m going is because of Communities In Schools,” says Grady, a West Mecklenburg High School graduate.

“She is what we’re about,” says May Johnston, CIS’ community relations director.

Communities In Schools, which offers a variety of support programs for mostly low-income students, has worked with tens of thousands of Mecklenburg youths, many of them first-generation college graduates. Its website tells some of the success stories - students who received tutoring in high school and guidance in the college application process.

But as it begins its second 25 years in Mecklenburg County, Communities in Schools faces challenges:

  • Like other nonprofits, it is contending with a struggling economy that has made donations and grants a bit harder to find.
  • The planned overhaul of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ pupil assignment program means many of the schools served by Communities In Schools could be closing their doors next year.
  • And CIS enters the uncertainty of 2011 looking for a new executive director.

“I have no question about the future of CIS,” says Bill Anderson, a former CMS administrator who is leaving Communities In Schools after 41/2 years at the helm, to take the head of MeckEd, another nonprofit group which aims at rallying support for students in the county. “Communities In Schools will continue to grow, because the need is greater than ever.”

CIS is serving 5,200 students in 43 CMS schools this year. It is the largest N.C. chapter of an organization, which also has branches in Cabarrus, Caldwell, Gaston, Lincoln, Rowan, Watauga and York counties in the Charlotte area. School counselors refer students - typically those who show academic promise but are from lower-income families - for help from Communities In Schools.

“We have waiting lists at some schools,” says May Johnston, CIS’ community relations director.

“They probably need to be in 20 more schools,” Anderson adds.

Funding is a limiting factor. Communities In Schools needs money to hire counselors at its service sites, and for other programs it offers students. Johnston says CIS has navigated the recession fairly well but adds, “Like all nonprofits, there are fewer resources to go around.”

The organization’s 2009 budget was about $4.2 million - nearly all of it from businesses, other organizations and individuals. CIS received $88,305 from individuals in fiscal year 2008-09 and $152,846 from foundations. Johnston says donations are “holding their own” - without getting into specifics - but says the organization wants to expand and will need more funding.

For Alexis Grady, the help was essential. At West Mecklenburg, she worked with CIS advisers Andre Reynolds and Tracie Westbrook. She says Reynolds guided her into TRiO, a federal program that helps first-generation students through the college application process. Westbrook, she says, was essential in helping her apply for college and receive financial aid.

When Grady’s mother died, the two advisers kept Alexis going, she says. When she returned to Charlotte for the holiday break, Grady went to dinner one night last week with Westbrook.

Johnston says the proposed CMS pupil assignment changes will be a challenge but nothing the organization can’t handle.

“Whatever happens, we’ll follow the kids,” she says. “Even if the schools close, those kids still exist. We’ll have to move our counselors around and adjust to the new enrollment numbers, but we can handle that.”

And the CIS board already is screening applicants for a new executive director. The interim director, Marian Yates, is a highly respected retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principal.

At a time of year when many people look for charities to help, Johnston hopes the community won’t forget Communities In Schools. She says CIS needs everything from donations of snack packs for students in after-school activities, to help in getting children to dentist appointments.

“Having an extra person in their lives - whether it’s a volunteer from a company, a church, or a civic organization - can make all the difference in the world,” she says. “We are about preparing these students for life, and we could use help in that effort.”

 

By Steve Lyttle, The Charlotte Observer; photo by Wendy Yang, The Charlotte Observer

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