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Communities in Schools celebrates 30-year anniversary with new leader

Supporters of Communities in Schools of North Carolina (CISNC) crowded the pavilion at Angus Barn last Thursday to celebrate the organization’s 30-year anniversary at its annual back-to-school bash. While many of the attendees had been there before, for one of the most important, it was her first time.

Pam Hartley took over as president and CEO of CISNC about six months ago. She follows in the footsteps of previous leader, Eric Hall, who left the organization to run the state’s Innovative School District. While Hartley has admired the work of CISNC for years, the event on Thursday was her first time at the back-to-school bash. She explained that it was meant to honor former Governors James B. Hunt and Jim Martin, the two people whose efforts led to the founding of the organization 30 years ago.

“These are the two governors that really kicked all of this off in the state,” Hartley said. “That was because, as a bipartisan effort, they knew that if we harness the power, the leadership, of the corporate community with the education community, then we can have a real impact on education.” 

Communities in Schools of North Carolina started in 1989. It’s part of a national Communities in Schools network, and it aims to give students the support they need to survive and thrive in school. 

Hartley said she first heard about the organization about 25 years ago and has admired it ever since. She left her job as vice president of play experience at Marbles Kid Museum for the new role. 

“For me, it was absolutely all about the mission, being able to serve students from elementary all the way through high school and post graduation, and to be able to do that around the state,” she said. 

Hartley moved to the town of Andrews in Cherokee County from Leeds, England when she was in third grade. She described Andrews as a very rural town, and she knows first-hand what a difference having opportunities makes. Having access to extra supports, interested people, and a community college can all make the difference in a young student’s life. 

“When you’re from a small town, you see it right there in your face,” she said. 

Pam Hartley, president and CEO of Communities in Schools North Carolina, speaking at the annual back-to-school bash. Alex Granados/EducationNC

She talks about CISNC as being all about the community. It’s about putting specialists in schools and helping students with different levels of support, sure, but she said the community is instrumental in making it all happen, whether it’s finding partners, utilizing existing wraparound services, or just getting community members invested in the education of students.

“We get to know the whole community,” she said. “And we get to have the whole community rallying around our kids.” 

CISNC has 22 local affiliates around the state, so it works with them to deliver support services but also delivers services itself in rural parts of the state where there is no help, Hartley said. 

The organization is data-driven, a fact that has made a big impression on Hartley since starting in her role. She said support specialists really use the data to help drive the best outcome for students. And data reviews of the program show that it is effective, she said. 

“The opportunity we have in North Carolina is to do this work together, and to sustain, deepen, and grow our impact,” she said. 

The organization serves about 170,000 students a year, Hartley said. But with about half a million children living in poverty in the state, she knows there is work to be done. 

“Although we’re really proud, how do we get to half a million kids?” she asked. 

Moving forward under her leadership, Hartley talked about some of the areas the organization is focusing on. Those, of course, include supporting students in school, especially when it comes to trauma-informed care and social emotional learning.

“This is at the core of what we do,” she said. 

Especially now, as schools are looking to include better access to things like counseling services to meet the social-emotional needs of students. 

Another area of focus will be making sure that students don’t just do well in K-12, but are prepared for continuing education and careers afterwards, be that a four-year degree, community college, or training to enter the workforce. 

A third focus is on helping students transition from juvenile detention back into schools, their families, and their communities, especially in the wake of raise-the-age legislation, which raised the age at which juveniles would be automatically tried as adults in North Carolina from 16 to 18.

For Hartley, the back-to-school bash was as much about looking to the future as it was looking at the successes of the past.

“We’re here to celebrate 30 years and kick of the next 30,” she said. 

Governor Martin talked at the bash about the legacy of the organization and what it has proved. He spoke by phone to the assembled crowd, explaining to them what 30 years of CISNC has demonstrated.

“Because of you, it works,” he said. “You’re the reason that this program can be adapted to any situation.” 

In the video below, watch a student helped by Communities in Schools, right, and her mother sing at the back-to-school bash. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.