The Courage to Create

When was the last time you pulled out some pen and paper and wrote a letter? Who did you write to?

On Saturday morning, about 70 Kalamazoo Public School students wrote letters to Struggle, Justice, Courage, Depression, Future, Power, Spite, and more in “Courage to Create” poetry workshops held at Western Michigan University as part of Kalamazoo’s annual MLK Day Celebration.

Kalamazoo Central High School’s Assistant Principal Greg Straka was one of several Kalamazoo Public School staff who wrote alongside Kalamazoo Central, Loy Norrix, and Phoenix High School students. For today’s post, we share his lovely letter.



Dear Prayer, Hope, and Love,

I am writing this letter in deep appreciation of your groups many talents. It is your ability to work together in a life changing way that I would like to focus my attention.

In times when it seems all is lost, and there is nothing right in the world, the three of you are always there. I gain peace when I pray for my students. I see Hope shine her beautiful face in the eyes of Giants, as Hope also lives in me when I think of their future. Love is there also, as a quiet presence. A hug, high-five, handshake, and smile are evidence that my prayers are being heard and that my vision of a hopeful future in the loving, capable hands of our student leaders will eventually come to fruition.

Again, thank you.


Greg Straka

In the months to come, we’ll publish a few works that students created during this workshop, so keep up with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

Spotlight on CIS Alumna, Dominique Edwards

Dominique Edwards, a 2014 graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School, is featured in this year’s 2016/17 CIS Annual Report. A CIS alumna and former board member of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Dominique graduated in May with an associate’s degree in social science from  Southwestern Michigan College. She is now working on obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University.  Here’s some of the conversation we had with Dominique that you won’t find in the annual report.

What does it feel like to be a Promise Scholar?

I was in 7th grade when I came to KPS, so I receive 75% of the Promise. I appreciate the Promise, I really do. Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.

After graduating high school, what has been one of the biggest surprises you faced after graduation, and headed to college?

How broke you are! Even with support from a parent, it’s surprising as to how hard it is. I think there’s a misconception out there, that as long as you have the Promise, you’re set. That’s not exactly true. You have other fees, like living expenses and transportation.

Biggest challenge since graduating high school?

Becoming an adult. When you’re 18 you’re not really an adult yet. You don’t understand the gravity of what it means to be grown up until you have a light bill to pay. Light bills and paying rent, these were all wake-up calls for me. I’ve had to learn how not to depend so much on others now, like my mom, and take care of myself more.

Proudest accomplishment so far?

Getting my first real job on my own. I had gotten a job in housekeeping at the hotel I’m currently working for The Four Points Sheraton. Housekeeping is hard work! Anyways, I’d been doing it about  three and a half months, when I decided to talk to the hotel manager. “How do I get the front desk position?” I asked. “How do I move up?” After going through additional screenings, a background check, and passing a drug test, a week later I had the job!

No one called in favors for me. I did it myself. I looked into the situation, went through the whole process, and got the job. And then I got my first check!

What advice would you give to current KPS students who have not yet graduated from high school?  

Back when I was in high school, you could talk to me until you were blue in the face and I wouldn’t have heard you. Until you go through a situation, you can’t really know. I guess, my advice would be to know that there will be hard times. And when they come, keep a straight head. Talk to someone. It helps to release some of the frustrations and the anxiety of whatever you’re going through.

For someone who might not know, how would you describe CIS?

CIS is an older sibling in your school that you look up to. They look out for you and tell you that they love you but also that you need to do better. If you’re acting up in school they let you know. And if you can do better grade-wise, they tell you. CIS is like, No, you aren’t going to get away with not doing your best. You can amount to so much more. You can do better, they say, but you can also be better—as a student and a person. CIS helps you do that.

To learn more about Dominique, what it meant to her to have CIS in her school, her future goals, and more, read the CIS Annual Report. And just last week, Communities In Schools, Inc. posted a conversation Dominique had with CIS of Central Texas site coordinator Naedean Herrera. You can go here to listen to it on soundcloud. Dominique talks about the role her former CIS Site Coordinators, Artrella Cohn and Deborah Yarbrough, played in her success and she closes out the interview with some of her spoken-word poetry. 

Speaking of poetry, here is Dominique during her high school years working on her poetry craft with members of Truth Tone Records.



Graduate Reflects on his Experience with CIS

Curt Johnson will soon start college. Having graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School this past spring, Curt reflected on his CIS experience at the 10th Annual Champ Celebration held this past April. Since then, a number of guests in attendance have asked us to publish it. Curt has graciously given permission for us to publish his remarks here, at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

While Curt gave the speech that follows, he did add additional comments at times. For instance, when he noticed Angelita Aguilar (a 2016 Champ—you can read about her here) in the sea of almost 400 people, he called her out and thanked her for her support through the years.

PNC was the Student Showcase Sponsor and when Curt finished his speech, Steve Powell, on behalf of PNC, presented Curt with an Apple iPad Pro as a gift to help him continue his education this fall as a Kalamazoo Promise scholar

Curt presented with PNC gift from Steve Powell.

Here’s Curt’s speech:

I’m happy to be able to share my story with you and my experience with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. CIS has helped me a lot. I first became involved with the CIS when I was in sixth grade at Milwood Magnet Middle School. During conferences, one of my teachers recommended CIS to my mom and me. For that, I am grateful. Ever since then, CIS has been like a home base for me throughout my education.

One of the reasons I thought CIS was a good fit for me was because moving into a new school would be a way to make friends and meet new people and find out more about myself. I’d recently moved to a new neighborhood, having been adopted into a new family when I was going into fifth grade.

The CIS After School program kept me busy after school. Staying busy is important for kids and teenagers; without extra-curricular activities kids begin to look for things to do that aren’t good for them and could end up getting them into trouble. We always did fun activities. I especially enjoyed going to the gym and eating snacks. We also did homework while we ate our snacks.

I gained a lot of new experiences through CIS. For instance, as part of the after school program, we had an opportunity to sign up for various activities throughout the week, so I was always busy. I was introduced to different cultures, various forms of dance, music, and even food. I also found my passion for music through CIS. This was during seventh and eighth grade and it was thanks to CIS partner Bangtown Productions. We probably made around 20 songs throughout the two-year span. I still have the CD’s we made.

Over the years, CIS has helped me with school. That help is especially fresh in my mind this year, as I’m a senior preparing to graduate and take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise. I’ve appreciated the tutoring opportunities and the really helpful tutors that CIS has provided. It’s been great having WMU students help me with chemistry. These college students are going to school for engineering so they explain things, and get me through it.

Throughout my high school years at Kalamazoo Central, my CIS Site Coordinator, Ms. Yarbrough has taken me under her wing. She checks up with me regularly, making sure I’m staying on top of my academics. She also helps resolve problems and situations. Those situations can range from serious issues to just needing a granola bar so I can focus and get through the day. I want to give my site coordinator a shout out for always keeping my best interest in mind. She makes it clear what I need to do, what I should do, and if anything is wrong—let the problem be known—so we can fix it.

Curt, at Champs with CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough.

I know that some kids have a hard time talking to adults, so having a CIS person like Ms. Yarbrough in their school—whose job is to be there and help you get through your school days so you can graduate—is important. As a high school student, the emotional support I’ve received from CIS helps me get through the school year. Kids deal with a lot of stress and people like Ms. Yarbrough and other CIS staff understand. This emotional support is important to so many kids—as you’ll often find many students lining up at the CIS door, waiting to talk with Ms. Yarbrough. Just like a lot of other kids, I don’t have to break down, because I have somebody I can talk to, somebody I can trust. Someone always make sure I say how I feel so it’s not affecting me during the school day.

As I reflect on my six years with CIS, I think what I’ll take away most from the experience is having gained friends, opportunities, met CIS staff and mentors and people I can turn to if I need help. Without the support and guidance from CIS, the chances of me walking the stage and receiving my diploma would have been very slim. I will be graduating this June and plan to attend Southwestern Michigan College. I’m interested in social work and theatre.

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the years I’ve spent with Communities In Schools. I would also like to thank all the people I’ve met over these years of being involved with the program—the CIS staff, the partners, the volunteers—and to all the people who I haven’t met, who have given money, time, effort, and patience to helping all of us kids.

Thank you.

Thank you, Curt! We’re excited for all that the future holds for you. You know where to find us! Stay in touch!

Did you catch Curt Johnson along with Deborah Yarbrough, CIS Site Coordinator at Kalamazoo Central High School, on The Lori Moore Show? You can watch it here.


Rotary Club of Kalamazoo: Living Out Service Above Self

Today we highlight Rotary Club of Kalamazoo, honored with a 2017 Champ Award. The team’s Champ award was sponsored by Miller-Davis. CIS Board member and Bronson Healthcare Vice President Terry Morrow presented the award.

Where to begin? We could go back to 1914, when this next Champ was born right here in Kalamazoo. But let’s just go back 17 years, when Communities In Schools first had the pleasure of partnering with The Rotary Club of Kalamazoo and seeing, first hand, Rotarians living out their club’s motto: Service above Self.

STRIVE working together at Hays Park.

It was in 2001 that Rotary kicked off its STRIVE program, in which Kalamazoo Central High School students are paired with a Rotarian who serves as a STRIVE mentor. Having this one-on-one relationship with a caring adult helps students at risk of dropping out, to stay in school and on track for graduation.

In 2015, Rotarians expanded its STRIVE program to Loy Norrix High School and also initiated a Career Connections program. A national survey released in 2014 by Achieve showed that approximately 50% of recent high school graduates reported gaps in preparation for life after high school. The Kalamazoo Rotary is working to bridge this gap. CIS Senior Site Coordinator Montrell Baker says that through Career Connections, juniors and seniors have the opportunity to meet and build relationships with Rotarians or other career professionals in Kalamazoo. “Connecting with these professionals and having a chance to interview them is a fun and exciting way to learn what it really means to work in the career that has captured their interest.

While supporting high school students, they haven’t forgotten about our elementary students. Because promoting literacy is one of the club’s goals, they joined forces with CIS as part of their Rotary Is For Reading Campaign. They know that research shows that students who read proficiently before fourth grade are far more likely to finish school and pursue higher education. So, for the past eight Aprils, they have worked with the school district and CIS to foster College Awareness Week, where Rotarians pair up and step into second grade classrooms throughout Kalamazoo Public Schools. Wearing college gear and armed with the book, I Know I Can, they promote literacy, a college-going culture, and inspire students to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise. Each student receives their own copy of the book, in which young animal characters share their dreams and career aspirations and commit to preparing for college. Each student also receives a bracelet inscribed with “I Know I Can” to remind them that they too must prepare for college, even as second graders.

Whether it’s reading to thousands of elementary students, adopting a CIS family for the holidays, or making personal and career connections with high school students, Rotarians are truly united in the ideal of Service above Self.

Rotary Club of Kalamazoo, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.



Susan Knox: Doing Her Part to Create a Community of Hope

Today we highlight Susan Knox, honored with a 2017 Champ Award. Her Champ award was sponsored by Greenleaf Trust. CIS Board member and Kalamazoo Promise Board Member Dr. Janice M. Brown presented the award.

A child’s success in school and life often hinges on the opportunity to have a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. It’s one of the five CIS basics, something every child needs and deserves. This relationship can make the difference between a student staying in school or becoming one of the 1.2 million students who drop out of school each year. Since the Fall of 2010, Susan Knox has been that caring adult for many of our high school students, particularly those struggling academically.

When Susan, a chemical engineer, retired from Pfizer, she sold her house and car, and moved downtown. “I wanted to start volunteering,” she said, “to contribute to something I felt passionate about. I picked up a pamphlet about volunteering and circled the ones I thought I could do.” We’re forever thankful she circled Communities In Schools.

Susan, on right, with CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough.

She has been a CIS volunteer at Kalamazoo Central for seven years now. Regardless of the weather, she catches the city bus and week after week, year after year, shows up consistently for our kids. “Suzie’s passion to serve students goes far beyond what is expected of any volunteer,” says CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough. “She’s willing to adjust her schedule to accommodate the needs of both our students and staff.

Her flexibility has allowed CIS to connect her with the students who need her most. She provides academic support to student one-on-one and in small groups. She’s worked with students during study hall, after school, and during the lunch hour. While she primarily focuses on math, she’s willing to tutor in other subjects. “No French or Spanish,” she says, “but I’ll give everything else a try.”

Susan and Kalamazoo Cental student taking a break from tutoring to smile.

Smart, compassionate and humble, Susan credits her success with students to the support she’s received along the way. “CIS gave me the training I needed to be successful. I learned how to do things and just as importantly, what not to do.” She refers to CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough and CIS Success Coach Jenna Cooperrider as her “CIS bosses…They aren’t bossy, though,” she says. “Because they know the students so well, they give me insight into what the students need from me. They’re role models. I watch their interactions and it helps me figure out what I should do, what I should tolerate or not tolerate when it comes to behaviors. They coordinate with each other and give me the support I need so I can support the student.”

“Volunteering,” someone once said, “is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Through her rock solid and steady support, Susan is creating a community of hope, one in which all children can fulfill their promise.

Susan Knox, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

David Hamilton: Doing Double Duty

This article was featured in our CIS Connections newsletter, The Double Issue. You can find the full publication here.

David Hamilton is studying health administration at Western Michigan University and, along with his twin brother, Daniel, will graduate this spring. As an AmeriCorps VISTA member with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo at Kalamazoo Central High School and Washington Writers’ Academy, David is focused on promoting a college-going culture.

At Kalamazoo Central, David has also been working on improving attendance among ninth graders who are chronically absent. He says, “The school and CIS work together to remove barriers to attendance. We’ve named the program ‘All Giants Present.’” David has been researching what works and says that “while there may be many root issues, it comes down to accountability and community support.”

One of the strategies he’s implementing is incentive cards. “They are more like ‘we miss you’ cards and they are signed by other students. Geared towards accountability, these cards let the absent student know their absence is noticed and that they are missed.”

David & Daniel Hamilton
David Hamilton (left) with his twin brother, Daniel, as children.
Now as an adult, David (left) is an AmeriCoprs VISTA member with CIS.

Pop Quiz: Jenna Cooperrider  

img_3224Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Jenna Cooperrider, now in her second year as CIS Success Coach for Kalamazoo Central High School. CIS Success Coaches allow Communities In Schools to have a larger footprint in larger schools. CIS Success Coaches are an extension—a more expansive one—of the case management model. It allows CIS to delve more deeply into a school, to meet student needs. For students who need a moderate degree of support, having that one-on-one support from Jenna or her colleague, O’Neal Ollie, CIS Success Coach at Loy Norrix High School, can be the tipping point that gets students on track and on the road to graduation.

Jenna hails from Waterford, Michigan. She received her undergraduate degrees in English and Psychology from the University of Michigan. She then attended Wayne State University where she earned her Masters in Social Work. Jenna works closely with CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough and she says, “I love when we see the positive changes in kids from working with them. We have a student who was failing and is now passing all his classes—and you know that if you weren’t there, it could have been a different situation.”

Alright, Ms. Cooperrider: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.


What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

On fleek.


On fleek. I heard students mentioning this word, using it quite a bit, and thought it was a website. But, it means on-point. My hair’s on fleek.

I feel five percent hipper now.

Yea, the kids really keep me up to date. I like how they teach me things.

Favorite word?


What are you currently reading?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. It takes place during the Second World War. Kavalier and Clay are cousins, one just escaped from the Czech Republic and one from New York City and they create a new superhero and get a contract to start a new comic book.

As you know, attendance is one of our goals at CIS this year. As a success coach, what is one of the main reasons some kids struggle with attendance?

That’s a hard question to answer. When it comes to attendance, it’s really student specific as to why a particular student isn’t coming to school. There can be common denominators, but when it comes down to asking students, it’s not always the same answer.

What are some of the reasons you hear?

Not having an alarm clock is a big one. Sometimes, students miss the bus and they just don’t have a ride to school. Some don’t like school. Some stay home with a sick brother or sister because their parents have to work. Sometimes, it just takes a phone call to the parents. “What do you mean my kid isn’t in school?” they sometimes say. And then a half hour later that student is in school.

For instance, I’ve worked with a student who was struggling with his attendance. Turns out, he had spotty and unreliable transportation. He was also homeless. I worked closely with Mr. Schrum, our homeless liaison here at Kalamazoo Central. He’s one of our go-to people for resources for kids in these situations. He got the student bus tokens. And now, a school bus picks the student up.

When it comes to addressing attendance issues, CIS needs to not only work with the student, but work closely with the school and also communicate with parents, letting them know what resources are available to help.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who is your caring adult?

Besides the obvious—my mom and my dad—I would say my grandma. She was a single mom. She worked really, really hard to support my mom and my aunt. She’s the epitome of hard work. She worked at General Motors while raising two kids on her own. She’s feisty and says what she thinks. I don’t always want to hear what she has to say but she’ll tell me anyways. I respect that.

Thank you, Jenna!



Pop Quiz: Tyesha Moore 

TyeshaWelcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Tyesha Moore. A former Milwood Elementary and Linden Grove Middle School student, Tyesha is now a sophomore at Kalamazoo Central High School. She became involved with Communities In Schools in ninth grade. “I met [CIS Success Coach] Ms. Cooperrider through [CIS Site Coordinator] Ms. Yarbrough,” she says. “Both help me, are there even through my toughest times.” As Tyesha puts it, “They have both taken me under their wings and now Ms. Cooperrider is keeping me on her watch.”

Jenna Cooperrider describes Tyesha as “really smart and sweet.” Tyesha describes herself as “shy.” This school year, this young woman is stepping out of her comfort zone to explore her passion for writing by taking a slam poetry class with English teacher, Christopher Bullmer.

Alright, Tyesha: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.


What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

Never give up. I never give up on certain things, even though it’s really hard. Also, when somebody gets in your way, move around them, and breathe! I’m trying to do good, but it’s a struggle.

Favorite word?

Roses, because I like roses. I want to get a tattoo in honor of my little niece that passed away. I want it to be beautiful. I love the color blue and my niece loved the color pink and so a rose with those colors, that is what I have in mind for getting a tattoo.

Poetry is an important part of your life. Can you share a little bit about when you started writing? Your writing routine?

I’ve been writing poetry since I was fourteen. I carry a notebook with me so I can write when I need to. Sometimes I write every day. Sometimes, every other day.


Three words that come to mind after reading some of your poems: deep, dark, and real. Is that a fair statement?

Yes, my poetry is about my life and expressing how I feel.

The poet Rita Dove has said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Do you agree?

I think I do. Poetry is a type of power you put into your words. I write whatever I feel and whatever is around me.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished a good book. I can’t remember the title now and I already turned it back to the school library, but it’s about a girl who has two separate families. One is the real one and the other family kidnapped her but she said they didn’t.

What are your plans upon graduating from high school?

I want to travel to an art institute, attend college out of state somewhere and work on my poetry.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who is your caring adult?

My mother. She takes care of me. She has eleven kids and I am the baby of the family. Her kids have all grown up to be what they want to be. For instance, my older sister is a banker.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I envision myself doing a couple things. I’ve always wanted to be a famous artist and also go into modeling. But, with modeling, you have got to be perfect. I’m not perfect so I think I’m going to do something that mixes poetry and art.

Thank you, Tyesha!