By Sonji Branch, CEO
The new normal is a phrase we’ve all become accustomed to saying during the pandemic. It’s heartbreaking, really. Not because of mask mandates, social distancing, or any of the common things we’ve associated it with the past two years of pandemic life, but because of what it means for children growing up today. The idea that the challenges our families now have to contend with – particularly those in Black and Brown communities that were already under-served – should somehow be viewed as normal is simply unacceptable.
Communities In Schools of Memphis (CISM) is an independent accredited affiliate of the nation’s most effective dropout prevention organizations, providing integrated student support within more than two dozen schools across the Memphis region. Through the implementation of an evidenced-based model, we have helped schools across West Tennessee decrease grade retention, drop out rates, and chronic absenteeism while improving academic outcomes and postsecondary opportunities for students and families.
Last school year, CISM helped keep 97 percent of Memphis students in school and supported high school students in earning an additional $2 million of income. However, the stories of adversity that we’ve witnessed locally and learned about nationally the past couple of years tells us we must operate with a greater sense of urgency to help our community rebound.
Priorities have changed drastically for many students and families due to mounting issues, from lack of technology and food insecurity to job loss and, of course, impacts from illness and death. The trauma is significant and makes students fearful of the future. With so much ground to make up, families are also losing faith in the education system as concerns for their personal well-being take precedence.
We don’t have any time to waste. We must remain committed to our mission more than ever and help our entire community believe that education deserves to be a top priority.
We have to do what we do best — put the individual needs of students and families first. Our work this entire school year to expand and strengthen partnerships and identify new funding sources will help connect more students and families to the resources and supports they so desperately need to achieve a real sense of normalcy again.
Educational equity must remain at the core of our work, but a more intense focus on family stability has to guide us.
The good news is we’ve positioned ourselves to help – in the classroom and in life. Social-emotional learning (SEL) was a top priority for our team entering this school year because we knew more holistic support and emphasis on mental health was needed to help students cope with trauma in healthy ways so they can re-engage in learning. In addition to ongoing SEL training, CISM is launching the new “Take 5” video series this spring as an added wellness resource for families. Each month, we’ll share advice from local experts on physical health, mental health, and issues that affect our overall quality of life. Again, this pandemic has shifted priorities for families, so identifying more ways to address their essential needs is vital.
Recently, CISM was awarded $2.25 million from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott as part of a larger donation to the CIS national network. This investment will help us realize our five-year strategic plan, which elevates three priorities: advance educational equity, serve more students and families, and create a vibrant and inclusive culture. More specifically, we will be able to create sustainable post-secondary pathways that are tailored for the needs and interests of students in today’s society. The challenges of the pandemic have made many students re-evaluate the importance of college, at least in the short term, so we’re working to make sure they also have the right resources to pursue and obtain viable career opportunities after high school.
The new normal is going to require more than the normal approach, but we cannot back down from the challenge. We have to be innovative and adaptive to the changing needs of our students and families. Our work is only starting, and the need for strengthening public and private partnerships to deepen our impact in Memphis has never been greater.
Let’s do the best that we can for our students. They’ve been through so much, and our city’s future truly depends on getting this work right. CISM is #AllinforKids, and we’re proving it!