Tell us about yourself.
My name is Verenda Cobbs and I serve as the Program Director for High Schools and Performance Learning Centers for Communities In Schools of Richmond (CIS). I hold a master’s in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University and have been in the human services field in some capacity since graduating from high school.
While at VCU I completed an internship at CIS that began my understanding of the impact of poverty on children and how outside issues (hunger, homelessness, lack of nutritional meals, etc.) can become barriers to learning when at school. I later completed internships at Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Richmond Public Schools, and the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls. Each of these experiences provided a different perspective on the effects of poverty on children.
As I case-managed and worked with students I realized that resilience and having a strong support system in place played a significant role in their success. After graduation, I worked in both the mental health field and in community development for other nonprofit organizations. Each of these opportunities helped prepare and lead me back to CIS.
I have been working with Communities In Schools of Richmond for four years – starting as a school Site Coordinator at John Marshall High School and transitioning to my current role in 2016. Without a shadow of a doubt I would say that I am now at my dream job!
What is the focus of your work?
Communities in Schools of Richmond (CIS) works in 39 K-12 public schools in Richmond and Henrico. Our goal is to support students by assessing student needs and establishing relationships with local businesses, social service agencies, health care providers, and parent and volunteer organizations to provide needed resources.
CIS focuses on five things that we feel every student needs to thrive:
- Safe place to learn and grow
- One-on-one relationship with a caring adult
- Healthy start and a healthy future
- Marketable skill to use upon graduation
- Chance to give back to peers and community
Through a school-based site coordinator, CIS strategically aligns and delivers needed resources so that students can focus on learning. In this pivotal role, the CIS Site Coordinator works with school staff to identify students at risk of not graduating. They assess school and student needs and harnesses the external resources necessary to make a difference in the life of a child.
The CIS mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. Site coordinators often start by meeting basic needs such as food and school supplies. Soon, because they are dependable, consistent and positive, the CIS team begins to build relationships that will open opportunities to meet the more intensive needs of individual students.
CIS implements this model at every site – elementary, middle and high school – to ensure that students are connected to these basic needs so that they can succeed. We’ve found that building a support network for students who lack resources is an undeniable piece of the puzzle that leads to strong student engagement and on-time graduation. But CIS does not work alone. During the last school year, there were more than 350 partners supporting Richmond and Henrico students and more than 1,200 volunteers who shared time with K-12 students. Together we were able to serve as a network of support to help students keep the doors of opportunity open. We are a link to positive relationships, mentors, emergency resources, community engagement and healthy activities for more than 18,000 students and families in Richmond and Henrico County.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
As a Program Director, the most rewarding part of my work is seeing my staff grow and develop. I have an absolutely amazing team of human service professionals that I get to champion every day! I work with staff to develop data driven and evidence-based interventions and help them grow in their role as site coordinators.
We work together as a team to identify the challenges and issues their students are facing in school, at home, and in their community. By identifying these challenges, staff can engage in individual case-management and provide tiered levels of intervention and support to their student population. Each of the high school and Performance Learning Center staff has developed a unique vision for their school, which results in a stronger program and increased student engagement throughout the school year.
As an organization, I can say that the most rewarding part of our work is helping students succeed. Success often starts with small steps – a high five and smile in the hallway, attending school every day for a week, choosing to walk away from a negative situation instead of engaging – and sometimes success looks like those last few steps across a stage at graduation, getting into a first-choice college, or having a game plan for after high school. Not many people have the honor and privilege of clearly seeing how their role at work changes lives. At CIS we help students succeed – to stay on track at school and make it to graduation – and helping students succeed is hands-down the most rewarding part of any job at CIS.
What are some major challenges you have faced and how you handled them?
I struggled like many of our students. Growing up in a single-parent home, I worked part-time through high school while balancing obligations of being the oldest of my siblings. I struggled academically during my transition to high school, experienced bullying, and had some challenges socially and emotionally. My high school experience was very difficult – and after failing out of the nursing technical education program that served my high school I was left with no plan for graduation. With the help of my guidance counselor and one of my friends, I was able to apply late to college and start in the spring instead of in the fall. Had it not been for their guidance and interest in seeing me succeed, I don’t know where I would be now. This support system helped me through the financial aid process and connected me with resources to succeed in college – with their help I became the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college. These experiences have helped me have a frame of reference as I work with both students and my team.
Sadly, my story is not unique. There are so many students in our region that need similar support. At CIS we always need job mentoring/job shadowing experiences, career readiness enrichment, and training on financial planning, building healthy relationships, and mindfulness. At the high school level, it is common for parent engagement to decrease while mentoring, and enrichment programs are less available, thus requiring CIS staff to be creative in strategically creating programs that serve the needs of our students.
Site coordinators have developed mentoring programs and small groups that include interventions related to trauma-informed care and mindfulness, service learning, as well as parent engagement, resiliency, healthy relationships, and career-readiness. They do a phenomenal job implementing enrichment field trips, college tours and guest speakers to help the students on their caseload learn skills to help them prepare for graduation and success outside of school.
What would someone be surprised to know about your organization?
Although we have a variety of roles in our organization we all can work closely together to serve the needs of our students, families, our schools, and our community. Many of our staff serve on Citywide initiatives to support the larger community in areas of trauma informed care, mental health, workforce development, housing access and other areas of health/wellness.
Through our collaboration in these various initiatives we can work side by side with many other community organizations to support our students, not just at the school level but also at the community level. I think it is fair to say that for most CIS staff our role is not only a job, but an extension of our life’s work. We are engaged, excited, and enriched to provide for the students that we serve. Communities In Schools staff are passionate about the work and have extensive training to ensure that we are utilizing current evidence based interventions to serve our students.
Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?
Each year we have the opportunity to take 300 students from area middle and high schools downtown to the General Assembly Building and the Supreme Court of Virginia for Rule of Law Day. Students can learn about the three branches of government and discuss unique challenges in how they affect their generation with lawmakers. This is a program that our students look forward to every year.
Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?
At CIS of Richmond we are thankful to partner with over 350 organizations throughout the Greater Richmond area. Our work would not be as robust without the support of these organizations and other area nonprofits. Together we are supporting over 18,000 students a year with mentors, lunch buddies, weekend food bags, grief counseling, reading partners, mindfulness moments — and more!
How are you leveraging ConnectVA and Community Foundation to achieve your mission?
The Community Foundation has been a long-time supporter of CIS of Richmond. We are so appreciative of this partnership that allows us to continue to support K-12 students who are at the greatest risk of dropping out.
ConnectVA has provided a wonderful resource to CIS. We post open positions through the ConnectVA website, share events through the site, and often check out the classifieds to see if any extra items might work for our CIS school sites.
Anything else you would like to share?
Here’s an inspirational video highlighting a George Wythe Highschool student, Alfredo and his CIS Coordinator Angela.