CIS Wake President discusses expansion plans with the N&O

CIS Wake President Travis Mitchell shares his vision with the editor’s of the N&O for how the area’s largest drop-out prevention agency plans to help students in Wake County stay in school and achieve in life.

Travis Mitchell has come full circle, and he’s glad to be back home.

But he’s on a mission to remove barriers. Specifically, those that stand in the way of young people and their full potential.

After a successful career in television and marketing in Atlanta, Mitchell, 41, was hired last fall as the new director of Communities in Schools of Wake County, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent dropouts through tutoring programs and mentoring in local elementary, middle and high schools.

The organization, which served 475 students last school year, relies on funding from corporations, such as IBM, SAS and others, and Wake County to provide services to kids who need them.

But for Mitchell, it’s more than a job. It’s personal.

“I’m a product of Wake County,” he said last week during a visit to the News & Observer. “I benefited from the Wake County schools tremendously.”

Mitchell’s school career sent him all over the city – as he points out, he knows busing, and he knows neighborhood schools – and culminated when he graduated with honors from Enloe High School in 1988.

Whether bused to school or whether he lived 10 minutes away, he said he found one constant: Strong adult mentors.

“The thing Wake County schools afforded me was quality teachers,” he said. “I always had a caring adult as an advocate in my life.”

That’s precisely the idea he’s advancing through Communities in Schools.

One way it’s doing this is through “graduation coaches,” adults who work with students at select schools to monitor their progress and keep them moving toward advancement. The coaches work at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Three coaches are funded through the Wake County school district. A few more were added in January and funded through Communities in Schools. The coaches earn about $35,000 a year, Mitchell said.

The work appears to be paying off.

For example, at Millbrook High School this past school year, 53 students worked with the graduation coaches and all had a 90 percent or better attendance rate, with 28 of them exceeding 95 percent.

“We’re trying to build a safety net” that catches students when they fall, or when their circumstances fail them, Mitchell said.

That includes not only the growing number of graduation coaches at local schools, but also trying to grow the number of after-school learning centers currently in five of Raleigh’s public housing communities. Communities in Schools touts the success in those centers during the 2009-2010 school year:

222 students served

72 percent met their goal of missing fewer than eight days of school

94 percent met a goal of no suspensions

67 percent met or exceeded the goal of a C or better in language arts; 57 percent in math and 71 percent in social studies

Expanding partnerships with the business community is another of Mitchell’s immediate goals.

One new partnership with Walmart calls for learning stations inside the retail giant’s stores where students could get help from tutors while their parents shop. After 10 minutes at the learning station, tutors would be able to give parents an assessment of their child’s skills, areas of weakness and information on resources that can help the student progress.

One group that could benefit from Communities in Schools is student athletes, Mitchell said. He speaks from experience.

While at Enloe, Mitchell played on the basketball team and had dreams of making it big.

But, as he readily admits, “My GPA was higher than my points per game.”

That told him he needed a back-up plan, but not everything thinks that way.

“I know what happens when they lose that dream,” he said of student athletes, noting that such disappointment often causes students to lose focus of what’s important.

But a strong mentor can keep these students on track, he said.

Along those lines, Mitchell said Communities in Schools would love more volunteers – retired professionals, business leaders and regular folks with a willingness to give of their time and shape young minds.

It had about 180 this past school year and Mitchell hopes to get 250 for next year. Somewhere closer to 500 would be even better, he said. The more volunteers, the more students get a chance to succeed.

That’s why the community’s help is so important, Mitchell said. His Wake County ties give him added urgency to see this program continue to grow and make a difference in the lives of students.

“You cannot take for granted what happens when an adult cares,” he said.

If you’re interested in volunteering, or learning more about Communities in Schools of Wake County, call Mitchell at 919-834-5663, ext. 3-1, or email tmitchell@ciswake.org.

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Story by JASON FOSTER
jason.foster@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4635

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