By Maria Saporta
For 40 years, Communities In Schools has been working with the Atlanta Public Schools to help the most vulnerable students stay on course and graduate.
The organization, which was founded in Atlanta as Exodus in 1972, now is in 24 states and the District of Columbia working with about 3,000 schools across the country. It is considered one of the nonprofits that has been most successful in getting tangible results.
But now the Atlanta Board of Education is considering ending its partnership with Communities In Schools.
Erroll Davis, superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, has proposed ending the school system’s relationships with several nonprofit organizations, including Communities In Schools, Teach for America, Project Grad and Hands On Atlanta as cost saving measures.
But ending those relationships is creating great concern among community leaders who are concerned about what will happen to the students who are in great need of extra support if those nonprofits are not there.
The situation with Communities In Schools is especially disconcerting — an organization that began in Atlanta.
A national five-year study conducted by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. (EMSI) released on May 16 concluded that “Communities In Schools’ intensive case management services produce the strongest reduction in dropout rates of any existing fully-scaled dropout prevention program that has been rigorously evaluated.”
The study went on to say that the model is effective across states, school settings, grade levels and student ethnicities. Nationally, every dollar invested in the organization generates an average economic impact of $11.60, according to EMSI.
It also concluded that Communities In Schools of Atlanta has been particularly effective generating an economic impact of $14.90 for every dollar invested, well above the national average.
The Atlanta Board of Education is wrestling with a significant budget deficit, and the nonprofit partnerships could be a casualty as the system tries to present a balanced budget.
“We are looking at every one of our partnerships and evaluating all of our costs as we try to close a $47 million budget gap — so everything is on the table,” said Reuben McDaniel, president of the school board.
But McDaniel quickly added: “If we look at programs like Communities In Schools and Project Grad, we know how important those programs are. A lot of board members understand and appreciate our history with Communities In Schools.”
At its meeting on June 4, the Atlanta Board of Education asked for more info from the APS’ leaders about how the system would provide the services of CIS without the organization’s involvement and how much would it cost for the school system to provide those services compared to the cost of Communities In Schools of Atlanta.
Patty Pflum, executive director of CIS of Atlanta, will be meeting with APS officials in the near future to further discuss their specifics of their arrangement.
Over the years, APS’ relationship with Communities In Schools has expanded from a program that first just worked with students that had already dropped out to now monitoring students who are in school and getting them needed services to prevent them from dropping out.
It has become a partner with Project Grad to help make sure students graduate. And it has been providing the graduation coaches in APS — a program started under former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Currently, it has 71 people working in Atlanta’s public schools — at lease one person in every high school and middle school and someone in about one-third of the elementary schools.
Last year, 26 percent of all the students who gradated from Atlanta’s public schools were students who were being case-managed by Communities In Schools.
All the Communities In Schools programs cost APS $4.1 million last year. In addition CIS provided more than $1 million in private contributions and another $2.4 million in donations of in-kind services and volunteers. CIS also provides all the training of its specialists.
“We’ve had a cash sharing arrangement with APS since 2000,” Pflum said. “They have covered 70 to 80 percent of the cost, and we raise the balance from the private sector.”
Another interesting fact is that the money that APS has invested in its CIS programs has come from federal grants rather than from the school system’s general fund.
Also, CIS is a program that has attracted contributions from hundreds of companies, foundations and individuals in metro Atlanta and across the state.
“CIS has been an effective partner with APS,” said Chris Womack, a Southern Co. executive vice president who is past chairman of the CIS of Atlanta board. “The work and value of CIS is evident. Last year, 80 percent of the APS students participating in CIS either graduated or were promoted.”
Womack went on to say: “I understand the challenges that face APS, Superintendent Davis, and the board. I hope they can find a way to continue the partnership with CIS.”
Some board members have questioned whether it is time to put the CIS contract out for bid to see if other organizations can be more competitive.
Neil Shorthouse, founder of the organization who is now president of Communities In Schools of Georgia, would welcome such a process. He believes CIS would fare well when compared to others.
Shorthouse also is not interested in dwelling on any nostalgic sentiments or the irony that the organization he founded 40 years ago working with Atlanta’s public schools could be severing its relationship with its oldest partner.
“I’m not so much concerned about what it feels like as I am concerned about the implications of what this means to the children in Atlanta and all over the country,” Shorthouse said. “The very thing we are doing in Atlanta has been replcated in many places.”