Communities in Schools Program makes a difference in local students’ lives


by Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor

Would you be interested if your child’s school offered a tutoring program where 99 percent of the students who participate stay enrolled and 97 percent get promoted to the next grade in K-11 grades?

If you answer yes, you should be aware of the Communities in Schools (CIS) national program, which has served many schools in Chapel Hill and Chatham County for 35 years. Its mission is “to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.”

“This Communities in Schools of Chatham County (CISCC) program is unique and very different from any other CIS site you might find,” said Shirille Lee, General Youth Services Program Coordinator. She explained they were initially called Chatham County Together and became part of the national Communities in Schools in 2014. This enabled them to reach out to corporate sponsors for funding. “Connecting with the national CIS  allows us to use their data system to track our students and quickly put information together to show our work.”

The years spent as Chatham County Together enabled the program to be ingrained in the community before entering the schools. “The critical reason for that partnership was we could work inside the schools. The CIS model is having embedded student support specialists in the schools. We were able to acquire the branding, image, and different resources that come with being part of that national network,” said Tych Cowdin, Executive Director of CISCC.

According to CISCC information, “Communities In Schools Chatham County (CISCC) applies an evidence-based model to target identified needs of referred youth with the highest risks for underachievement by attending to the holistic needs of that individual. We connect students with various versatile school and community-based resources to create wrap-around support for youth and families, greatly enhancing their likelihood of success.”

Not to be confused with an academic tutoring program, CIS is about meeting kids where they are, assigning them an adult to become a mentor and building a trusting and nourishing relationship. “We try to encourage the relationships to last as long as possible,” Cowdin explained.

Communities in Schools 5 basics:

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

Volunteer mentors are thoroughly vetted and undergo a two-part training program. The volunteer mentors then work to build a social and emotional connection and build trust in that relationship, said Cowdin. “As you become more comfortable with one another … you start to discover things about each other and what makes them tick or what things align with your [the volunteer’s] interests.”

The volunteers make a big impact with one-on-one mentoring, high school success coaching, lunch reading buddies and staff mentoring. Hopefully, they get to follow their students as they progress through their entire school life.

Cowdin explained that once the student realizes they have a safe place to learn and a caring adult, then you get into working on transferable skills. “This could be writing, reading or gardening and then it’s about them being given the chance to give back to the community.”

Chatham County volunteer Erika Guy started the Cooking Matters for Teens program through CISCC at Chatham Middle School in 2017.  Today, she is still going strong.“With anticipation in the air, we ignite passions, nourish dreams, and pave the way for a future where every young mind savors success in the culinary world and beyond. This program is a unique, creative way we are partnering together to surround students with a community of support, helping them stay in school and achieve in life,” Guy said. Photo courtesy of CISCC.

CIS students may get involved in a fun service project involving tutoring, reading, or doing homework with other students.

Orange County did have a CIS program but did not get enough sponsorship to maintain it. Two schools with Chapel Hill addresses within Chatham County participate in the program: North Chatham Elementary and Margaret B. Pollard Middle School.

Communities in School has seen an increase from its 25 assorted revenue sources, but it is a year-to-year battle for non-profit funding for the Chatham County-based organization.

“This year, we have 14 staff members embedded in community schools. Our budget has increased along with capacity growth that we are trying to maintain and sustain while keeping an eye toward opportunity,” said Cowdin.

Nine of the 14 staff members are bilingual, which Cowdin says makes a critical difference when connecting with families and the community. Children come into the program mainly from school referrals. According to Cowdin, anyone can refer to CIS – it could be church members, a neighbor, teachers, parents or counselors. In a different branch of CIS, they take juvenile justice referrals. “We have a process for making sure that anybody referred to us will be a good fit for our programs,” Cowdin said.

One of their primary goals is continuity across grade levels and schools. Once a child is in the program, they can stay from kindergarten to grade 12. “Most of the kids get referred to us because they lack a caring adult in their life who’s checking on their schoolwork or just seeing how their time in school is going,” Cowdin said.

Shirille Lee said that she is the person a mentor would contact if they perceive a student needs other resources such as mental health and the student would be connected to what they need. “The process builds on itself,” she said.

Student success stories

Jy’Mir was a second grader at Virgina Cross Elementary in 2015 when he entered CISCC. His mentor tells how she bonded and helped him “construct dreams and goals for himself.”

He participated in field trips, attended summer camps for 5 years, gained culinary experience and nutrition education, and completed the Bikes and Blues bicycle tour of the Southeastern United States.

According to his mentor, he is on track to graduate in May. He founded a Computer Science Club and has been accepted at East Carolina University. He plans to pursue a degree in Computer Science.

Zoe’s Story, written by CISCC Student Support Specialist Deanna Foxx:

“After nearly a year working with my students at Chatham Middle School, it’s evident that the effort invested in cultivating and nurturing relationships has significantly impacted their success. Zoe initially seemed reserved, not thrilled about my role as someone replacing her trusted confidante. Having opened up to previous CIS staff, she was hesitant to do so again.

“Recognizing the challenge, I knew authenticity was crucial. Despite being a stranger, I committed to being genuine in all our interactions. Reflecting on lessons from my classroom days, I remembered the importance of being oneself. And it worked!

“Throughout the ’22-’23 school year, Zoe and I forged a connection. She began opening up, sharing surface-level details about herself that she wanted me to know. As we entered the ’23-’24 school year, our bond deepened further. Her parents even shared that she now considers me someone she can trust and rely on, especially in challenging times. This success with Zoe is a testament to the power of authenticity, proving that genuine connections can make a lasting impact.”

You can help

CISCC is a nonprofit and depends on donations and volunteers. To find out more, go to

Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "Communities in Schools Program makes a difference in local students’ lives"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.