In 1989, the United Way of Tarrant County formed a “Stay In School Task Force” of more than 100 community volunteers to study its number one priority, the school dropout problem.
After a year of research, volunteers broke into smaller groups focusing on Fort Worth school district pyramid systems where the dropout rates were most significant.
We worked with school staff, parents and community members, dedicating months of in-depth study to identify programs as potential remedies for the growing concern.
In 1992, the district invited the task force to start a Communities In Schools program.
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With two initial funders providing a base of $10,000, the effort hired Mike Steele as executive director of Communities In Schools of Fort Worth (now Tarrant County) to serve approximately 200 students from Polytechnic and Diamond-Hill Jarvis high schools.
Steele had to raise the funds for his own salary and his support staff, find donated office space and work from a cast-off word processor while hiring social workers to begin building relationships within the schools.
Today, Steele has grown the organization to a staff of 75 that serves nearly 5,000 students annually at 57 schools across nine Tarrant County school districts.
The non-profit assists not only students but also their families, working with more than 80 community partner organizations to address a wide range of unique issues.
Now president and chief executive officer, Steele is retiring this month after 25 years leading Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County.
Tens of thousands of at-risk students have directly benefited from Steele’s vision and leadership through Communities In Schools, including “straight-A” Polytechnic High School student Thi Nguyen.
One of five children of immigrant parents, Thi felt mounting pressure when the high school freshman heard of a “club meeting” where there would be free refreshments.
There, Thi met a Communities In Schools social worker and formed a life-changing bond.
Communities in Schools staff helped Thi gain confidence, receive free prom and graduation dresses and most importantly, apply for financial assistance to nine colleges.
The hard-working student’s commitment paid off with a full-ride scholarship to Texas Christian University as a prestigious Community Scholar.
Thi is now 23 years old and pursuing her masters in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington — while also employed as a Communities In Schools project manager at Lake Worth High School.
For the 2015-2016 school year, Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County served 37,232 students in 52 schools.
Steele’s forward-thinking leadership has allowed Communities In Schools to evolve according to the changing needs of our communities, our schools, our staff and most of all, the thousands of Tarrant County students we serve each year.
Una Bailey is a founding board member of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County Inc.