Battle Creek

The Blog: Transforming a working model — Leading with relationships

Editor’s note: This is the most recent installment of our new blog. We will be asking for insights from people from across the community who have something to say about their experiences, the ongoing state of affairs, or their lives that will speak to our current time together. Today we hear from Aisha Walters, Regional Director for Communities In Schools of Michigan. If you would like to contribute please let us know. — Kathy Jennings, Managing Editor, Southwest Michigan's Second Wave

Since August of 2019, Communities In Schools of Michigan has been partnering with Battle Creek Public Schools to leverage key, critical relationships to connect students in grades K-12 to work that can help them thrive — enrichment programs, intentional relationships, crucial basic need supports, and weekend food packs.  

For six months, as an affiliate to the National Communities In Schools program, we were excited about key partnerships being made to support Battle Creek Students. Prior to the start of the school year, CIS had facilitated a partnership between Battle Creek YMCA and BCPS to create a new after-school program at the newly opened Fremont International Academy. 

We made a couple of radio appearances in the fall on WBCK to highlight our Basic Needs Drive that was launched in October as well as other upcoming programs slated to be launched in the fall. In November, our viable Reading Buddies program which included the service of over 40 Battle Creek Fire Fighters was featured in a segment on Fox Channel 17 News. 

Weekly Site Coordinators were providing almost 90 students across the district with weekend food packs through the South Michigan Food Bank and we were seeking ways to establish school-based pantries at W.K. Kellogg Prep, Battle Creek Central, and the middle schools. School-based programming consisted of innovative partnerships with MSU Extension, Hospice Care, Grace Health, and we were collaborating in family engagement nights co-hosted with 21st Century Schools and Parent University. 

Aisha Walters, Regional Director for Communities In Schools of Michigan
The office staff worked hard to cultivate relationships with the Altrusa Club whose members began sponsoring the purchase of graduation kits for students unable to purchase them. The Binda Foundation through our partnership with Grace Health, supported our ability to purchase basic needs items for students across the district, and the United Way ensured they were a critical partner linking us to basic need kits, books, and snack packs for students.

By January, as a new organization in town, we were starting to feel that our school-based Site Coordinators were being seen as viable members of the school community and team, proving that all of our relationship-building efforts both in school and within the community were starting to take root. 

February was a planning month as we had just launched a massive volunteer opportunity called Leaders and Literacy Day, which was to be hosted at Fremont International Academy and we were looking to recruit over 200 volunteer readers to participate in this remarkable Reading Month Celebration on March 31. We also had just ordered over 300 books for third graders as we were partnering with BCPS Parent University to host an event that would be focusing on the “Third Grade Reading Law.” 

Then on March 11, all planning came to a halt. Collectively, local districts across Battle Creek released statements postponing all large-scaled events, and by March 13 districts were responding to Gov. Whitmer’s  Executive Order closing schools. In an instant, all the great work we had done and were beginning for the rest of the school year came to a hard stop. 

As the local Regional Director, my questions now became how was this organization founded nationally in the 1970s to work and partner with schools, going to structure ourselves once you remove the school building? How was I going to demonstrate to our district community, that CIS Site Coordinators were essential employees in the midst of COVID-19? 

What I landed on was, relationships—the core of CIS work—were going to chart a new path for CIS and our work communities in addition to the new role and function of “schools.”

For almost two months, Communities In Schools of Michigan in Battle Creek along with other embedded sites across the state have demonstrated our commitment to student success and the Site Coordinator as an essential worker critical to ensuring that “needy individuals, and individuals who need assistance as a result of this emergency” receive the goods and products identified in their student support plans and through case management support provided during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We are assisting with weekly lunch distribution, showing up to support Chromebook distribution, reaching out to our almost 300 case-managed and non-case managed students through wellness calls. We are offering small group virtual hangouts, and innovative art, sports, or book clubs. 

We have relaunched our elementary Reading Buddy program with 8 volunteer readers. We have disseminated about $12,000 worth of new books from First Book into the community. Battle Creek Central’s Site Coordinator is engaging Seniors who are feeling as though the bottom has been pulled from under them into intentional conversations about life after high school and what life looks like despite this current circumstance. 

We have leaned heavily into organizations such as The Rotary Club of Battle Creek, local church partners, funders such as the United Way, Binda Foundation and BC Unlimited, which has provided critical funding to support the purchase of nearly 2,000 weekend food packs for families purchased directly from the Food Bank since March 16 as well as purchasing basic need products (largely toilet paper). They also can make a meaningful help with staff mileage reimbursement cost due to the heightened expenses associated with COVID-19, now that they are driving  to homes to deliver supplies and educational materials to the kids and their families.

Although we do not have the ability to walk into classrooms, share a meal with students during the lunch period, our work has remained consistent. We are showing up virtually and leading with relationships. In the words of our founder Bill Milliken, “its relationships, not programs that change children.”

Aisha Walters, LMSW-C is the Southwest Regional Director for Communities In Schools of Michigan. Communities In Schools (CIS) is a nationwide network of passionate interdisciplinary professionals working together in schools to surround students with a community of support with the targeted goal of empowering students to stay in school and achieve in life. As a licensed master-level social worker, Mrs. Walters specializes in social policy, the social-emotional development of students, and family engagement strategies. Aisha Walters is a Battle Creek, Michigan transplant where she lives with her husband, two children, and their dog Sally Ally-Jane.