Communities in Schools founder Bill Milliken promotes civic engagement in schools

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

Anti-dropout advocate Bill Milliken brought about 300 people to the Appell Center Tuesday night, sharing his message about the impact of community involvement in schools.

Education advocate and Communities in Schools founder Bill Milliken speaks during the 2017 United Way of York County Campaign Kick Off at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Bill Kalina photo

Milliken is the founder of the national nonprofit organization Communities in Schools, which helps connect students and parents to resources in order to foster achievement and success.

Communities in Schools assists more than 1.2 million children in 28 states in attaining connections to remain in school, according to the organization.

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“We put a relational router in that school, much like a hospital has a person doing triage when you go into the emergency room,” Milliken said of the organization he led until 2004.

He was brought to speak at the Appell Center by the United Way of York, which has a similar mission statement for its 2017 kick-off campaign season: “Build bridges between the people in need and the programs that can help.”

In his first trip to York County, the Pittsburgh native visited McKinley K-8 in York City, which has a site coordinator from Communities in Schools.

Milliken praised the school’s leadership, claiming he called the school building’s imminent success within five minutes of his visit after meeting with school principal Danielle Brown.

“If you don’t have a good principal, it doesn’t matter if Communities in Schools is there or not,” Milliken said, a school wouldn’t succeed.

During his visit, Milliken also participated in a luncheon at the United Way of York that included school district superintendents from across the county.

Red Lion Area Superintendent Scott Diesley said Milliken understood that poverty-related educational issues weren’t exclusive to urban school districts such as York City.

Rural areas in school districts, which Diesley said includes some of Red Lion’s geography, have a place in the educational conversation.

“His message speaks to all of us,” he said.

While at the meeting, Milliken wore a shirt with the message “I (heart) public schools,” and while he said public education was under attack, he said the battle he was focused on was preventing drop-outs.

“People ask me the question, but that’s not what my mission is,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re in charter schools.”

“The data says you give me a really good charter school, you’ll get phenomenal (results), and if you get a really good public school, you’re going to get the same results.”

At the Appell Center, Milliken recalled his journey from perennial dropout (“I’ve taken three freshman years of college”) to the power of relationships that can inspire students to achieve more.

“The only thing that can transform people is love,” he said.

Milliken testified to Congress in the 1970s on what he saw as a dropout crisis.

“I called it the No. 1 civil rights, economic and moral issue of our time,” Milliken said. “It was insane that we were losing over a million kids a year (because of dropout).”

Since then, he said, the issue has improved exponentially but added the work is far from over

“Our kids are hungry (for inspiration). We're all hungry for a relationship,” Milliken said.

“We’re all kids.”

Panel: After his remarks, Milliken was joined by York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes, Central York school board president Eric Wolfgang, and state Executive Deputy Education Secretary David Volkman.

United Way communications director Nicole Shaffer asked a general question regarding standardized testing. While Wolfgang said standardized testing wasn't "worth the paper it's written on," Holmes defended the measuring standard.

"While we do test kids too often, we do need to have some form of accountability," he said.

One question from an audience member asked what more could be done to increase parental involvement.

Initially, no one took up the question, but Milliken ultimately responded, saying many low-income parents work several jobs and schools should instead work on parents' time, suggesting parent-teacher conferences could be scheduled on Saturdays or late evenings.

Holmes said parental involvement faces a new reality in the digital age.

"I think we have to take a look at the definition of involvement and what that means in 2017 instead of 1975," Holmes said. "We have a society that is different."

While parents want to stay engaged with their children's education, some simply don't have the time, he argued.

"We have to consider the fact that maybe they can't come to PTA meetings, but maybe they're helping with homework every night," he said.

Holmes added a new dilemma regarding parental perception. He said many parent's don't feel welcome in schools, further drawing back their involvement.

"That's on us. That's our problem," he said. "We have to fix that."