Two decades ago, when James Devers was attending Western Michigan University, his goal was to work in the juvenile justice system. But education called him instead, and he spent the next 19 years working in Ohio in various educational capacities, from school principal to a state-level job with the Ohio Department of Education. He also volunteered as a tutor and mentor to kids and established summer camps for kids.
Through his experiences Devers discovered his greatest strengths were not in one-to-one contact with students, but in helping those who work directly with children do their jobs better. That’s why the 46-year-old Devers, who graduated from the first class at the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center in 1990, returned to his hometown in 2018 to work as the senior director of site services for Communities In Schools.
In that position, Devers oversaw CIS sites at 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools buildings. Communities In Schools provides supplemental services in the schools to help students overcome barriers to their success in school and life. It connects students with myriad resources, from tutoring and food assistance to health services and clothing.
On July 1, Devers began a new role as executive director at CIS, taking the reins from Pam Kingery, who retired after leading the organization for 20 years. He now oversees more than 100 full- and part-time staff members.
“I love working with children directly, but I’ve also found that the adults that work with kids also need a lot of support,” Devers says. “And oftentimes that’s lost in our work. We want to create this nurturing environment for children, but the only way you can do that is to have a nurturing environment for adults.”
What inspired you to work in education?
As a child I experienced a lot of life and a lot of challenges. I moved a lot and attended four different elementary schools. Even in schools where I was consistently, like Kalamazoo Central High School, there was typically a move during my time there. I understood what it meant to be the new kid all the time, the challenges with that.
My family also had a lot of financial challenges. My mother married as a teenager, and neither she nor my father finished high school. My grandmother dropped out of school in third grade. So our family didn’t get very far — it was more common to not graduate high school than it was to graduate high school.
I’m finding that a lot of the experiences the children we serve through Communities In Schools have had, my family experienced, and despite all of that, I was able to get into KAMSC and graduate from there. I’ve learned how important education is to the trajectory of a family. Just because a child comes from a family that has certain characteristics doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to do certain things.
I just believe in the potential of children and in the potential of people, regardless of their demographics.
What do you see as your biggest challenge in this job?
We can help change the trajectory of people’s lives, so we need to become more refined in matching the need to the service. We can meet basic needs like food, clothing, shelter and things of that nature, but the reality is that not having certain things is not necessarily a barrier to success in school and life. The art and the science of the work we do is figuring out, once basic needs are met, what service can I connect the kid to that’s going to help them overcome something that’s been preventing them from being successful?
It’s important to know the kids individually, and it’s important to know their families. For a child we can look at their data in terms of the different metrics of academics, attendance and behavior, but there’s also time spent getting to know the student as a person and ideally their family and their teachers. We learn what their specific barriers are so we can connect them to resources to overcome those.
What do you look forward to in your new role?
Putting the staff in a position to be successful and supporting them so that they, as the direct service providers, can impact the kids. It’s like playing pool. You don’t hit the ball in the hole directly, right? You hit the cue ball to hit the ball into the hole.
I’m not really a positionally ambitious person. I just want to be in a place to make a difference. So I know there’s certain, I guess, honor attached to certain roles, but really it’s just about the opportunity to make a difference. That’s what’s important to me.
— Interviewed by Encore Editor Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity