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Keeping Kids in School by Building Community: Marymount Distinguished Visiting Professor Bill Milliken Shows the Way

Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Every year, 25 to 30% of students drop out of high school. That’s more than 1.2 million young people.

William (Bill) Milliken, founder and vice chairman of Communities in Schools (CIS), Inc., and the author of The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic!, sees the dropout rate as a moral issue. “This affects everyone…. It’s a justice issue that we all need to work on,” he emphasized, when he spoke at Marymount University as a Distinguished Visiting Professor for the School of Education and Human Services on December 5.

Milliken pointed out that dropouts are eight times more likely to end up in prison as high school graduates. He explained, “If a person doesn’t have hope, they will either hurt your or themselves.” Yet, after working with troubled young people for decades, he is more hopeful than ever that the dropout problem is solvable.
Once a dropout himself, Milliken said, “Somebody brought love into my neighborhood and saved my life. When someone believes in you, that’s when you have hope.” Ever since, he has been working to help young people on the margins turn their lives around and have a chance for a better future.
He has found that “it’s relationships, not programs that change kids. Kids need someone in their face, and every child needs a safe place to learn and grow.” Milliken began by working with kids who had already dropped out. He established high school academies in Harlem in the 1960s because the schools didn’t want these children back. But he wanted to reach young people before they dropped out, so he moved into the schools.

Today, Communities in Schools has on-site coordinators and community support systems in place at 3,400 schools across the country. At one school in San Antonio, Texas, one half of the students were dropping out; now 90% are graduating. Locally, Communities in Schools is in Washington, DC, and Richmond, Virginia, with plans underway to expand into Northern Virginia.

Milliken sees the dropout problem as a “breakdown-in-community issue” that began after World War II, when the population became more mobile – breaking up the extended family and neighborhood support net. Communities in Schools establishes a real sense of community within a school, freeing teachers to teach.

What is needed to build that community differs from place to place. In one Las Vegas community, a clinic and food distribution center helped provide the nurturing environment so that students could learn. The sense of community encourages students to participate, to give back, and to be accountable.

Communities in Schools has corporate support because business leaders know that they need workers equipped for 21st-century jobs. A strong volunteer network is also in place, so that the system only costs around $200 per child.
Dr. Shannon Melideo, chair of Marymount’s Education Department, has been a volunteer literacy coordinator with Communities in Schools at Ferebee Hope Elementary School in Washington, DC, for many years. She regularly involves her Marymount students in this outreach, providing the children with support from young adults that they can identify with, and giving MU teachers-in-training great experience with what it means to believe in each child and help him or her succeed.

Dr. Melideo is now on the Communities in Schools Board and chairs the Programs Committee. She says, “Over the last four years, it has been an honor and privilege to get to know Bill Milliken and his affiliates. I have witnessed first-hand the inspirational influence of his work with Communities in Schools of the National Capital Region. His modest talk of what he has accomplished is really the "tip of the iceberg," when you examine the real impact CIS is making across the nation.” Dr. Melideo adds, “I am delighted that he agreed to come to campus and tell his story, and I am hopeful that he has inspired others in the Marymount community to volunteer with CIS and help end the drop-out problem in America...because they can.”
PHOTO 1 - Bill Milliken

PHOTO 2 - left to right: Cayla Lang '13 (Mathematics major, Secondary Teaching Licensure); Dr. Wayne Lesko, dean, School of Education and Human Services; Bill Milliken

PHOTO 3 - Robert Miller '12 (Mathematics major, Secondary Teaching Licensure) chats with Mr. Miller and Dr. Shannon Melideo, chair of Marymount's Education Department

PHOTO 4 - Bill Miller signs a copy of his book The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic!