Legacy for the children

By Bart Ganzert

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cynthia Marshall has made a career out of building relationships.

But her best relationships have been made building career opportunities for the at-risk students she serves as executive director of Charlotte’s Communities in Schools program.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the drop-out prevention program Marshall has led since its inception. It is also her last at the helm before retiring later this year.

“The kids need hope,” says Marshall. “They need exposure and motivation. They need to see what life can be like after high school.”

Marshall is passionate about the relationships she works to establish with her students and the community, whether it’s recruiting volunteers to work one-on-one with students, or cementing bonds with community leaders who can provide career opportunities.

“It really has changed my life,” she says. “It’s changed me in ways I can’t imagine.”

The program connects at-risk students with community resources they need to stay in school, working under the basic belief that problems at home or outside of school can be causes of academic failure.

Charlotte was one of the first seven programs in the country started under the guidance of then-named Cities in Schools in the early 1980s.

Marshall says her work with the group began while serving as president of the Charlotte Junior League in the early 1980s.

Looking for a dynamic speaker for a meeting, she took the advice of a friend and invited Bill Millikin, then-head of Cities in Schools, to speak.

He not only captivated the audience, he captivated Marshall, she says, and in 1985 she began laying the groundwork for the Charlotte program.

Since then, Marshall has helped grow the program from one school and 80 students to over 2,200 students at 24 Charlotte schools, and this year the program graduated 99 percent of its students, she says.

Cynthia Marshall

Job: Executive director, Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg

Education: B.A., biology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; M.S., University of Pennsylvania

Family: Married, 2 children, 1 granddaughter age 2

Hobbies: Gardening, especially roses; reading; decorating special birthday cakes

Inspiration: “People are more important than things, and giving back is the rent we pay for living. Children are the hope for our future.”

Favorite book:  “The World Is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman

Book currently reading:  “Blink,” by Malcolm Gladwell

Career highlights: Named Charlotte Woman of the Year in 1988 by WBT radio; Women in Business Achievement Award (Charlotte Business Journal), 2005; Communities in Schools Dreammaker Award, 2006

Marshall gained the training and skills to run a nonprofit as an officer and active member of the local Junior League, she says, a role that built the relationship-building skills that have helped Communities in Schools.But Marshall is quick to credit the enormous resources the city and her staff provide to make the organization successful.“The synergy our staff, the school system and community agencies provide makes it work,” she says.She cites the success of School Tools, a collaboration begun in 1996 with WSOC-TV to provide supplies to students, and the Dine-For-Kids fundraiser, now in its fifth year, as two notable accomplishments during her tenure.

Another is the Thinkcollege program, established in 1996, that provides exposure to careers and college as well as basic advice and assistance in completing college applications, financial aid forms and researching scholarship opportunities.

This year 225 Communities in Schools graduates enrolled in 47 colleges and universities nationwide and received more than $500,000 in aid in addition to their federal Pell grants, she says.

Though Marshall will begin working on other program initiatives on the state level later this year, she says she can’t imagine being disconnected from the students and the organization with which she has invested her best relationships.

She prefers to call her retirement a “regrouping” as she will be work as a part-time consultant for remainder of the year to help establish Performance Learning Centers, which provide specialized academic assistance for at-risk students across the state.

“I love this job,” says Marshall.  “Everyday is a new day. I never know who might call or who might come through that door. Everybody in the community has something to give to the kids. It’s energizing to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.”

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