By Jill Warren Lucas
Linda Harrill usually views January’s National Mentoring Month as an opportunity for Communities in Schools North Carolina (CISNC) to further its outreach with at-risk students. That’s still the case this year, but she’s also using the time to prepare resources for her successor, Eric Hall, who will become the organization’s second president and CEO on Feb. 1.
“I’m excited about being a mentor myself,” says Harrill, who has led the nonprofit since its founding in December 1989. As part of a carefully orchestrated plan that began five years ago, she will transition to a role as CISNC’s senior advisor of education and innovation, a position she expects will last at least six months.
“In some ways, I’m going back to where I started,” adds Harrill, a career educator who taught in public schools and later served as an instructor at NC State. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to focus on that and not budgets and payroll.”
Harrill has grown CISNC from a fledgling four-county startup to its current status of having a presence in 469 school sites in 44 counties statewide, where it serves more than 180,000 at-risk students annually. CISNC was the first state office in the country that achieved national CIS accreditation.
“Linda Harrill is a rare leader whose passion and values have led to measurable and scaled impact by dedicating her life to improving the lives of students,” says Daniel Cardinali, president of the national Communities in Schools. “Linda has led CISNC with a nationally recognized, evidence-based model of student supports. Her intrepid advocacy for students is only matched by her compassion for others. North Carolina is truly a better place because of Linda’s tireless leadership.”
Harrill’s contributions to the success of North Carolina schoolchildren, especially those in rural or low-wealth communities, has earned her countless tributes over the years. State Superintendent of Public Schools June Atkinson credits Harrill’s leadership with helping to boost the high school graduation rate.
“Many high school graduates owe a large measure of gratitude to CISNC for giving them the extra encouragement and practical support they needed in order to succeed,” says Atkinson, a longtime member of the CISNC board of directors. “As CISNC makes its own major leadership transition, I wish Linda all the best and look forward to Eric’s leadership to continue serving students who need it the most.”
Harrill describes Hall as the stand-out candidate who has a deep understanding of and passion for serving at-risk youth. With his imminent arrival, she is confident that she is stepping away from day-to-day operations at the right time.
“We have created great relationships. We have served more kids than ever before and we had a great year in terms of fundraising,” she says. “CISNC is an outstanding example of a private-public partnership where everyone can come together about common goals. We represent the American dream: giving kids the tools they need. It empowers people to take control of their own lives.”
While it seeks to address contemporary problems, CISNC bases its work on an old model.
“When I grew up, schools were the community,” says Harrill, who was raised in a Southern Virginia tobacco town and attended a small, K-12 school. “It was natural back then to be involved. Everyone knew each other and looked out for each other’s kids. If you did something you shouldn’t have, your parents knew about it before you got home.”
The post-World War II era forever changed the community school environment. Service members were not as inclined to return to their hometowns after they’d seen more of the world and the job opportunities that existed elsewhere. Families scattered, small schools were merged with larger ones, and the once bright beacon of community ownership dimmed.
Without the support of extended family or established neighbors, parents stressed out about economic uncertainties began to step up their expectation that educators with taxpayer-supported salaries should play a greater role in raising their children.
“There was a growing sense of, ‘I send my kids to school – it’s their problem’,” Harrill says. “The thing is, children who do not succeed in school become everyone’s problem.”
The rise of CISNC roughly paralleled the “it takes a village” concept popularized in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1996 book of the same name. While not detracting from the notion that parents are a child’s first and best teacher, CISNC recruits community leaders to provide needed support. As a result of connecting local resources with specific local needs, participating students become better prepared for the rigors of the academic environment – and, in turn, their place in a competitive global job market.
CISNC works in guiding communities to identify best-fit solutions to help children who are struggling academically. Since programs are tailored to address unique local issues, Harrill says they are most successful when they include volunteers from all corners of the community.
“When you scratch below the surface, it’s all about getting everyone to embrace the idea that the schools are theirs,” she says. “Our belief is that programs don’t change children; relationships do. We need to expand relationships between children and people in leadership.”
She said she’s seen countless examples of where a caring adult really makes a difference in the life of a child who has already grown cynical and doubts whether his actions – or inactions – really matter.
“We work with the most vulnerable children. They don’t feel wanted or feel worthy. They’ve been made to feel that they don’t count so they feel it doesn’t matter what they do,” Harrill explains. “Surrounding these children with the support they need is essential. Even things like making sure kids have toothbrushes makes a big difference. Sometimes it is this simplest things that say, ‘Somebody cares about you.'”
Harrill says CISNC has a standard pitch to persuade business leaders and other advocates to commit to making long term investments in the children in their community.
“The point we make over and again is, ‘Do you believe that every child has a right to a quality education, and to make choices about what their life will be?'” she says. “The children who grow up in your community will affect you positively or negatively – if they graduate and do well, or drop out and never leave. The simple truth is that it is very important for communities to get involved and take responsibility.”
Harrill still gets quite animated when she talks about the urgency of helping children in need, but emphasizes her readiness to shift to a more behind-the-scenes role at CISNC.
“I still get passionate about our priorities, but I am glad to step back from work,” Harrill says, noting she is eager to spend more time with her ailing husband and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle in their beach house.
“If there’s a legacy I leave, it’s that I helped to create a great team that is totally committed to our mission,” she says. “I’m clear about leaving that now to Eric and our team. I feel that I can play a different role in advocacy in speaking out and hopefully inspire other people to keep the passion alive for these children.”