Robin Greymountain: A Passion for Making Things Work In Schools (and on ships!)

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Robin Greymountain, now in her fourth year as principal of Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School.

Originally from Fulton, Michigan, Robin and her family moved to Sugar Island when she was in the second grade. She notes that this Michigan island, located in the St. Marie’s river that flows between Michigan and Ontario, used to be considered part of Ontario. “It is part of the Chippewa reservation land and part private land. We lived on land that has been in my family for hundreds of years. My father’s mom was born and raised on Sugar Island. My family historically would come to the land known as Manmade Lake for summer berry picking. The land is still in my family’s name.”

Principal Greymountain holds a bachelor’s in education from Southern Utah University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University. Prior to working in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, she served eight years as an elementary principal in Page, Arizona, and previously worked as a teacher and the district’s coordinator for English Language Learners and Gifted and Talented programs. Before pursuing a career in education, she was a diesel mechanic.

Alright, Principal Greymountain: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

POP QUIZ

I didn’t know you had been a mechanic!

I joined the Coast Guard between my junior and senior year of high school. That’s all I ever wanted to do. My parents signed the waiver the day I turned 17. I got on a plane and went to boot camp. I was in the reserves one year and then went active duty when I graduated from high school.

What made you want to be a mechanic?

All of my uncles and my grandfather were mechanics. My Uncle Butch was truly an artist, I’d watch him weld, make race cars, take apart his van and put it back together. Oh, what he could do with engines! I wanted to do that. And, at some point, sexism came into play. Somebody told me, “You can’t do that because you’re a woman.” Oh, yea? I thought. Watch me! I became a mechanic and I was the only woman in the engine room, supervising 17 men.

As part of the mechanic’s training, I worked inside a ship and had to learn the engine compartment. It was three stories high and twice a wide. The piping was a huge puzzle. I had to figure it out. It was exciting, learning how things worked, drawing all those pipes. I liked this! I held the record for finishing it the fastest. I proved to them that woman are just as good as men.

Or, in this case, better.

I was better.

So how did you move from mechanic to the world of education?

When I got out of the Coast Guard and went to college I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay home or close to the reservation and I knew the reservation was always looking for teachers. I started taking education classes. I enjoyed it and loved it. It lit a fire inside me. It’s the kind of job where you have a purpose; it’s fulfilling. I’m a part of shaping something better for the future.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I learned about the Social Justice Book Bowl competition that they have at Western Michigan University with Kalamazoo Public Schools. It’s part of the annual MLK Celebration.

We just blogged about that a few weeks ago! [Post may be read here.]

Until this year, I didn’t understand the greatness of this event. I was missing this for the last four years? The speakers were moving—Mr. Sidney Ellis was so good. I enjoyed the poem the student read aloud, the book bowl competition, the celebration, just everything about the whole event was wonderful. I only happened to go this year because my daughter participated in the Social Justice Art Competition. (Anja Greymountain, a seventh grader at Maple Street Magnet School was one of the top three finalists. Her work, “Multi-War Bonnet,” took top prize.)

I’m so glad I went to the celebration. The books the students read in advance of the Book Bowl give them courage to have context to have meaningful discussions, to share provocative thoughts, and have the ability to have the hard conversations.

… As a school and as educators, we have to teach about diversity and instill an appreciation and a respect for all the cultures and demographics our students come from.

What are you currently reading?

Decisive, a book by Chip and Dale Heath. I have a couple of their other books. Made to Stick and Switch. They write about how people and systems work and what you can do to make systems more effective. Made to Stick is about emotions, how people run off of emotions and how the emotional part of the brain leads people to do certain things. When you work with people, you want to create buy in, not have teachers do something because “I told you to do it” but rather they do something because you can show them this will work and how doing this is the best thing for children. Their book I’m reading now, Decisive, goes into how you make those changes in education to make the system better overall for kids.

Favorite word?

Fricative. That is the sound of letters when they blend together or come out of your mouth. There are 44 sounds in the English language. Some kids, when you ask them to sound something out, if they haven’t heard that specific sound from birth to four—that pure sound—they can’t differentiate and sound out that short /e/, or short /i/ sound; but they can feel it in their mouth.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

The diversity of Kalamazoo. I love being able to experience different cultures. There is so much opportunity here. You can meet people in a variety of settings and be surrounded with different social groups and it doesn’t matter what your background may be. I can interact and learn their stories…Of all the places I have been, Kalamazoo, more than any other place, appreciates diversity.

And there is always something going on in Kalamazoo. That’s another thing I love. You can’t say you’re bored or don’t know what to do. You just have to choose from the many things, the diverse celebrations happening throughout the year.

As a principal, what was the transition like for you, coming from Arizona to Kalamazoo? Did you experience a cultural shift of any kind?

The transition part, culturally, wasn’t difficult for me. The students of my school were 75% Native American from the Navajo Nation…Coming to Kalamazoo, it was more about learning the culture of the system. What are the policies? What are the procedures I need to learn? Also, I came from a smaller school district, and went from a district with two elementary schools to 17. So, while the overall the size of the district was an adjustment, the school size of the elementary building I had been principal is comparable. I had a school of 600 kids and I have 588 students here.

What does it mean to you, as principal of Parkwood Upjohn to have CIS in your building? Do you see CIS as value-added to the school environment and the work you do here?

Yes! CIS is a crucial element to our school and needs to be in all schools for children. For instance, when a student’s basic needs aren’t met, learning can be compromised. CIS works to get those basic needs met. Student needs can range from emotional, to behavioral, attendance, health, and whatever it is, CIS works to connect the right resources to the child. If CIS doesn’t have a specific person or resource, they provide direction for how to find something for that child.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

Different people have been that caring adult at different points in my life. Whether they’ve come from the community, the church, the neighborhood, they’ve had an influence on me.

My mother, she was and still is my caring adult. I still hear her voice…telling me to do something or not do something. She had cancer, she was in Hospice and I was flying back and forth from Arizona to Michigan. Each visit I told her, I don’t know if I can make it to see you again. She said, Go live your life. I’m at peace with my life; you need to live your life…

Thank you, Principal Greymountain, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

John Oliver: Listening to that still, small voice

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature John Oliver. When John joined the CIS support staff in August of this past year as Director of Quality & Evaluation, he became the second John in the downtown office (shout out to John Brandon!), so colleagues began referring to him as “Dr. John.”

John grew up in Lansing, Michigan, graduating from Everett, the same high school that Irving “Magic” Johnson attended. He then moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College. After graduating, he returned to Michigan and entered Marygrove College in Detroit, obtaining a teaching certification and a Masters in Educational Leadership. He taught for seven years at Gardener Middle School, the same building he had attended as a youth.

He then pursued his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Michigan State University. “I wanted to remove barriers,” he says. While there, John worked with his advisor who was the evaluator for a Kellogg project for community change. “That’s where I made the connection between community and the schools needing to work closely together. We looked at eleven different communities across the country and how they were doing change. My doctoral dissertation focused on the power of youth and adult partnerships.”

Around this time John also developed an interest in radio through involvement in “an offshoot” that grew out of his work on the Kellogg project. “We formed this learning exchange, beginning with the original 11 communities we worked with and it eventually grew to 75.” Radio, he says, can be a platform for communities to exchange ideas and can “bring together wisdom of place.”

Last year, after six years as an assistant professor at Texas State University, John, his wife Michele, and their daughter Joelle moved to Michigan to be closer to family.

Alright, Dr. John: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

You mentioned the phrase “wisdom of place” in referencing the radio project you were involved with in Texas. Talk more about that.

In thinking about place-based leadership, it’s important to never take for granted that someone who doesn’t have a title isn’t someone who should also be at the table…Too often it’s the people with credentials making decisions on behalf of those they represent. We miss out on a lot of capacity, on the wisdom of place, and the power of people when this occurs. To really learn and exchange ideas, we must check our credentials at the door. We learn more by asking than just by sharing or telling. That’s always the case when working with children.

You once taught at an African-centered charter school. Can you tell us more about that?

99% of the students were African American. We placed students at the center of their learning, asking them to consider Where am I in this topic? Where are my people in this? So, for example, let’s say students are learning about 1492 in history. What happens in 1492? Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Students would discuss things like, How do you/can you discover some place if people are already there?

Critical consciousness and centering is what we taught alongside each topic and the African-centered approach was embedded within everything and whatever benchmarks we covered. We always posed the question, Okay, where are you in this and how are you centered? We pushed students to get to that base, to consider African diaspora throughout their course work. The experience culminated in the eighth-grade class going on study tour up the Nile. I went with the students. It was an incredible experience.

You’re now the data guy for CIS. How would you describe what you do?

My role, the way I articulate my role to others, is that I’m trying to make sense of what the data says. To be clear, data is more than just numbers, graphs, and charts. It’s also the dialogue, the conversations and the responses with people. It’s about relationships and finding relationships between the numbers. What’s happening between relationships of people, organizations, and the community? What is the story?

Can you tell us one story?

The story I’m trying to understand now is how to ask a new question. The question we’ve struggled with as educators over the years has been how do we assess at-risk or marginalized student populations? To that end, we zero in on incarcerated youth, drop outs, etcetera. However, being here in Kalamazoo and learning how resource-rich this community is, as well as being a Promise community, that’s huge, right? So how do we look at this with fresh eyes, in a new way? When we do, it becomes not so much looking at “at-risk youth,” but looking at what is keeping students from not using the Promise.

CIS is focused on removing barriers that put students at-risk of not using the Promise. I have an appreciation for this multi-layered, multi-faceted approach to student success and am really pleased to be working here in a community invested in the CIS model of integrated student services.

Favorite word?

Positivity. It’s actually one of my top five words.

What are the other four?

Futuristic, adaptability, connectedness, and maximizer.

Are those all words you try to apply to your life?

Yes. Those are my identified strengths within the five domains of the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 that we all took at our CIS orientation launch in the fall. It was both reassuring and a little creepy how accurate it was. But, wow, it really makes sense…I’m in the right place, doing the right things. Everything is aligned.

What are you currently reading?

Start With Why. It’s by Simon Sinek.

Sounds like nonfiction.

It is. I don’t do fiction. If I’m going to read something, I want to learn. I always like to increase my skills set. When I want to be creative, I explore that avenue through music, playing the guitar and listening to music.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Lot of things. It’s small but close enough to larger venues and cities. Most importantly, though, it’s a tight, close community.

Any favorite places yet?

The Farmer’s Market. That was a cool discovery!

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My parents, of course. Especially my dad. He passed last year. We got here to Kalamazoo just before he passed. We arrived in September and he passed in December. It wasn’t expected.

What a difficult thing to go through. I imagine your mom must appreciate that you have been here in Michigan during this difficult time.

Yes. It helps to know that we were listening to what the universe was putting out there, listening to that still small voice that said, Get back to Michigan.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

It’s important to follow that still, small voice. Listen and follow.

Thank you, Dr. John, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

John Oliver, Director of Quality & Evaluation (far left) modeling Millie’s mittens (you can read that post here) with CIS staff John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator, Alonzo Demand, Human Resources Coordinator, and Michael Harrison, Associate Director of Site Services.

April Rocco: Striking The Right Balance in Teaching & Life

School is back and so is the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature April Rocco, sixth and seventh grade teacher at Milwood Magnet Middle School. She teaches strategic reading and also serves as Milwood’s Athletic Director and the WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) Coordinator. WEB, building on the belief that students can help students succeed, trains members of the 8th grade class as WEB Leaders. These student leaders serve as positive role models and mentors, supporting the younger students during their transition to middle school.

At Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, we feel fortunate to work closely with talented and compassionate Kalamazoo Public School teachers like Mrs. Rocco. Also featured in the CIS Annual Report, Mrs. Rocco shares some of the benefits she sees by having CIS in her school.

Alright, Mrs. Rocco: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

POP QUIZ

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

How much money is made from low income rentals, just the sheer profits that are made, and the socio-economic impact of these low income rentals and evictions—how it creates a cycle of inequality.

Favorite word?

Excellent.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s the community read, the 2018 Reading Together title.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo is big enough for having really good restaurants. Its size allows for many opportunities and things to do, but Kalamazoo is small enough that you know your neighbors and you can know what’s going on.

What is one of your favorite things about being a teacher?

Getting to know a new group of kids every year and then being able to watch them grow and learn as they move from middle school to high school.

What is the hardest thing about being a teacher?

Being able to balance meeting students’ academic needs and balancing these needs with their emotional and social needs.

You have a wonderful sense of humor and can be quite funny. What role, if any, does humor play in your classroom?

Good advice I was once told: sarcasm is not a teaching strategy. It’s simply not. And I really try and tame down that part of me in the classroom. You might find that surprising, but I do. That said, it’s important to strike a balance. I want to model to kids, that we have learning to do but that we can laugh at things along the way. But it’s important to do it in a way that allows us to still focus in on learning.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

Lots of people. Athletics has played a big role for me, so I would say all of my coaches played that role. I went to Concord High School near Jackson, Michigan and played basketball and ran track.

Thank you, Mrs. Rocco. And a big thank you to all you teachers out there who show up every day for our 12,000+ kids.

Spotlight on CIS Alumna, Dominique Edwards

Dominique Edwards, a 2014 graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School, is featured in this year’s 2016/17 CIS Annual Report. A CIS alumna and former board member of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Dominique graduated in May with an associate’s degree in social science from  Southwestern Michigan College. She is now working on obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University.  Here’s some of the conversation we had with Dominique that you won’t find in the annual report.

What does it feel like to be a Promise Scholar?

I was in 7th grade when I came to KPS, so I receive 75% of the Promise. I appreciate the Promise, I really do. Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.

After graduating high school, what has been one of the biggest surprises you faced after graduation, and headed to college?

How broke you are! Even with support from a parent, it’s surprising as to how hard it is. I think there’s a misconception out there, that as long as you have the Promise, you’re set. That’s not exactly true. You have other fees, like living expenses and transportation.

Biggest challenge since graduating high school?

Becoming an adult. When you’re 18 you’re not really an adult yet. You don’t understand the gravity of what it means to be grown up until you have a light bill to pay. Light bills and paying rent, these were all wake-up calls for me. I’ve had to learn how not to depend so much on others now, like my mom, and take care of myself more.

Proudest accomplishment so far?

Getting my first real job on my own. I had gotten a job in housekeeping at the hotel I’m currently working for The Four Points Sheraton. Housekeeping is hard work! Anyways, I’d been doing it about  three and a half months, when I decided to talk to the hotel manager. “How do I get the front desk position?” I asked. “How do I move up?” After going through additional screenings, a background check, and passing a drug test, a week later I had the job!

No one called in favors for me. I did it myself. I looked into the situation, went through the whole process, and got the job. And then I got my first check!

What advice would you give to current KPS students who have not yet graduated from high school?  

Back when I was in high school, you could talk to me until you were blue in the face and I wouldn’t have heard you. Until you go through a situation, you can’t really know. I guess, my advice would be to know that there will be hard times. And when they come, keep a straight head. Talk to someone. It helps to release some of the frustrations and the anxiety of whatever you’re going through.

For someone who might not know, how would you describe CIS?

CIS is an older sibling in your school that you look up to. They look out for you and tell you that they love you but also that you need to do better. If you’re acting up in school they let you know. And if you can do better grade-wise, they tell you. CIS is like, No, you aren’t going to get away with not doing your best. You can amount to so much more. You can do better, they say, but you can also be better—as a student and a person. CIS helps you do that.

To learn more about Dominique, what it meant to her to have CIS in her school, her future goals, and more, read the CIS Annual Report. And just last week, Communities In Schools, Inc. posted a conversation Dominique had with CIS of Central Texas site coordinator Naedean Herrera. You can go here to listen to it on soundcloud. Dominique talks about the role her former CIS Site Coordinators, Artrella Cohn and Deborah Yarbrough, played in her success and she closes out the interview with some of her spoken-word poetry. 

Speaking of poetry, here is Dominique during her high school years working on her poetry craft with members of Truth Tone Records.

 

 

Dropping In

“I’m here for the first time and I’m here to work. I want to get my C up to a B in math.”

“I’m here because my mom thinks that if I put in the extra effort during lunchtime, I’ll do better in school…I think she might be right.”

These are just what two of the more than 30 Milwood Magnet Middle School students have to say about the new Homework/Tutor Drop-In Lab in their school. Initiated this school year by CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best after “feedback from teachers, parents, and the students themselves” students may now drop in for help with homework during their Tuesday and Thursday lunchtimes (from 10:41 to 1:17).

“The response has been wonderful,” says Missy. “I’ve had parents dropping in to see how things are going and encouraging their student to take advantage of the lunchtime support. Students are coming to the lab because they are stuck and want help,” says Missy. “Others come because they want a quiet space to finish up their homework.”

Missy wanted to model the drop-in support after labs that many colleges offer. “It’s a great way to meet students’ needs and address parent and teachers hopes for wanting additional support for struggling students,” she says. So she spoke to Milwood Magnet principal Mark Tobolski about the idea and “he said, ‘Let’s try it.’ The principal has been very supportive of CIS and helped us get this lab up and running. He helped with key logistics, like figuring out how to get kids through the lunch line more quickly and how to do lunchtime passes for kids wanting to drop into the lab.”

Student holding a lunchtime pass.

Missy also credits CIS volunteers like Dr. Jim Zhu, professor of mathematics at Western Michigan University with successfully implementing the Homework/Tutor Drop-In Lab. [We popped a quiz on Dr. Zhu so stay tuned to Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids to see how he did. Hint: He totally passed.]

Dr. Zhu talking math.

When students drop into the lab they are choosing to surround themselves with a community of support. On this Tuesday in November, CIS volunteers Dr. Jim Zhu and Lynetta Carnes are both on hand to help. [Lynette, having just finished her regular volunteer time in Mrs. April Rocco’s classroom, stopped in for the first time. “It worked out today that I could stay a little longer and help out.”]

Lynette reviewing school work that student shares with her.

CIS after school coordinator and former math teacher Shannon Jones is there as well, working with a small group. “How lucky are our kids?” Missy says, a big smile on her face. “Shannon is terrific with the students.”

Shannon with a student.

Travis Guerrero, a CIS intern through WMU’s School of Social Work, is walking around and checking in with kids to see how they are doing.

“The kids are responding to the one-on-one immediate feedback,” he says. “Someone is at their side, able to let them know if they are doing it right or if they are on the wrong track. They can quickly adjust and that helps them get up to speed and where they need to be when they are back in the classroom.”

Missy (right) and Travis checking in with students.

Later, Michael Harrison, CIS Associate Director of Site Services drops in. He pulls up a chair and start talking math with a couple of young men.

The room is humming with learning. At moments, it is quiet enough to hear pencils scribbling. At other times, snatches of conversation can be overheard. Comments made by grownups, like:

What are you working on?
Can I help?
I want you to find your own answer.
Independent variables…
If I distributed biscuits to everyone at this table and…
What book are you reading?
If I brought in ten cookies and…
That one’s still gottcha, huh?
This is definitely right! Open the bracket and…..
Minus 52. Correct.
You are doing a linear equation!
Remember, you can only add terms that are similar…..
Perfect!
Yes, multiply this!
You are really picking this up. Excellent!

From left: Michael Harrison, Lynette Carnes, and Shannon Jones.

“Today was a great day,” says Missy. “We had a lot of students but we also had grownups to help. We need more volunteers, though! Our kids keep showing up. They are asking for this academic support and we need more volunteers who are willing to show up for kids.”

Can you help out? Just an hour a week can change a life. Our kids need you at Milwood Magnet Middle School and at 19 other CIS sites throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools. To become a CIS volunteer, click here.

 

In This Season of Thanks and Giving

As I busy myself with upcoming preparations, like menu planning and making out a grocery list, and debating if it would be best to shred or slice zucchini for a new recipe I’m going to try out, these mundane thoughts are interrupted by something much more important, wondering what Thanksgiving will be like for some of our 12,000+ kids.

A child so hungry he rummages through a garbage can, snatching and stuffing into his pockets a partially eaten sandwich, a bit of apple. He is worried about his younger sister who isn’t yet school age and wants her to have some food in her belly before the day slips away.

I think of the student who messed up big time on a homework assignment. The class was learning about sequencing and the student couldn’t figure out how to put in proper order the steps for making a bed. It seems a basic thing, something any third grader should be able to do. But, spend some time with this student and it becomes apparent that she is a bright child, one who likes to please and struggles to do her best. However, she does not have a memory of her head ever touching a pillow. She often sleeps on floors and, if lucky, the couches of friends or family. She is one of 2.5 million children (1 in 30) who is homeless in America. It’s hard to figure out the steps to making a bed when you don’t have one, when the only pillow you’ve ever seen is in a book.

And then there’s the sixth grade girl who shows up to school every day wearing shoes that are so badly worn that the soles flap up and down as she walks through the halls. She feels like a clown. Though some of her classmates tease her, one offers up a pair of their own worn, but respectable pair of shoes.

Or what about that high school student who has been missing too much school lately?

These students bring to mind a conversation I recently had with someone. She said that as a child she was thankful for school each and every day. “I didn’t want to leave it. I’d figure out strategies to stay as long as possible. Anything to not go home.” School, she said, was her haven.

For too many children, weekends, holidays, and snow days take away the haven of school, the solace that comes in knowing they will have a breakfast and a lunch, a warm and stable environment that isn’t always a given once the school bell rings at the end of the day.

What will these children—who sleep on floors and worry where their next meal will come from—what will they doing on Thanksgiving? Will they have enough to eat? Anything to eat? Where, on Thanksgiving night will they lay their heads to sleep? Unfortunately, for many children throughout our nation, Thanksgiving is no different from any other day. It will just be what every other 364 days of the year means: survival.

The good news is that in each of the above situations, CIS was able to reach out to these children because of you. We—and those students and their families—are thankful for YOU.  You give out of your abundance— your heart, financial support, resources, and time. These students, and many more, are doing well and able to focus on school because of you.

What are you thankful for? We’ll leave you with just a few things our 12,000+ kids tell us they are thankful for: school, CIS, mothers, fathers, grandmas, grandpas, sisters, brothers, teachers, principals, secretaries, the Kalamazoo Promise®, dogs, phones, football, shoes, glasses, clothes, food, presents of any kind, a bed to sleep in, a room of my own so that I can walk into it. Their lists go on. And it includes you.

Note: This post ran three years ago in Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. Originally titled “Mis(Thanks)Giving,” it’s back by popular demand.  

Mike Stoddard: People Focused

We recently met up with Mike Stoddard at BASIC, where he is chief operating officer of the human resources consulting company that has been named to Inc. magazine’s list of America’s 5000 fastest-growing private companies for the fourth year running.

Mike has served on the board of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo for 13 years, holding the position of Treasurer for many of those. Mike holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Ferris State University. A former Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, he served as a Military Police during the Vietnam era.

By 1976, Mike had started his accounting practice and in walked his first tax client, Fritz Teutsch, It was Fritz who shared with Mike his idea to start a business. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1989, Mike and Fritz established BASIC, which stands for Benefits Administration Services International Corporation. Headquartered in Portage, Michigan, BASIC has grown into one of the largest third party administrators in the nation. A technology driven HR Compliance Company, BASIC focuses on delivering administrative and technology solutions to assist human resource departments nationwide. Their offices are located in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, California, Missouri, and now Rhode Island.

Tell us about BASIC.

It’s a good company. We have a lot of great people that have worked with us for a long time, We’re a good corporate citizen. We take pride that we’re involved in a number of different boards, from CIS to The Salvation Army, to West Michigan Therapy Dogs,…[Mike keeps naming organizations and we found it hard to keep up. Given that “People Helping People” is one of BASIC’s values, it’s not surprising that this flows from their business culture and spills into the community. You can catch the names of all the worthy organizations here.]

The number one thing is our people. We have 186 employees. That’s doubled in the last three years. Our five-year goal is to double again and get to 400 employees. We’re fortunate and blessed, to be allowed to do the work we do. As we grow, our people grow with us as well.

BASIC is consistently recognized as an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Company. What is behind BASIC’s ability to both successfully grow as a business and to manage that growth?

Hire the right people. It’s really about having a good team.

Fritz and I, we’ll be working out at West Hills, and we’ll look at each other and think back to when we started. Our office space was the size of closet, about 50 square feet. Today, [Mike gazes upwards and counts out loud, “13, 20, 25…”] BASIC is over 35,000 square feet. The success of our company is no one or two people. It’s about the team.

What trend(s) are you seeing in your field, particularly when it comes to improving staff focus and effectiveness?

Staff need to continue to be trained and stay up on trends in the business. At BASIC, we need to be up on the latest and best technology. We need to identify what clients need because that changes over time.

Be nimble. That’s one of the reasons BASIC develops new products. It’s important to keep up and be flexible. In a blink of an eye, things change, particularly when it comes to technology.

We are and always want to be an American company. For us to continue to be an American company we need to be productive. Some of our competitors outsource stuff—that’s a trend right now. We could look to India, hire a person for 400 dollars a week. We wouldn’t pay payroll taxes, health insurance, dental, vision, 401-k match, no time off, none of that. But our people are more productive even though we pay them more. Our people work hard. We are an American company and we’re proud of that fact.

You are a dedicated and long-time CIS board member, holding the role of treasurer for a number of those years. As you know, there are many great organizations throughout the area that support kids. Why CIS?

I came on board one or two years after the merger in 2003.

I only ever remember you as being part of the CIS board!

Yes, that’s just about right! [He laughs.]

Bob Borsos first approached me and asked me if I might be interested in being on the board. I went to meet with Pam [Kingery] at the PNC Building where CIS used to be housed and she showed me this video—I’ve shared this story with as many people that will listen. It really made an impression.

In the video, an African American male is wheeled into the emergency room. He’s been shot up with bullets. The video then cuts to another scene, another patient being wheeled into the ER, and you see the face of that same male—but now he’s the emergency room surgeon. The tagline: Give kids a chance to succeed. I’ll never forget that. CIS is about giving kids a chance to become educated. That the American dream. With education, combined with opportunity and the willingness to work, you can get ahead. CIS helps kids take advantage of opportunities—and, in the case of Kalamazoo, take advantage of the Promise—they change not only their lives but their future children’s lives.

What is something you’ve recently learned?

Photo by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

I’ve learned what invasive bittersweet is and what it does to our forest. It kills trees.

I didn’t know anything about bittersweet until Ruth from the Kalamazoo Nature Center came out one Saturday morning. She taught us how to identify the invasive species and we pulled out bittersweet along the Eliason trail. [BASIC adopted an almost two-mile stretch of the Eliason nature trail that winds near their property and is part of the 123-acre Eliason Nature Reserve.] Bittersweet is a vine-type plant and strangles trees. We saved one big tree. We call it the Basic tree now.

What is your favorite word right now?

Grandkids. We have nine, soon to be ten grandkids come February. They range in age from zero to 18. The older I get, the more I realize how much we can make a difference in their lives. They are our future!

What is something you love about our community?

We are a caring community. People care about other people and are willing to help. That’s my experience, whether it is CIS, Portage Community Center, our church, or neighborhood. We’re Western Michigan! We’re hard workers. Family is important and we watch out for our neighbors.

Any favorite restaurants?

Let’s see. Oh, let me think. Latitude 42! I’m a bit biased, however. [He smiles. The microbrewery restaurant is owned by the Stoddards, and co-founded by their son Joe Stoddard, Todd Neumann, and Scott Freitas.] I often work there on Friday and Saturday night, as the bar back.

Bar back?

Essentially, I’m a glorified dishwasher. I like watching the interactions and seeing how well the employees treat the customers. It gives me a lot of pride. They take good care of the customers. The service is good. The food is good—the fried chicken and salmon are my two favorite dishes.

Also, on Sundays, after church, my wife Ruth and I love going to the Daily Grind Cafe for breakfast.

At Communities In Schools, we believe that every child needs a marketable skill to use upon graduation. It’s one of our five CIS basics. As an employer, what marketable skills are you looking for right now?

Communication skills. Both written and verbal. The ability to communicate—whether that is talking on the phone, composing emails, being attentive and listening to the client—is important in our service business. A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t have those skills.

What advice do you have for our 12,000+ students—the up and coming generation of workers—to prepare themselves for obtaining a job?

In our business, you need to know English. English is important. You can’t talk like you might talk at home in the work environment. You must be professional. You can set yourself apart and really advance if you can communicate. Strong written and verbal communications skills, having computer skills, composing emails that reads like you know what you’re saying…that is what we’re looking for.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My dad. Growing up on the West Side of Grand Rapids, he taught me a lot. I was the oldest of five children. My mom stayed home and raised us. My dad was a postal clerk. He worked all the overtime he could. After doing his postal work, he had a paper route. It was a rural route, in the area where Grand Valley is now. That was something! All those snow banks in the winter…

My dad was a good man, good husband, and good father. He set a good example. I learned from him that it takes effort to be successful. You don’t need to be the smartest. You just need to put in effort and be willing to sacrifice. It starts with effort.

Mike, thank you for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids!

Millie’s Mittens

There is always a good reason not to give. We don’t have enough time or money or time. We think somebody else will step up or do a better job than us. The list goes on.

Millie Ellis has more than her fair share of reasons not to extend herself, particularly to kids in Kalamazoo. That’s because Millie lives 2,000 miles away, in Dripping Springs, Texas.

There, she is busy caring for her husband who recently suffered a stroke. She is also dealing with her own health issues. Yet, despite distance and her current struggles, Kalamazoo kids are on her radar.

She learned from her friend, Shirley Street, that during the cold Michigan winters, some kids didn’t have mittens to keep their hands warm. Shirley told her of the need and that, for the third year in a row, she was doing something about this by knitting mittens. Her mittens would go to CIS Kids’ Closet and from there, CIS staff in 20 Kalamazoo Public Schools would be providing them to students who needed mittens.

Shirley knew about the need thanks to her daughter, Sue Warner, who lives in Kalamazoo. A long-time CIS friend, volunteer, and partner, Sue is Kalamazoo Public Library’s Head Librarian of Youth Services. Sue Warner is a knitter too, and has been knitting mittens and hats for Kalamazoo kids over the years.

Back to Texas. When Shirley shared with Millie how she was helping kids in Kalamazoo Public Schools, Millie was moved. She wanted to figure out a way to “help those kids in Michigan,” too. The next time the friends connected, Millie said, “I found some yarn. I’m going to knit some mittens, too.” And she did.

When a box from Texas (mailed by Millie) showed up at Sue’s door, Sue was stunned. “I thought she might have managed to knit a few pairs of mittens, but Millie had knit 52 pairs!”

Some of Millie’s mittens

Sue dropped off the load of mittens, made with love from Texas, and some of the CIS staff tried on a few.

CIS staff modeling Millie’s mittens. (From left): John Oliver, Director of Quality & Evaluation, John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator, Alonzo Demand, Human Resources Coordinator, and Michael Harrison, Associate Director of Site Services

Knitters make something beautiful—in this case mittens—by interlocking loops of one or more yarns. To knit is “to join closely and firmly, as members or parts (often followed by together).” Despite her own hardships, Millie made it her mission to make the lives of kids a bit better and a bit warmer this winter. Millie joined with Shirley, who connected with Sue who connected with CIS, who now gets these mittens into the hands of children.

Thank you, Millie. And thank you Shirley, Sue, and all you knitters (and non-knitters, too!) who join together with CIS to create a caring, loving community for our children.