Social Entrepreneur Interview

Victoria Slusser

Published Monday, January 19, 2015

Since 1998, Communities In Schools (CIS) has served thousands of children in Rowan County schools. This nationwide non-profit organization offers in-school mentoring, tutoring, supportive guidance, health services, school supplies, clothing, transportation and more to students in need. Victoria Slusser, Executive Director of the Rowan County affiliate, explains how CIS does “everything it takes to keep [students] in school and keep them engaged.” As the nation’s #1 dropout prevention program, CIS is able to improve thousands of children’s lives every day by providing accessible and effective resources in schools.

In the late 1970s, Bill Milliken founded Communities In Schools. Then a youth advocate in New York, Milliken attempted to bring community resources into schools where children could easily access them. After years of expansion to multiple states, CIS became the nation’s most effective program dedicated to keeping children in school. Slusser first started working for CIS as a volunteer at a public school in Texas. She managed around 35 kids during her 30 volunteer hours per week. After taking a break from her volunteer work to finish her degree and work for Department of Social Services, Slusser discovered her volunteer position was now offered as a paid position. After applying for and being offered the position, she immediately began working as a site coordinator in Texas public schools. Around 1998, she and her husband were planning on moving to North Carolina. She began researching CIS in the North Carolina area and discovered that Rowan County was starting a branch. Slusser applied and got the job as Executive Director of the affiliate. “Everything fell in line, I was coming where I was supposed to be,” Slusser states.

Slusser explains the difficulty of starting up the organization in Rowan County. With no staff for the first two years, her obligations included hiring staff, completing non-profit paper work, registering with the state as an LLC, and becoming established within the county. She states she basically “learned on the job.” For the first two years of operation, CIS managed about 50 kids between two local middle schools with a few after-school programs. Last school year, CIS of Rowan County operated in four elementary, two middle and two high schools serving over 5,000 students.

Communities In Schools operates on “relationships not programs,” as founder Bill Milliken once said. Children in the partnered schools are most commonly referred by teachers to participate in CIS services. Teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and even the child him/herself can refer children to receive services. Slusser explained how teachers most commonly submit referrals because “[they] are the ones that are going to know who is struggling in class.” Once children are enrolled in the program, the site coordinator immediately begins working one-on-one with the students. Slusser describes the site coordinators as a “key” part of the CIS. Each coordinator meets with their “case managed” students at least once every ten days. In between the ten days, students will often have other services, such as tutoring or health appointments. “To have something so dependent on relationship building, [site coordinators] have to know their kids,” Slusser states. She also explained the difficulty of child cooperation at times. Slusser encourages volunteers to attempt three or four meetings with reluctant children. She explains the importance of having staff and volunteers on-site at the schools because they are able to work on a “personal level” with the kids.

In David Bornstein’s social entrepreneur book, How to Change the World, he states about innovative organizations, “Organizations whose success hinges on high-quality human interaction generally pay close attention to soft qualities when recruiting, hiring, and managing staff” (Bornstein 2007). Communities In Schools of Rowan County has a strong and dedicated volunteer staff. With over 250 volunteers in the Rowan County sector, CIS places volunteers in the participating schools to assist operations in many ways. The site coordinators initially decide the services each child needs. Then the volunteers help implement those services by acting as tutors, mentors, chaperones, or advisors to the children. Volunteering for CIS begins with a processing form, signed by the principal, a background check, an online course is completed and then a volunteer training class directly with CIS staff is attended. Similar to Bornstein’s concept, the volunteers are sensitive, caring, and friendly, which allows them to create strong relationships with the kids, making the organization more effective. Slusser states how crucial volunteers are for CIS because they are able to “track the progress the kids are making” through their weekly meetings. By meeting with the children for thirty minutes to an hour every week, CIS can see true improvements with the children. With a new focus on literacy improvement proposed by the Rowan County Superintendent, more volunteers will be needed to reach the goal. Although volunteer shortages are not an issue, Slusser says CIS of Rowan County “could always use more.”

Multiple organizations and donors fund Communities In Schools. CIS is a “United Way Agency.” Therefore they receive about 12% of their budget from United Way. They are also given approximately $25,000 per year from Rowan-Salisbury School System. The Robertson Funding Foundation has donated a large amount of the annual budget for many years.  With other grants and private donations, CIS of Rowan County’s budget of around $300,000 is not completely covered. CIS of Rowan County’s largest fundraiser is their “banner campaign.” Through this campaign, sponsors are able to have their name put on a vertical banner that is hung in all the participating schools for an entire year. CIS delivers over $1 million in resources every year in the Rowan County schools. By receiving almost no funds from national or state corporations, Slusser believes funding is one of CIS of Rowan County’s biggest challenges. She wishes that in the future she would be able to give her staff “a better pay scale and benefits.” “Most of us in the non-profit business are here because we’re helping people and we feel driven to do that,” Slusser states.

Another issue CIS of Rowan County struggles with is community awareness. “I am still amazed that after a number of years, people think that all we do is collect school supplies,” Slusser states. After 17 years, many people in the Rowan County area are unaware of CIS and its purpose. With more community awareness, CIS would gain more funding, donations, and volunteer participation. Slusser believes that the lack of community awareness could possibly be related to the limited amount of funding. With a larger budget, CIS of Rowan County would be able to expand and advertise their organization more throughout the county.

Along with more funding and community awareness improvements, Slusser has one more hope for the future of CIS in Rowan County. Communities In Schools’ board has a variety of people on it, including local government officials, health officials, school representatives, and even previous site coordinators. But, one representative the board does not have is a voice of the young people. Slusser hopes to get some younger people on the board so they can help make decisions based on their first-hand experience in the schools and so they can learn about the operations of CIS. Getting a youth representative, most likely 18 years of age or older, will allow CIS to get insight from a younger view. “How do we get some younger folks that are willing to be a part of this process?… It is their community too,” Slusser wonders.

After 17 years of service in Rowan County, Communities In Schools has helped young students stay in school and succeed in life. Through multiple community resources and one-on-one counseling, CIS is able to effectively connect with students to make a difference. In the words of Bornstein in How to Change the World, CIS reflects an innovative organization because it creates “real solutions for real people,” (Bornstein 2007). Although funding and community awareness remain issues in the Rowan County branch, CIS still manages to deliver consistent services to children in need. After working with CIS for about 20 years, Executive Director Victoria Slusser has been able to see positive effects the non-profit has had on thousands of kids throughout Rowan County.  Today, Communities in Schools continues to make an impact of students every day through their “relationships, not programs.”