Failure—that’s what 17-year-old Bill Milliken understood best. He didn’t know how to succeed in a school system that continually reinforced the notion that he was dumb. So, he found himself spending his days on the streets of Pittsburgh, perfecting his skill of “hanging out” and fulfilling the low expectations everyone had of him. When you’re at loose ends, you either hurt other people or you hurt yourself—that’s one of Milliken’s beliefs. He was intent on the latter.

A favorite hangout of his was the local pool hall—and that’s where a young man who would become his mentor found Milliken and his friends. And, because of him, Milliken’s life was forever changed: He “came in into my neighborhood and walked through the valley of the shadow of adolescence with me and loved me into change,” Milliken said recently when he accepted the Jefferson Award.

It was the 1960s and Milliken and his friend Vinny, who also found his life on this new path, decided to give themselves back to the streets. Vinny, though, had to first turn himself in and spend hard time in prison before he could emerge on the other side. Milliken used those years to finish high school and complete “three freshman years of college,” as he’s fond of saying.

As soon as Vinny got out of prison, they headed to Harlem, where “we spent 11 years, learning life.” They were intent on reaching disenfranchised kids—kids just like they’d been a few years earlier. They specialized in hanging out and befriended the homeless and addicted youth on the streets who had nobody else. Within a few years, Milliken and Vinny were living with and helping 25-30 kids at a time and “learning a lot about community.” They also buried 18 of their friends. It takes a lot to turn around expectations.

Milliken’s fiery idealism and passion fueled his speaking career. Without realizing he had a gift, he was being asked to speak around the country. At the same time, mainstream educational institutions kept him at arm’s length—so Milliken and his crew started their own school, initially calling it the Liberation School. They found students but discovered it was next to impossible to raise funds to run the school. Then, in a stroke of marketing genius, they changed the school’s name when they realized the wealthy sent their kids to institutions that, more often than not, included the word “academy.” So they renamed their school the Street Academy—and the corporate funds started flowing. In short order, they had 18 street academies operating around New York City, and kids and young adults who’d dropped out of high school were now making it through college.

By 1977, Milliken and his colleagues had mellowed enough to take their success with the street academies and apply their approach within the school systems. They had learned that they didn’t need to replicate programs, but instead make use of existing community services. And most importantly, they recognized that programs don’t change lives—relationships do. By bringing the panoply of services into the public school building and providing a mentor/advisor to ease kids along their journey, they were able to successfully help underserved kids and their families negotiate the confusing array of services.

They called the effort Cities In Schools (CIS, later changing the name to Communities In Schools) and, in short order they were serving 3,000 students in Atlanta, Indianapolis, and New York. Their successful model has been endorsed by every presidential administration since its first proponent, President Jimmy Carter.

Today, CIS helps 1.3 million children in more than 2,200 schools every year through almost 200 local affiliates in 27 states and the District of Columbia. More than 40,000 volunteers serve as mentors and tutors for the program.

CIS is a unique community model that forms partnerships between schools, families, and community leaders to build a solid support system for students. CIS works with administrators and teachers of each participating public school to identify the most critical needs of their students. CIS then determines which community services will best meet those needs and brings in the necessary volunteers and agencies. The CIS local affiliate staff ensure a customized program that will be effective within each individual school. They also work to secure the support of local government, nonprofit organizations, service providers, businesses, and volunteer groups.

On the other side of the partnership, parents must approve and support their child’s participation in CIS and volunteer their time. The kids themselves must show the same commitment to stay in the program. This mutual buy-in has the added dividend of serving to create new family bonds.

Mentoring and tutoring services are offered at 90% of CIS affiliates, and 73% provide after- or before-school programs. In keeping with its holistic approach, CIS affiliates may bring in health professionals, college, career and/or drug-education counselors, parenting coaches for the extended family—or whatever particular services the students at each individual school need.

By bringing together all of the different services under one school roof, CIS helps make participating schools vital centers for the broader community. Milliken likens the fragmented system of social service delivery that exists before CIS brings it all together to trying to type a letter with 26 typewriters that each have only one letter key.

The numbers are impressive: 96% of CIS-tracked kids improve attendance and academic performance—and end up graduating. These numbers are all the more admirable given national statistics Milliken recited in 2009: 1/3 of all kids fail to graduate with their class; ½ of those are minorities; and ½ of all inmates are high school dropouts.

At the core of CIS philosophy are five basic tenets. Every child needs and deserves:

  1. A one-on-one relationship with a caring adult
  2. A safe place to learn and grow
  3. A healthy start and a healthy future
  4. A marketable skill to use upon graduation
  5. A chance to give back to peers and community

A committed, caring and large team of volunteers helps ensure that this collaborative strategy works, and they allow for the one-on-one relationships that are so essential to a child’s success. They also help free up teachers to teach and allow students to focus on learning. More than 40,000 volunteers serve as role models, mentors and tutors. In all, they contribute nearly 3 million hours of service, which allows CIS to deliver their valuable services for an annual cost lower than $200 per student.

Milliken would be the first to say that all five tenets grow out of the first. Without a strong, personal relationship with someone who encourages an at-risk student along the way, the program is doomed to failure. From the beginning, it’s been about people. Speaking of his move to Harlem more than 40 years ago, Milliken says, “I didn’t go there to start a program. I went there to love my neighbor.”

But, if those relationships form the core of CIS, there is also an effective program model in place. The national office provides training, support and a basic model for the independently incorporated local affiliates to adopt and adapt as they see fit. Each community’s individual model varies, depending on the needs and strengths of the particular community. The result is a highly effective, low-cost program that has turned around hundreds of thousands of lives.

Bill Milliken is the author of three books: So Long, Sweet Jesus; Tough Love; and The Last Dropout. His newest book, From the Rear-View Mirror, was released in 2012.

Nonprofit Nutshell: Communities In Schools, the country’s largest dropout prevention network, was founded on the principle that programs don’t change kids but relationships do. For more than 30 years, CIS has developed effective community partnerships between schools, families, and community leaders to build a solid support system for students. The organization directly serves more than 1.3 million students and their families each year in thousands of schools across the country. Founder Bill Milliken, who has served three U.S. Presidents, is a 2011 recipient of an In Harmony with Hope award, as well as the National Jefferson Award for Public Service.

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