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40 Years Later: A Conversation with Bill Milliken

By Dale Erquiaga April 19, 2017

It was four decades ago when Bill Milliken set out on his vision to end the high school drop-out epidemic – keeping young people engaged in school and preparing them to succeed in life. Bill’s 100-year vision was ahead of its time; almost prophetic in a sense. As we head into our 40th year there are many milestones, challenges that have been overcome, and remarkable wins to reflect on. More importantly, coming to this moment in our organization’s history allows us to think deeply and seriously about what lies ahead.

Two weeks ago, I shared details around Operation Next, a plan that outlines how CIS will be innovating to prepare for the next 40 years and beyond. And there’s no better way to learn than by gleaning from those who paved the way. Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bill to talk about how we’re doing, what challenges he’s personally faced in growing the organization and what he believes is next in preparing our young people for the future. It was a spirited conversation. Bill’s candor always reveals the heart he had behind starting CIS. He even offered up a few words of wisdom for moving from charity to change and what it means to be sustainable.

You can listen to our conversation here:

Dale + Bill: Looking Back at 40 Years [AUDIO]

A full transcript is available below:


When you started this movement, you envisioned a 100-year plan for changing public schools.  How far do you think we’ve actually come? 

We had written a plan in an old storefront because we thought the theory of change in America was crazy: you had to bring change every two to four years based on a political calendar. We were trying to create a plan that would outlast superintendents, mayors, governors. We were crazy enough to believe we could do that. In spite of all the various defeats over the years – almost going out of business and all of what we went through – the original vision was could we get big enough…and have enough data to back it up that one day we could influence legislation. I didn’t know if I would be on earth long enough to see that happen. And the fact is that we are ahead of schedule not only because we have incredible data from not only the longitudinal (studies) but also the ROI – it really catapulted us to where we could get legislation for Title I and hopefully Title IV. That was the vision. I’m cautiously optimistic because I didn’t expect the environment we would be in today – when the senators co-championed getting integrated services into the federal education law.  


Our affiliates struggle with sustainability and yet we know they all want to grow and meet needs in schools. So, you have been through the wars, what advice do you have for them?  

Sometimes you need to step back and take an assessment, particularly if you are in the midst of crisis mode. We have an incredibly passionate movement.  The tendency with us is – I know I’m the number one sinner in this – that we want to just keep reaching more and more kids, but not building the foundation strong enough to do that.  (Affiliates) need sometimes to change the frame and not have us seen as another charity…but we are there to integrate and coordinate those charities. At a time like this it is important to take a couple days off and imagine how we could go deeper where we are. During times of “war” where kids are getting more and more left behind, it means that we have to be more strategic in what we do and sometimes being strategic means hold on tight and go deeper. Ultimately as you go through the storm you will come out stronger and more able to take on more kids. I learned that through many, many sinkings of ships.  


You foresaw the need for students to gain a marketable skill to use upon graduation.  Now everyone is talking about career readiness.  What is the next generation of work for CIS in this area? 

We need more and more to go into the school systems with a plan of building a whole educational ecosystem. That includes charters, public, faith based – that every kid in every school has a site coordinator. And it’s all integrated together. I say that because some kids are going to become lawyers or whatever but we have to become very, very sharp in understanding where is the workforce today, ten years, and 20 years from now, so that we aren’t preparing kids for an economy that’s not there. I think the great opening is if we begin in one part of that ecosystem to train people. We have so many different learning styles and to be able to spot that early on you’ll be able to spot which kids want to go into the arts, economics, technology etc. instead of putting it all on one track. There is a great opening for us. All kids need basic skills whether they go into construction or college. You can’t have a marketable skill if you don’t have your basics.  So you have to start at the root, you have to start right out the womb. If the kids can’t compute at 8th grade level and read at 9th grade level, they can’t get in there. So, you need to build a pipeline to prep these kids, or you are going to leave kids in poverty because you didn’t think about the roots. Career preparedness starts at birth.  


As the organization you founded turns 40 and thinks about the next five to ten years of CIS history, what’s the most important thing we can do in our next chapter? 

First of all we need to solidify the ship that we’re in. It’s tough waves we’re going to go through and you have to be sure you’re steady. We should add white water rafting to our training because you need to be very flexible. You have to be agile and move, keeping the core value and core purpose of what you’re doing but you have to be able to change. (Then) how do we take what we’ve learned, train those doing it under a different name – use our power to bring and build our own coalition of people around integrated services…and build a field where we are in it together. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as just K-12. We need to at least be the next grade up. We need to capture the field, be the leader and not turn inward. I keep hearing “oh we have so much competition out there.” If we see that as competition and not an opportunity, then we will become isolated and shrink. We need to see that as a field to capture so that we are all going in the same direction to turn around every kids life in every school.


Anything you’d like to add? Anything you want to say to those who read this blog? Anything you want to say as we turn 40?  

Sometimes we have to take a deep breath because we see all the crisis around us and despair and challenges. We need to take a deep breath and reflect on what keeps us going.  We never take our eyes off the kid. As long as we capture that, that’s our spirit. Doing all the techniques without the spirit does nothing. That love is the magic in what we do. The process in and of itself is not the magic, the magic is love and relationships. I’ve narrowed it down to the three “c’s” – a Caring adult, a Caring community, a Caring accountable delivery system. That is what breaths the spirit into it. The people who are drawn to this field are drawn to love. Love is transformational.  

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