By Cheryl Clemmons
Bryson Staten, an 8-year-old third-grader at Westerly Hills Academy, is planning a future as an NFL star so he can buy his mother a “really big house.” He credits the Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg (CIS-Charlotte) with giving him the guidance and support he needs to make his dream come true.
An affiliate of the national Communities In Schools network dedicated to keeping kids in school and on the path to graduation, CIS-Charlotte serves about 5,000 students grades K-12 in 54 schools through counseling and support on various levels. Bryson is one of its biggest fans.
“It’s a lot of fun. It helps me stay out of trouble, and every day we set a goal,” he said. “We read and talk about stuff in groups that are bothering us and it makes our day better. The teachers make us feel like everything’s going to be OK. I know I’m going to grow up and be somebody.”
The mission of CIS-Charlotte, which started locally in 1985, is to surround students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds with a community of positivity, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life with plans tailored to their personal needs. Areas of focus include attendance, academics, mentoring, social-emotional learning, basic needs, college/career readiness, leadership, life skills development, cultural and educational enrichment and parent engagement. Currently, there is a focus on getting students to re-engage in their education and recover from losses because of the pandemic which had a devastating effect due to school closures and remote learning. An estimated 3 million students are “missing” from school rosters across the U.S. Locally, that number is in the thousands.
“At the onset of the pandemic, we had to pivot quickly from our typical services. Our initial response was to meet the urgent basic needs of our families, such as food and hygiene supplies,” said Men Tchaas Ari, CIS-Charlotte’s president and CEO, in a press release about the program. “During the first eight weeks at the start of the pandemic, we conducted emergency needs assessments for 6,000-plus students and families and worked with [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] and the County to deliver more than 55,000 services, primarily critical needs such as meals and supplies.”
Tiffany Staten, Bryson’s mother, said he and his siblings, Justice, 11, a sixth-grader, and Nia, 10, a fifth-grader, are also in the program at Westerly Hills Academy and achieving great things. She said CIS-Charlotte has helped her family immensely over the past six years.
“They have been absolutely wonderful to me and my children. Things have been very traumatic for us over the past few years,” she said. “We’ve literally been homeless, their grandfather died and I’m dealing with some serious health problems. They have helped us with all of that, as well as made sure my children are getting a good education in a good environment. Even though it’s been a struggle, I’ve always been involved in my kids’ education and lives. They’ve made sure we’re all OK.”
The program is currently working on getting the family permanent housing. “We’re all very grateful,” said Staten.
Jenni Ramos, 18, was in the program since the sixth grade. The recent Myers Park High School graduate has two scholarships in her pocket that will pay for the nursing degree she plans to earn at Appalachian State University after earning her basic education credits at Central Piedmont Community College. She credits the program with changing her life and helping her reach her childhood goal.
“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse. I was actually a nurse to my brothers when I was a little girl. I was always putting band-aids on them when they got hurt,” she said. “I’ll be a first-generation college student in my family and my parents are very proud. I’m very proud of myself. I learned a lot about myself in those seven years I spent in the program. It was a great opportunity and taught me there was a different way of life.”
CIS-Charlotte Youth Development Coordinator Jasmin Harris has been working with her “scholars”
for three years. She credits social and emotional support, daily communication, and community resources with working wonders for children.
“Something as simple as a trip to a local park is an adventure for some kids because they’ve never been out of their own neighborhood,” she said. “You have to get them to think outside the box, but most of all, provide them with love and encouragement.”