Pop Quiz: Hailiey From Spring Valley Center For Exploration


IMG_2192Today’s pop quiz features Hailiey Houser, a fifth grader at Spring Valley Center for Exploration. She has been involved with CIS for three years now and is featured within our latest CIS Connections newsletter which you can read 
here.  Alright, Hailiey, pencil out. Here we go!

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I’m in Read 180 and it’s really great. Right now, we’re learning about how to stop bullies and stand up for ourselves. Some school have formed anti-bulling clubs, the kids will make posters, hang them around the school. We’re talking about what we want to do in our school when it comes to bullying.

What are you currently reading?

Right now I’m reading Writing Freedom. It’s about a girl whose parents get in an accident and they pass away. She ends up finding a horse she loves. I think this story is interesting because it’s about animals and a mystery at the same time. I also love the Percy Jackson series. I’m on The Son of Neptune, the first book in the second series.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I have the Kalamazoo Promise® so I want to go to either Michigan State University or Western Michigan University. I plan to be a writer, doctor, a vet, a singer, and a teacher. I love little kids.

What is your favorite word right now?

Fantastic. 

You said that quickly, without blinking an eye.

Well, it’s been my favorite word for the past five years.

Will you share with us something that has been on your mind lately?

Seeing my dad for my birthday. Since he lives in Tennessee I don’t get to see him often. 

Behind every successful student is a caring adult.  Who is one of your caring adults?

My mom, my step-dad, and my dad…They have gotten me through really tough times. Also, my math teacher, Mr. Smith and my Read 180 teacher, Ms. Krzebietke, or “Ms. K” as us kids call her. They are both great. And Ms. Martha because she’s helped my family a lot, especially this year.  She  got me involved in College Club, Girls on the Run and the Writer’s Workshop where all the people—especially Ms. Molly, help me with writing. Ms. Molly has been with me all this year and she helped me write my first book, The Powerful Mouse which I dedicated to my family and friends! [Hailiey holds up her book.] Oh no! I just now noticed the mouse is missing a leg! [She laughs, then sets the book down.] I’m working on my second book now called The Connection. It’s about a girl who is a vet, finds a dog without a tag, and develops a relationship with him.

Thank you, Hailiey!

IMG_2196While you can read ”All the Write Moves” in the current CIS Connections newsletter, in which Hailiey and her CIS Site Coordinator reflect on the academic success Hailiey is experiencing at Spring Valley Center for Exploration, we’ll end today’s post with a portion of the interview that you’ll only find here at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids… 

Hailiey is keenly aware that she must work hard now to prepare herself not just forLinden Grove Middle School come fall, but for college. “Going to college is important,” she points out. “That way, you can have a good life and get a good job. Since Ms. Martha got me involved in the College Club I have written a letter to Michigan State. They wrote back and sent me a banner, a packet of things I need to know to prepare for college. Did you know that you have to stay in college for a certain amount of time, depending upon what type of job you are looking to do? I also learned that you also have to write well to do well in college. Every Wednesday at recess time I do the Writer’s Workshop. I work closely with Ms. Molly. I do the work but she has been there all this year to help me. I’m also doing Girls on the Run again. I first did it in 3rdgrade and I have a medal at home for running the 5K we do at the end of the program. Girls on the Run is about running but it’s also about meeting new people and making new friends. I did a good job with that, so I’m looking forward to it again. Ms. Martha also helped me get to Pretty Lake Camp last year and I’ll also be going there again this summer. Last year, a turtle peed on my shoes and luckily I made some good friends because one of them had an extra pair of tennis shoes I could wear. That was good because my shoes smelled something awful.”

The Madness Of The March To Graduation

Bball HoopIn my house, “March Madness” means the excitement of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. It’s great to see KPS grads Devin Oliver (University of Dayton) and Von Washington, III (Western Michigan University) getting recognition on the biggest stage in their sport. I don’t want to brag, but my bracket is in the 96th percentile out of more than 10 million entered at ESPN’s Tournament Challenge. How’s yours?

Away from basketball, this is a March that maddens. It is maddening that public education in our country struggles to obtain the stable and adequate funding it needs to educate our youth. It is sheer madness to expect teachers—no matter how skilled they are—to teach students who are hungry, suffering from untreated tooth decay, having difficulty seeing the blackboard, are worried where they will sleep tonight. The list goes on.

At the same time, it is heartening to know that this madness may be melting. This week, for the first time ever, the White House has scheduled a forum to discuss the role of Integrated Student Services in America’s public schools. But just what is thisIntegrated Student Services model? Child Trends defines Integrated Student Services (ISS) as “a school-based approach to promoting students’ academic success by securing and coordinating supports that target academic and non-academic barriers to achievement.” President of National Communities In Schools, Inc, Dan Cardinali, points out in his recent Huffington Post blog post that Communities In Schools (CIS) has been advocating this model for over 30 years. CIS affiliates—along with several other organizations—are actively carrying out this approach in some 5,000 schools across the country, serving at least 1.4 million students.

Here’s another way to think of it. Imagine turning on the television and seeing a basketball court. (No leap of imagination needed in my family. We are still flying high from our trip to Cleveland to witness the WMU Broncos men’s team win the MAC Tournament in Cleveland!)

The game is about to start. It’s one-on-one. The announcer offers stats on each player. They are the same age and size. Both are loved by their parents and both have fabulous coaches who have the skills and knowledge to teach them all they need to know to be successful players. Both have the home court advantage. It should, the announcer predicts, be a close game.

From one end of the court, out jogs a smiling young child, sporting a crisp uniform and shoes so bright they dazzle. Under the watchful eye of her supportive team members, she begins to warm up. She appears healthy, rested. The camera pans to her bench, which is quite deep. There to support and assist her are her pediatrician, eye doctor, and dentist. Squeezed next to her parents are the grocery store clerk, her piano teacher, someone holding juice and healthy snacks, and someone else holding a duffle bag of extra uniforms, shoes, and other sundry items.

The cameras then pan to the bench across the way. In contrast, it is quite sparse, just a tired looking woman on the bench—the player’s mother.

The game is about to begin but the second player is nowhere to be…oh, wait, here she comes. She’s late. Unlike the first player, she doesn’t have an alarm clock or a bed. She and her mother have been sleeping on the couches and floors of friends for the last few months. Because she’s arrived late, she hasn’t had a chance to warm up. In worn shoes and ill-fitting jeans and shirt, she heads directly to center court. She isn’t moving comfortably, but given that this is the only outfit she has, she must make do.

The game begins. Within seconds, the first child scores. And then scores again. Each time the second child has possession of the ball, she turns it over. By half-time, the game is a blowout. As both players head to the locker room, the second child’s coach is asked, “What is wrong with your player? Why aren’t you coaching h
er better?”

“Unless something dramatically changes in the second half of the game,” the announcer intones, “she will never catch up.” Cut to commercial.

The second half begins. It feels like an entirely different game. It looks that way, too. The second child is running up and down the court in new shoes and a pair of shorts. She’s taking shots and making many of them. The coach and mother who have been constants at her side are now joined on the bench by others. What is going on?

During halftime, when the fans in the bleachers realized that cheering was no longer enough, they turned to each other and said, “We need to deepen that child’s bench to keep her in the game. We can see she needs things like shoes and clothes, but what else? What can we do to ensure her love of the game continues?”

play-at-own-riskThe second player finished the game that evening. It’s a long season, though, and she has other needs to be addressed. But, with help from her community, her bench will deepen and she will receive the resources and support she needs, just like the first child, to play the rest of the games to the best of her ability.  

Communities In School’s model of Integrated Student Services (ISS) is basically a community’s way of saying, “Hey, wait a minute; we need to do something differently for all of our children. Let’s join forces with the schools and assure that resources and supports are available to students so they can stay in school and be prepared to learn all they can from their teachers.”

I feel tremendous pride—and you should too—that the ISS model is, in fact, the way in which our community has been choosing for over a decade to support our children within the Kalamazoo Public Schools. Individuals, nonprofit organizations, businesses, higher learning and faith based institutions are deepening the bench for students every time they make the decision to volunteer, partner, and/or donate to CIS, doing what it takes to ensure they stay in school and achieve in life. Integrated Student Services, paired with adequate and stable public school funding, is a game changer. Once policy makers recognize this and make decisions that reflect this as a priority for our children, we all win.

Unlike basketball, the beauty of integrated student services is that both “teams” can win and move on when their needs are being met. With their communities’ help, each can make it to the “Sweet 16” and the “Final Four.” Every student can win the sweetest prize of all: a high school diploma.

We Can’t Have a Strong America with Weak Kids

Hunger, by its very nature, takes bites out of academic success. When a child is hungry, it impacts that child’s ability to learn. It’s harder to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, it’s difficult to focus on reading, and to regulate behavior. A chronically hungry child is worried when and where their next meal will come from.

I had written the above words and then met Billy Shore, Founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Actually, we didn’t really meet and Mr. Shore has no clue who I am. I was just one in the crowd when he stepped out to the podium the day after the Awards of Excellence celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s just that he was so engaging, funny, and thoughtful that I felt like we met. He said a lot of important things in his speech but what has stuck with me is this: “We can’t have a strong America with weak kids.”

In America, there are 11 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade who live in poverty. That is, as Mr. Shore pointed out, a lot of children coming to school in a state of distress, sitting at their desks “fundamentally compromised in their learning…plopping them in front of a great teacher” does not solve the problem. If anything, it is, in the eyes of Mr. Shore “setting children up to fail.”

Since 2003, here in Kalamazoo we have learned that if we can send kids home with food on Fridays, they return to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn.

Thanks to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Friday Foodpacks have been one of the “tools” CIS Site Coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help. Just last school year, 750 elementary students received a weekly foodpack while food pantries served students in El Sol Elementary and all six secondary schools.

As third grade Kalamazoo Public School teacher P.J. Bucholtz puts it, “No amount of love in the world can fill an empty tummy.” Only food can do that. And it is only because of the efforts of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Anne Lipsey, the entire KLF staff and their board that our Site Coordinators, with the support of many organizations and volunteers can get Friday Foodpacks into the hands–and tummies–of our hungriest of children. For students like Charles (not his real name), it can make all the difference.

Identified this year by his CIS Site Coordinator as someone who could benefit fromFriday Foodpacks, Charles was looking forward to receiving his pack. At the same time, it so happened his school, like many schools, was engaged in a food drive. So when Friday arrived and his Site Coordinator gave him his first ever foodpack, he informed her he was going to donate all of it to the food drive. After all, he knows what it feels like to be hungry. He is hungry a lot. Weekends especially.

She looked into eager eyes and in her wisdom said, “How about this time you pick one thing from your bag to donate? Just this one time, okay?”

He loved the idea. So, he parted with one item and then went home, with dignity and food still in his pack.

Upon hearing this story, CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery replied, “Loaves & Fishes is about feeding hungry people, but it is also about dignity.” How true. One of the hunger stories noted on the KLF website quotes someone as saying, “KLF volunteers always made me feel like somebody instead of nothing.” Our Site Coordinators and community volunteers are doing the same thing within the schools. Providing both access to food and embodying the KLF values: respect, diversity & inclusion, stewardship & accountability, integrity, collaboration, urgency, and service.

By working through us within the Kalamazoo Public Schools, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes taps into the heart of one of our values or what we refer to as a “CIS basic”:  that all children deserve a healthy start in life. And, for one little boy, who, according to the Site Coordinator is now eating every last crumb in his pack, it spoke to another CIS basic, the opportunity to give back to peers and community.

We are thankful for the ongoing commitment of members of this community who make it possible for our children to arrive to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn. Milwood Christian Reformed Church (MRC helped pilot this program back in 2003) both carry out the foodpack distribution at Milwood Elementary and financially support this program. And when MCR volunteers Helen Anderson and Thelma Vantill go on vacation they find people from the church to step in while they’re gone. Mt. Zion financially supports the foodpacks at Northglade. Workers who are part of the MRC Industries sheltered workshop pack food into bags for Edison and Spring Valley each week. Out at other KPS schools, our kids rely on CIS volunteers like Allison Leonard (Parkwood Upjohn), Rose Blackwood (Prairie Ridge), and Cortney Afton (Lincoln) to make sure the packs get to kids in time for the weekend.

CIS Site Coordinator Leslie Poucher Pratt refers to these foodpack volunteers as “All Stars.” We couldn’t agree more.

Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier, says we still need a number of volunteers to help deliver foodpacks to children within several schools. So, if you or someone you know may want to volunteer, click here.

There is, Mr. Shore reminds us, much work to be done when it comes to eradicating child hunger. Until then, we will only be as strong as our weakest child.

A version of Charles’ story first ran in Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes newsletter. You can find it here.

Silent Giants In The Schools

Today’s post is written by Lauren Longwell. She is venturing into her second year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with us. (VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America. VISTAs commit to a full-time year of service and receive a stipend which is set just above the poverty level. In addition to the stipend, VISTAs are eligible to receive an educational award at the completion of their year of service. Each VISTA is assigned to work as part of a CIS site team in two schools.) 

Lauren working in food pantry at El Sol Elementary School
Lauren working in food pantry at El Sol Elementary School

In thinking what I would like to do in retirement it came to me that education seemed to be getting short changed. I began to think about who had influenced me and where my life changing experiences had occurred. I immediately thought back on my seventh grade teacher and how she supported and guided me, cared about who I was, and saw potential in me. I wanted to be able to assist and support a child in some way so that they too would have a chance at their potential. CIS is a way the community supports our schools, providing wrap around care for Kazoo’s kids. I like that.

Becoming a VISTA went hand-in-hand with being a volunteer with CIS. AmeriCorps VISTA has many volunteer opportunities, making it possible to be a part of a community, work with people in need, and assist others in realizing a dream. For me this dream is our kids, our cities, our communities, our homes, and on the larger scale, our country. Thus, my opportunity to become a VISTA and work with CIS came to fruition.

I have the wonderful opportunity of being a VISTA within two Kalamazoo Public Schools: El Sol Elementary School and Hillside Middle School. I do a variety of tasks within the schools. El Sol Elementary rings with the sounds of two languages, Spanish and English. Although I don’t speak Spanish, I am able to get along just fine and this experience has prompted me to enroll in a Beginning Spanish Class. I assist the CIS Site Coordinator with the El Sol Food Pantry. The Food Pantry provides a wide range of foods for families in need who have children attending El Sol. Shelves are stocked weekly with food from Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. Each week I pick up a load of food supplies and stock the El Sol Food Pantry shelves. I’d always played pretend “grocery store” as a kid and, gosh, my wish has come true. I now stock a food pantry that provides food to others.

One of my other VISTA roles is to promote a “College Going Culture” within my assigned schools. I have the pleasure of working with students in setting up College Awareness bulletin boards. Students in the CIS After School Program meet as a group and help design College Awareness posters which they then hang up throughout the school. The Middle School kids are aware of how important grades, study time, attendance and completion of homework all are in their journey to College. As a VISTA, my task is to assist, guide, support and honor the students’ potential for college. This requires care, belief in students’ abilities and assisting them to know that they can succeed.

At Hillside Middle School I have helped to promote, develop and present the idea of recycling at the school. A team of students from the CIS After School Program (and me) go to each classroom weekly to empty the recycling bins. The kids have developed a team approach which gets the job done and allows them to help keep Hillside Middle School clean as well as environmentally aware.

During my year as a VISTA I have learned much about the importance of volunteers in the school setting. I have also seen other VISTAs who are much younger than myself step forward and give back to our community and this country. It has been a humbling experience for me to step aside from a professional career to a less visible one. Having said this, I must say with a loud and clear voice that, without volunteers and the silent helpers of our community, we would be at a loss. The gifts, passion, experience and care of volunteers and VISTAs in Kalamazoo are the silent giants who give of themselves to help our community fulfill its Promise…. Thank you CIS for allowing me to be a VISTA with you and the kids of Kalamazoo!

And thank you, Lauren, for being one of those silent giants! We are grateful to have you, and the passion, wisdom, and experience you bring to benefit our children. Know a young person, a retired person, someone who is passionate about youth and may want to explore the possibility of being a VISTA with us? Share Lauren’s post with them.

Gulnar Husain: No Longer Unsung

Gulnar Husain
Gulnar Husain

We are excited that CIS Site Coordinator Gulnar Husain has received national recognition for her work within Arcadia Elementary School. She joins the ranks of only a handful throughout this country to receive an Honorable Mention for the prestigious Unsung Hero Award. Today’s post features Gulnar and originally ran in Beyond the Classroom, the blog of national Communities In Schools.

Gulnar Husain could easily have the title of “Dispenser of Warmth and Kindness,” given the way she is described by her colleagues. She has been the site coordinator at Arcadia Elementary School in Kalamazoo, Mich., since 2007. Before taking on that role, she worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer, a VISTA volunteer and a paraprofessional at Arcadia and another school.

Arcadia Recyling Team with CIS Site Coordinator Gulnar Husain
Arcadia Recyling Team with CIS Site Coordinator Gulnar Husain

“Gulnar is one of those unique individuals who works tirelessly and patiently, connecting all the dots for each student—school, community, family—so that all an observer sees is the unbroken line, forming a perfect circle of support around the child,” said her supervisor Deb Faling, director of social and emotional health initiatives for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.

Husain acknowledges that there are parts of the job she finds challenging, mostly the paperwork that can be complex at times. But all of that, she said, is nothing compared to “seeing the joy in a child’s eyes when he gets a new pair of boots or glasses or new clothes or a book, that is worth all of the effort and hours it took to be able to provide them.”

To see the children literally jumping for joy keeps this dedicated site coordinator in her office for as many hours as it takes to ensure that Arcadia’s students are attended to and nurtured. “I wear many hats but they all have to be piled on my head one on top of the other,” she laughed as she noted the importance of being a multi-tasker.

Gulnar and Principal Socha
Gulnar and Principal Socha

Arcadia’s principal, Greg Socha, observed, “Ms. Husain has a job to perform and a child to help. She quietly persists in her tasks.”

Having lived in the Kalamazoo community for 32 years, Husain uses her connections and friendships to support her students. Whether it’s something basic like donated clothing or bringing in volunteer mentors and tutors—or addressing larger needs like counseling or medical care, Husain finds a way to make it happen.

She is determined to provide a listening ear and open door throughout the day. “If a student shows up when I am in my office trying to meet a deadline, I set the deadline aside. If a teacher or administrator needs something, I take care of it. And when a parent comes to me, I do not put them off either.”

Gulnar Husain (left) with Lauren Knibbs, CIS intern through WMU School of Social Work
Gulnar Husain (left) with Lauren Knibbs, CIS intern through WMU School of Social Work

She enjoys watching her persistence and presence pay off as it did when a child needed counseling. She didn’t have a counselor on call, but she asked her director, who connected her to a counselor from Family & Children Services, who then sent someone to meet with the child and the mother in the school. “The child loved the counselor and so did the mom. At the end of the year, the mother came in with flowers and lunch for the counselor and asked me to take pictures of the three of them.”

A Parent Reflects on Key to Daughter’s Success

20131017-_DSC3900As a parent of a Kalamazoo Public School student, Mr. Weston couldn’t be prouder of his ten year old daughter Lacey. “I am so proud of her accomplishments and good grades. She works hard for them.”

A fifth grader at Arcadia Elementary School, Lacey became involved with CIS when, as a first grader she was struggling in reading and math. Mr. Weston noticed that, when it came to doing homework, “she would struggle and just give up. There was a point she wouldn’t even do it. As a parent, it’s hard to see your child go through that.”

Lacey’s involvement with CIS changed all that. “The Literacy Buddies program benefited her,” says Mr. Weston. “It increased her academic abilities but she has confidence in herself now. She is perfectly content to be herself. CIS made her proud to be her. Lacey really enjoys being a part of the programming she has experienced through CIS. I would love for her to stay involved with it as she grows. Maybe should could even be a literacy buddy herself when she is older. Tutor and give back, you know?”

“My daughter still struggles,” points out Mr. Weston. “Even now, I can see the frustration in her face at times when she’s trying to work on homework, but she keeps plugging away. That’s a credit to my daughter and CIS and the programs she has been supported by at Arcadia. But what is different now is that she pushes herself. I don’t try and deter her from this. I want her to have that initiative and drive to better herself. I’m just really proud of her.”

Lacey is featured in our annual report that recently came out. She talks about how she has been inspired to succeed by people who have helped her through Western Michigan University, Literacy Buddies (funded through State Farm), and Girls on the Run.

20131017-_DSC3896

Kalamazoo Through The Eyes Of Dan Cardinali

As an educational leader, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities In Schools, Inc.,regularly lends his voice to the national dialogue on education reform. In a recent visit to Kalamazoo, Dan was deeply moved by how the Kalamazoo community comes together to support the public schools. He shared his thoughts with the nation in a recent post that ran in the Impact section of the Huffington Post under the title “Bridging the False Dichotomy Between Poverty and Education Reform.” Julie Mack also wrote about Dan’s post in the Kalamazoo Gazette. Here now, in Dan’s own words…

20131106-_DSC4515Recently I attended two days of meetings in Kalamazoo, Michigan that gave me a new sense of optimism for the future of our public schools and our neediest students.

It was another reminder to me that school reform is a wonderfully hopeful and iterative process, despite the political and rhetorical flare-ups it may inspire at times. While impatience can set in, given the urgency that passionate reformers feel about improving public education for all students, what I saw in Kalamazoo convinced me that we are moving into a powerful reconciliation of historically dueling camps.

On my first day, I attended a luncheon where an extraordinarily diverse group of nonprofit leaders was exploring ways they could support the city’s public schools. The local food bank was there, along with housing advocates, mental health experts — even the Kalamazoo Symphony. All of these overworked, underfunded folks were looking beyond their traditional turf to discuss how they could partner with Kalamazoo Public Schools to provide the necessary supports so that all students’ basic needs are met, and high quality youth development opportunities are available regardless of a family’s economic means.

On day two, I attended a national conference for communities looking to emulate the Kalamazoo Promise, an innovative program that pays up to 100 percent of in-state tuition for any student who graduates from Kalamazoo Public Schools. The Promise was launched by anonymous donors who believed that public education could drive economic development for the entire city, and eight years later, the numbers are proving them right.

20131106-_DSC4538Since the Promise began, an estimated 95 percent of high school graduates inKalamazoohave enrolled in at least one semester of college, and nearly 900 have attained some type of higher education credential. Public school enrollment has jumped, test scores are up and suburban families are moving back into the urban core, bringing much needed tax dollars with them.

You’ve probably noticed by now the unifying theme in my visit toKalamazoo. What’s tremendously encouraging to me is the way that the entire community is coming together in support of the public schools. InKalamazoo, public education is everyone’s business. The silos that separate schools, businesses and civic organizations are coming down as everyone accepts a shared responsibility to prepare young people for a successful, productive life.

In other words, Kalamazoo is re-forming its sense of community, not just reforming its schools.

I think the importance of that distinction would be difficult to overstate. For too long now, the school reform movement has been dominated by a false dichotomy. On one side we have the “no-excuses crowd” — well-meaning, social entrepreneurs who believe that disruptive innovation can and should drive the larger public education establishment to change. By reforming school-based factors such as teacher quality, district and school management practices, student and teacher accountability systems, or content and delivery of curriculum, the no-excuses crowd believes that schools can be fixed from the inside out, independent of the socioeconomic context in which they operate.

On the other side, we have many education leaders and practitioners making a different kind of argument: While agreeing that schools must be held accountable for driving academic results for all students, they point out that the trauma of poverty is making those results harder and harder to achieve. Research is increasingly demonstrating that the stresses of poverty — homelessness, food insecurity, family breakdown and so forth — can accumulate over time, damaging students’ ability to learn. In other words, no matter how extraordinary the teacher, principal or curriculum, students living in chronic poverty are fundamentally compromised in their ability to take full advantage of the investments being made on their behalf.

AR6What I’m beginning to see all across the country is that this latter view is gaining currency, even as internal reforms continue. In Kalamazoo, Superintendent Michael Rice is working tirelessly to improve test scores and other educational outcomes with the hard-driving conviction of the no-excuses camp. At the same time, he is coordinating with a growing number of community groups that are stepping up to support students impaired by poverty. This determination to simultaneously attack problems from within and without is exactly what we need in the school reform movement.

The great irony of the no-excuses approach is that it unintentionally excuses the broader community from taking responsibility, because all of the burden is placed on professional educators. Think about it: If a problem originates inside the classroom, then it’s a failure of the school, and “they” need to fix it. But if the problem begins in the broader community, suddenly the responsibility shifts, and the pronouns change. Now it’s our problem, a failure that we need to remedy.

When an entire community comes together to support its poorest kids and help them succeed in school, that’s evidence of a whole new mindset at work — one that accepts responsibility, not excuses. This doesn’t happen quickly, of course, and a shift in mindset is never easy or neat. That’s why we’re in a kind of interstitial place right now, reaching for a new model of shared responsibilities while still clinging to our old conceptions.

20131106-_DSC4389We still don’t know exactly what the new models will look like, but there are some tremendously encouraging examples emerging in communities across the country:Say Yes to Education, Elev8, Diplomas Now, City Connects, Communities In Schools and the Cincinnati Public School System. Watching entire communities accept their responsibility under the social contract for bringing young people into adulthood is one of the most positive steps in school reform I’ve seen over the last ten years.

In today’s world, education is an absolute requirement for securing middle class existence and having agency in one’s life. When we start with an understanding of public education as the sine quo non for a successful democracy, then it’s much easier to understand that this is something in which we all have a stake.

In the weeks to come, I plan to unpack these ideas a little more, looking at ways in which local leaders and provider networks can ease the transition to a broader understanding of the social contract and new model of shared responsibility in public education.

20131106-_DSC4154But for now, I’d like to know what you think. Do you agree that public education is a community affair, or should reforms be focused inside the classroom? Do you live in a community with broad-based efforts similar to the ones in Kalamazoo? If so, what kind of success or failure have you seen? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

You can join in this discussion by going to the Comments section within the Huffington Post or by commenting on this blog site. Want to read more posts by Dan? You can find a list of these here.

Being a VISTA

100_3129CIS has three AmeriCorps VISTA workers who are wrapping up their time with us this week. VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America. VISTAs commit to a full-time year of service and receive a stipend which is set just above the poverty level. In addition to the stipend, VISTAs are eligible to receive an educational award at the completion of their year of service. Communities In Schools currently has seven VISTAs who work to build capacity in our community. Each VISTA is assigned to work as part of a CIS site team in two schools.

We are so grateful for their service. When the government shut down, our AmeriCorps VISTAs didn’t miss a beat. They continued their commitment with us. Thank you Courtney, Peggy, and Shereen for your dedication and  service! As our Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier says, “They have made such a profound impact on our schools, supporting students with services provided through the community while actively promoting a College Going Culture.” It is only fitting, then, that our guest blogger today is Peggy Korpela.

I became a VISTA with CIS because I wanted to do community building while gaining work experience. I believe helping children is one of the biggest ways we can improve our community. Children are, after all, the future.

Peggy with some of the College Club students at 5th grade graduation last year.
Peggy with some of the College Club students at 5th grade graduation last year.

A typical day as a VISTA starts off with assisting my site coordinator with student and volunteer data. On Mondays, I meet with my fifth graders who are in the College Club. Our social work intern Jaime and I teamed up for this project. We discuss various topics, such as the Kalamazoo Promise® and the schools they can go to with it. As part of my VISTA project, I created a reference notebook of Kalamazoo Promise® information. The students use this as a reference to work on developing a profile of colleges they’re interested in. They write a formal letter to the college(s), asking for more information. I also help them navigate college websites and career websites. I developed lesson plans for the club specifically so Jaime and others could continue to support these students after my VISTA service ends and I leave Spring Valley.

Bulletin board created by Peggy
Bulletin board created by Peggy

I’ve learned a lot about myself through my VISTA service. Before my term began I wasn’t especially good at problem solving in a time crunch or thinking fast on my feet.  I’m much better at it now. I felt I had a good understanding of kids before, but I know I have deepened my understanding this year.  I am also more confident in my ability to manage a project on my own. For example, I supported dental services at both KPS elementary summer school sites and it went really well. Communities In Schools partners with the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services throughout the year to assure students receive the dental care they need. The County’s mobile Smiles to Go dental van has two dental chairs inside of what looks like a large camper van with a smiling tooth on the side. At Northeastern and Milwood Elementary Schools I assisted with the infrastructure for the program, ensuring enrollment forms were correct, communicating with parents, scheduling with school staff, and escorting students to their dental appointments. Working with the dental team, I managed to get about 92 students in for dental cleanings.  If you had asked me before VISTA started if I thought I could do that, I’m not sure I’d say yes. The VISTA experience has given me confidence in my abilities and a lot of pride in the fact that I have been able to have a direct impact on children.After lunch, my activities range from entering data in the computer to obtaining clothes for kids who need them.

Teachers often come in to ask questions about various resources for their students. On Fridays, the 5th graders who help us with food packs will come back to our office to pick a prize out of our prize box. At the end of the day, I connect with some of our CIS students to find out how their day went. After the students leave, it’s usually more data entry or other projects that require more uninterrupted time.