Ashley Lyles attributes her success in life to the teachers, family, and mentors that have supported her along the way—which is why she has dedicated her own life to paying it forward and working with youth so they may have hopes for a bright future.
Lyles now serves as a site coordinator with Communities In Schools of the Nation's Capital, whose mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school, and achieve in life. Her words of advice for others doing this work are simple but profound: “Meet kids where they are, not where they should be, and take time to celebrate their successes and build on their strengths and assets.”
America’s Promise spoke with Lyles to learn more about her passion for connecting students with these important caring adult relationships. Read the full spotlight below to learn more.
How does your work help create a GradNation for all?
At the core of Communities in School’s mission is relationships that empower students to stay in school and achieve in life. We recognize that it is relationships—authentic relationships based on trust and evidenced-based practices—that help students overcome the odds to pursue their education and achieve in life.
We push our students to stay in school because an education is the foundation of success, whether it’s a high school diploma that continues onto a bachelor’s degree or a certificate in dental hygiene. We meet our students where they are and give the nurturing support they need to make important decisions that will impact their lives today and tomorrow.
What successes in your community are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my communities’ resilience and survival. My students are brilliant and teach me just as much as I hope I’m able to teach them. They are able to overcome unimaginable obstacles every day and living in that constant survival mode instills a grit that is unmatchable, but it also stunts their developmental growth. I work every day to highlight their strengths and encourage them to reach for the stars.
I have so many students that I’m proud of, but one really sticks out. I met this young lady when she was in the 7th grade as a referral for a mentoring program. She approached our relationship with skepticism, as many of my students do, but once she realized I actually cared about her and was not just getting her into the program, we really got to know each other.
One day, she came to me and said she was going to run away because her mother threatened to beat her up. After doing all I could, she was still physically abused and ended up in her grandmother’s care. I was by her side through the transition, court, and graduation. I was there to help her get ready for her 8th grade prom, graduation, and I still take her out for wings every time she gets on the honor roll as a freshman. She’s left CIS, but our relationship will last a lifetime. I know that it’s not any of the programs I got her involved in that has made a lasting impression on her; it’s our relationship.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
The most challenging aspect of my work is the multidimensional and generational cycle of trauma that affects my students, along with the systemic injustices that people of color experience. Those things are outside of my control, yet I am serving a community that deals with these challenges daily. I cannot change the school-to-prison pipeline, or the lack of jobs with a livable wage in the community, but I can work each day to build relationships with students and their families, empowering them to find and share their voice.
What principles guide your work in education and youth development?
Tough love is a big part of what guides my work. I get to know my kids, let them get to know me, and we build relationships based on trust and love. Even though I understand where my kids are coming from and the challenges they face, I do not make excuses for them, and I do not lower my expectations of them.
They are capable of greatness, and I expect them to be great. Greatness is relative, but the world will not make excuses for them, so neither will I. I support them, celebrate even the smallest successes, but I let them know if I’m disappointed too. I genuinely enjoy being around my students, and that’s not something I was taught—it’s natural, and they know it.
A few key elements that I attribute to being successful in working with youth are being dependable, consistent, and starting each day anew. In order to build trust with my students, I never promise something that I can’t deliver on, and I’m always consistent. They have enough people coming and going from their lives and who disappoint them, so I make sure that I can be someone they can depend on, even if it’s to hold them accountable for something.
Despite whatever difficulties I may have with a student, I treat each day like a new day and a new opportunity. My kids know that no matter what, Ms. Lyles will greet you with a smile, maybe a little sarcasm, a hug, ask how your day was, and help figure out challenging situations. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we always find a way to make it through together.
Describe what makes your work unique in three words or phrases.
It’s relationships that help children, not programs. Love and understanding.