06/05/2014 01:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Communities In Schools' Change the Picture: A Conversation With CIS President Dan Cardinali

photo courtesy of Communities In Schools

A Conversation with Communities In Schools' President, Dan Cardinali

Mike Ragogna: First off, what is Communities In Schools mission and can you go into a little of its history and successes?

Dan Cardinali: For more than 30 years, Communities In Schools (CIS) has been helping students achieve in school, graduate and go on to bright futures. Our mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.

Working with both schools and their surrounding communities, CIS connects students and their families to basic and critical educational and community-based resources, tailored to each student's specific needs. Operating in more than 2,200 schools in the most challenged communities of 26 states and the District of Columbia, CIS serves 1.3 million young people and their families every year. As the nation's leading dropout prevention organization, CIS is unique in having evidence that our support services decrease dropout rates and increase graduation rates.

MR: You have a digital initiative that kicked off on May 19, can you describe what that is?

DC: The "World's Biggest Graduation Celebration" is the world's largest interactive digital event designed to celebrate the Class of 2014 and inspire Americans to help CIS change the picture of education.

It is part of Communities In Schools' Change the Picture national branding campaign, which launched in April. Change the Picture shares stories of kids who are succeeding in school despite challenging obstacles, and provides concrete data on the results and effectiveness of the CIS network which successfully serves 1.3 million students each year.

The "World's Biggest Graduation Celebration" will connect real-time social media interactions between millions of students across the nation on their graduation day, forming the world's
largest graduation processional online.

Graduating seniors, along with their teachers, friends and family, are invited to share graduation day photos, videos and messages on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Vine, using the hashtag #ClassofChange

The social effort will form the world's largest graduation processional and tell a powerful and moving story of how students, families, schools and communities are helping change the picture of education in America.

Also as part of the celebration, CIS is inviting students, parents and teachers to honor the Class of 2014 by posting well wishes, photos and videos to our Facebook and Tumblr accounts.

MR: In your opinion, how do students reaching out to so many other students -- in this case, graduating students --keep the focus on the furthering of education?

DC: Students today are connected through their mobile devices. Moreover, they are social media savvy because they are native-born to technology. So the how is easy, but the why is the key. I think that the "why" behind them reaching out is about a couple of things:

Number one, it's about pride. When a student has to struggle mightily to graduate, she/he feels the tremendous pride of accomplishment. So sharing that with your friends and family is natural. It's also about companionship. Our experience at CIS tells us that students who have struggled and succeeded know in a unique way what that feeling is like. They know how utterly humanizing it can be and it propels them to do it for others. They understand that they own their personal victory but also had support along the way. So it's natural for them to lend that support by reaching out and celebrating others.

MR: The graduation processional in itself is a huge statement, but are there any similar efforts that can have as a dramatic an effect that you've been considering?

DC: CIS has 37 years of experience that informs our understanding that a caring adult in a young person's life is essential to that young person successfully arriving to adulthood. That means they are self-sufficient, self-directed, service oriented, and invested in building healthy relationships in her/his life.

As a result, our goal as an organization is to ensure that all young people have as many caring adults as possible in their lives as they mature. In the case of CIS, we work specifically in very disadvantaged communities. While often there are caring adults in these young people's lives, they need more and certainly they need highly skilled caring adults who are capable of supporting then through the significant challenges that poverty presents.

MR: What kind of grades would you give the current public and private educational systems?

DC: In this case, I would say that the public and private educational system is doing well for many, but not for others. We know that there is an 80% graduation rate across the US. But if you go to poor rural and urban communities across America you'd see much lower graduation rates -- 65%, 50%, and even lower in some cases. Alternatively, if you go to some of the most affluent communities in America, you'd see much higher graduation rates, 85%, 90% and higher.

So poverty in the US is highly predictive of academic success of public education students. Therefore, the question about the grade I would give depends on which sub population we were discussing.

MR: Once the Graduation event is over, can that energy be sustained by the students and used for bigger visions, career paths or successes?

DC: Yes, each successful campaign builds on the previous one. We know from our economic study done last year that there are significant financial impacts. The average annual rate of return to society is 18.4%, with the benefit/cost ratio of 11.6. That means every dollar invested in Communities In Schools creates $11.60 of economic benefit for the community. And, high school graduates will be net contributors to their communities for an average of 44 years of their working life, using their increased income to purchase homes and cars, and paying taxes that will support police officers, firefighters and teachers. These numbers are significant.

When 1,700 site coordinators and 42,000 volunteers can leverage $191.3 million in community supports for 1.3 million at-risk kids, those are the numbers that get noticed. When 96 percent of our case-managed seniors graduate from high school despite all the obstacles and hopelessness in their environment, that's the kind of success that changes hearts and minds.

MR: Ultimately, how does this event and what you're focusing on Change the Picture as your campaign suggests it attempts to do?

DC: Our campaign makes two provocative assertions: First, that ALL young people can succeed, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and socioeconomic status. It really is a commitment. Second, the "all" in the sentence above means that all of us, therefore, must be involved. Changing the picture of education means you, me, teachers, parents, business leaders, policymakers, pastors, little league coaches, girl scout troop leaders, and MOST importantly, students themselves are all responsible for changing the picture of education and making it high quality for ALL students.

The campaign grounds the viewer in CIS students' stories, not in the adults that are doing the work. Because in the end, we believe that each student's decision to graduate is in fact their decision. It's all our responsibilities to support them, doing whatever it takes, to ensure that each young person has all the tools, beliefs, and skills, to make constructive choices about their lives.

MR: What advice do you have for the students participating in the event?

Take a moment to acknowledge your accomplishment. You did it. You overcame obstacles and adversity. You did the hard work. You succeeded. And you should be proud. Celebrate yourself and enjoy what you have achieved. It is important to recognize what you are capable of. Your grit, your perseverance, your ability to take responsibility for your actions will carry you far. And encourage others who might not believe they can do it. Just as you were supported in your educational goals, support others in their journey. Enjoy the moment.

MR: What does the future bring for both Communities In Schools and the Change the Picture initiative?

DC: A recent study, Child Trends, concluded that there is an emerging evidence base to support the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of integrated student supports in improving educational outcomes. Communities In Schools (CIS), has been advocating the ISS approach for more than 30 years.

And Child Trends also proved that integrated student supports are a promising approach for helping more disadvantaged children and youth improve in school and have a brighter path in life.

If we are to make good on that promise, all of us in the education and youth development space have an obligation to ensure that an evidence-based student support strategy becomes an integral part of the public school landscape.

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