Can a cup of coffee change the course of a student’s life? It can if the person who prepared it is Dalisha Phillips, a site coordinator at Communities In Schools of Seattle. After one of her first jobs, a part-time stint with coffee king Starbucks, Phillips found work that allowed her to teach barista skills to homeless students. Her role with a local nonprofit organization was to teach culinary skills in a classroom setting, and then later supervise the students in a working café. She provided those students with on-the-job training and helped put them in a better position for employment. And it was in doing this work that Phillips found her passion for helping young people.
“I see a lot of myself in the students so I can really relate to them,” said Phillips, who understands what it feels like to not fit into a traditional public school system. She admits to being the class clown in high school, but kept up her grades and eventually was able to enroll in a community college. She then majored in psychology at Carroll College in Montana, and became the first in her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
It was while browsing Craigslist job ads that Phillips came across one for a Communities In Schools site coordinator. “It was a light bulb moment,” she said about reading the job description. “I thought it was a great way to combine my skills and my passion for working with youth.”
In the December of 2009, Phillips landed the job as the site coordinator at an alternative high school. But six months later, the program she was working with lost its funding due to budget cuts. Then at the start of the 2010-2011 school year, she became the Diplomas Now site coordinator at the Aki Kurose Middle School. Diplomas Now, developed by Communities In Schools, Talent Development at John Hopkins University and City Year, is a school turnaround model designed to address and support the most challenged middle and high schools.
At Aki Kurose, Phillips manages a caseload of about 60 students who receive targeted stay-in-school interventions. The Diplomas Now model is focused on attendance, behavior and coursework, and Phillips is making strides with the middle school students in all of those areas. Improvement in attendance has been particularly noteworthy, thanks to a creative initiative Phillips started. She placed a gigantic attendance board by the entrance of the school to serve as a visual for all the students to see what the school is doing about attendance. Aki Kurose beat out 70 other schools to win the national Get Schooled Attendance Challenge for improving their attendance by 3.7 percent in October and November 2011. As a reward, the students were treated to a performance by singer, songwriter and actor Ne-Yo.
Phillips also coordinates the Stuff the Bus campaign – a program started by Communities In Schools of Seattle that she inherited when she arrived at the middle school. She has expanded the annual supply drive over the past two years and the program currently provides for more than 9,500 students in 32 Seattle public schools. In 2011, the drive collected more than 50,500 school supplies and $40,000 worth of furniture donations, and engaged 40 community partners and 121 volunteers.
Phillips said she finds it very rewarding to be an advocate for young people who don’t have that in their lives.
“I know the work we do is tough,” said Phillips. “But on Monday mornings I go straight to the front of the school to greet the kids and give out hugs. I do it to show them there is someone at school who is excited for them to be there.”