Olivia Scott. Shannon Frink. Brandi Sims. Remember the names. They'll do great things one day. No, wait. They've already done great things.
The first two were among 392 Charlotte-Mecklenburg students who graduated from the Communities in Schools program this year. The other was a 2003 graduate, who was guest speaker for a celebration of graduates Thursday at the Westin.
Communities in Schools is a dropout prevention program – the nation's largest. It's been around for 30 years with the goal of ensuring each student access to these five basics: 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 community.
Each year, more than 2 million youngsters in 27 states and the District of Columbia participate in CIS. Last year, more than 4,700 took part from 37 Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary, middle and high schools. This year 392 seniors are graduating, 150 more than last year.
How effective is CIS in CMS? Last year, 99 percent of the students participating stayed in school – meaning, only 1 percent dropped out. Last year, the graduation rate was 90 percent, and 88 percent were promoted to the next grade. Today, more than 1,000 are in college.
But to truly understand the impact of Communities in Schools, you only have to see and hear Olivia, Shannon and Brandi. On Thursday, each held the spotlight in various ways for her achievements.
Shannon, a West Mecklenburg High senior, has been accepted to Spelman College in Atlanta and plans to major in pre-medicine. Mecklenburg County commissioners' chairman Jennifer Roberts presented her the Communities in Schools Leadership Award, wound up consoling her as she broke down and tearfully accepted. After composing herself, she said Spelman was her first choice of colleges but it was expensive and she had wondered how she and her parents would be able to afford it. The award money will help.
Olivia, a West Charlotte senior who is pondering a variety of colleges including Dartmouth and Duke, won the “Speaking Your Way Into The Future” essay contest. With passion and confidence, she read her essay, telling fellow graduates that sometimes they must motivate themselves to succeed because obstacles – “friends” and even “conflicts with parents” – will get in the way. Don't give in, she said. “You have a choice. Push from within. We can be somebody. We will do something great.”
No one knows that better than Brandi Sims. Brandi is a graduate of North Mecklenburg High and North Carolina Central University, where she received her bachelor's degree. She's just weeks away from getting a master's degree in social work from UNC Greensboro. She plans to work on HIV/AIDS programs.
Her background, she admitted, would have made her a long shot for success. Born to a 17-year-old mother, and to a father who, in her words, “liked living the fast life,” she was on the wrong path early. But she began CIS in middle school and with the help of concerned adults – “who allowed me to make mistakes and helped me correct my wrongs” – she found her way.
She implored the graduates to “identify your passions” and “recognize the legacies you want to leave behind.” Her parting line was a doozy: Don't allow “the unchangeable circumstances of the past to dictate the future.”
Bill Anderson, executive director of Communities in Schools, echoed that sentiment. He also said the need for the services of Communities in Schools has never been greater.
He's right. Brandi, Olivia, Shannon and the 390 other seniors who graduated CIS this year are a reminder that when children get what they need there's a payoff for them – and for the rest of us too.
By Fannie Flono, The Charlotte Observer – Opinion column; photo by Davie Hinshaw, The Charlotte Observer