Storms All Around Us

Lately, it feels as if storms are all around us. Right now, the Kalamazoo community is weathering its own tragedy of the five young people who were killed in the horrific car accident. These beautiful children, who had their whole lives before them, leave behind devastated parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends, and others. As their loved ones and our community deals with these staggering losses, our hearts reach out to them.

Our care and concern also go out to those beyond our Kalamazoo borders.

Our extended CIS family is also much on our minds as they begin the recovery process from the recent hurricanes of Harvey and Irma. CIS affiliates, the CIS staff, the children and families they serve—and their school and community partners and volunteers have been impacted by these storms. In Texas alone, the Texas state office, 11 CIS affiliates, and about 335,000 students enrolled in schools served by those affiliates have been affected. Unfortunately, two young people, CIS alumni who were living out one of the Five CIS Basics—giving back to peers and community—lost their lives while rescuing people. While in service to others, their boat was caught in the flood waters, overturned, and they drowned.

We can think of no more catastrophic event than that of young lives cut short, from the two young men from over a thousand miles away to the five young people here in our midst, we hold you in our hearts.

National CIS has convened a response team at the National Office to determine how best to support students and the staff during the recovery process. If you would like to support CIS affiliates impacted by Hurricane Harvey, go here.

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.

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.”

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.

Mentoring Magic: One Mentor’s Perspective

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”  Winston Churchill

It’s National Mentoring Month. Here’s a heartfelt piece from a mentor among us, Artrella Cohn, Director of Secondary Sites for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.

It was almost ten years ago. I was an eager, determined, yet green, Kalamazoo Communities In Schools Foundation (KCISF) social work intern at Milwood Elementary School. I was a fresh face, a newbie amongst more seasoned professionals (mostly from the field of Education). I knew my life’s purpose was to positively impact the lives of young people. How exactly I would fulfill this purpose was still unclear to me. But it was time to get started. It was time to meet my first student-client.

Then we met. A quiet, impressionable 9 year old in the fourth grade.  According to her teacher and others in the building, this young lady could benefit from one-on-one guidance. I was not convinced I could make a difference, but I can appreciate a challenge.

The relationship grew quickly and my fourth grade student-client became more like the younger sister that I never had, but sometimes longed for. We met multiple times a week and worked on coping skills, managing her feelings, self-image, and goal setting. I shared my experience as a college student and plans to apply to grad schools. She was as interested in my world as I was in hers. Neither of which were picture perfect. But the two of us together were truly a perfect match.

Grad school and a blossoming career away from Kalamazoo would keep us physically apart over six years. But, I would often speak with my friends in Kalamazoo and get an update and send messages to her from me through them.  I would never forget the young lady who represented my first opportunity to fulfill my life’s purpose.

As fate would have it, I decided to move back to Kalamazoo in late 2009 and take a Senior Site Coordinator position with the organization that gave me my first real experience as a future Social Worker, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (yes, there was a slight name change or two since I had been gone). My site would be Kalamazoo Central High School, a building of just under 1700 students.

Many months into my new experience at Kalamazoo Central, I found myself rushing from my office, trying to leave the building for a meeting without getting intercepted by a teacher, staff or student. Thankfully, I made it to the door.

But WAIT… Am I seeing who I think I am seeing?

Ricki: Ms. Trella?!?!

Me:  Oh my goodness!!! I cannot believe my eyes right now.

We give one another a tight hug and laugh about how I have been in the building for months and our paths have not (to our knowledge) crossed.  I promised to follow up with her the next day.

It is now three years later and it feels like a lifetime. As a mentor, I have been able to have difficult conversations, help to prepare her for prom, help with college applications, chat about her desires to go into the Navy, lose my voice screaming at her high school graduation as she finishes with honors, watch and record (with tears of joy) as she graduates from Navy Boot Camp, be on the other end of the call when she shares that she is being stationed in California, have breakfast with her the morning she headed to the airport for California and have lunch together and spend quality time with her during her visit back home for the holidays.

It is apparent to me that this young lady looked at her circumstances over the years as stepping stones to reaching her full potential. While CIS and other people have played a role in encouraging her and supporting her in many ways, she has done much of the work on her own. She is the optimal example of a resilient child.

I know that she has played an integral part and helped to shape the path of my career in the field of Social Work. I am now the Director of Secondary Sites for CIS of Kalamazoo and am therefore able to work with many more students who have difficult and often similar challenges that she has faced. But, I will admit, this one student has truly been the glimmer of hope that will forever positively impact my life’s purpose. I am thankful for having her in my life more than she will probably ever know.

My plea to the community at large, but especially the young adults and college students, is to consider committing your time to mentoring a young person. It will likely do more for you than you’d expect.

Six And A Half Things To Do While We’re Away

Our office will be closed from Monday, December 24 through Wednesday, January 1st.  We’re taking a break but we’ll start blogging again in January. Wondering what to do ‘til we get back? Here are six and a half things you can do while we are away:

1.  Read aloud to a child. Kalamazoo Public Schools has identified eight pillars for building a college-going culture and reading is one of them. You can find all eight pillars listed in our CIS Connections newsletter.

2. Tell someone you love them. And, if for some reason you can’t, then read aloud to them. Nothing says love like reading aloud.

3. Make giant marbles with your kids or someone else’s kids. I am totally going to try this! I found this and other really cool ideas on Kalamazoo Public Library website by going to their “Pinterest” site.

3 ½. Figure out what Pinterest is all about.  (Hint: It’s an on-line bulletin board and people who “pin up” an idea/photo on it are called “pinners.”) Just think how, at your next dinner party, you can amaze your friends and family by casually mentioning that it was when you were on “Pinterest” that you got the idea to make the towering tree of grapes that everyone’s oohing and aahing over.

4. Read a book to yourself. As of this post, the Kalamazoo Public Library has “pinned up” 37 books suggested by their staff. In looking it over, it reminded me that I have been wanting to read Wonder by R.J. Palacio (about a fifth grader who is born with severe facial deformities). They have some great picks, like the dark and thrilling When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man by Kalamazoo’s own Nick Dybek. Donna Carroll lent me her copy and I couldn’t put it down.

5. Find something you have lost. Okay, I’m totally doing this, too. Socks, I’ve discovered, are slippery little rascals.  I think I’ll start by organizing a search party to hunt down mates who have abandoned their partners.

6. Give away something you love. Some wise person once said, “What you keep to yourself you lose. What you give away, you keep forever.” It may not be easy but you’ll be better for letting it go.

See you in 2013, dear readers!

It’s A Wonderful Life

The President of Communities In Schools, Dan Cardinali, was in Kalamazoo early last week to see our partnership with Kalamazoo Public Schools in action.  We kept him busy during his two day visit. He, along with the State Director Jeff Brown, visited Edison Environmental Science Academy, El Sol Elementary, Loy Norrix High School, Arcadia Elementary School, and Woods Lake Center for the Arts. (To learn more, look for an article on the visit in a future edition of The Excelsior.)

In between these school visits, a number of us gathered at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts to celebrate Mr. Cardinali’s visit and the work this community is doing through CIS. We titled the event “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I’m posting below the opening remarks made last Tuesday by Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. Given recent events and the mourning that is taking place throughout our country, these words take on even more meaning.

We titled this afternoon’s event after the 1946 Frank Capra movie, It’s a WonderfulLife. Why? Because it’s December and it is cold outside. But, even more so, this classic movie which stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, celebrates the goodness of life. It reminds us of the impact one individual can have in transforming lives, how a person’s actions—both big and small—can have ripple effects which wash over an entire community, making it a better place to live.

Kalamazoo, like the cinematic town of Bedford Falls, is an amazing place. Here in ourtown, Dan, we want you to know that we dream big. We want all our children to live life wonderfully. This community has embraced the CIS mission and owns it–surrounding students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. Here, we want every child to graduate and take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise®. Life here IS wonderful.

But not all of us are fortunate enough to be living it wonderfully. Like any other place in America, our town is not immune to poverty, racism, all those things that creep into and eat away at the soul of a city. Here in Kalamazoo, way too many of our citizens are living below the poverty level. For many of the children, wonderful is just out of reach.

Remember in the movie, that bridge? The one upon which George Bailey finds himself all alone on that cold night, the one upon which he contemplates ending his life by falling into the icy waters below?

That bridge doesn’t just exist in some black and white movie. It stretches far beyond us, casting long shadows across our country. It is a bridge built on hopelessness and illiteracy, paved in unmet needs and bolted firmly in place by despair and poverty. Children who believe they have no other place to stand find themselves, just like George Bailey, on the edge of that bridge. Far too frequently a child is slipping away from us, dropping out of school. Wonderful is just too far out of reach.

Just like the movie, though, there is good news in the midst of troubled times. The good news is that the world is filled with caring people. Kalamazoo is steeped in resources of the heart. As CIS folks, we see this everyday, our Site Coordinators and partners who are on the front lines working with teachers and other school staff, reaching out to children who are about to plunge into the icy waters below, and in some cases, salvaging the children who have already slipped through the ice. The good news is that we have each other. Together, we are an army of opportunity, clothing our children in hope, feeding our children with love, and helping our children learn.

By the end of the movie, George Bailey is surrounded by family and members of his community. He had some help in getting to that point. George Bailey had Clarence the angel. The Kalamazoo Promise® is our Clarence the angel, for it is a gift, a miracle. But, just like the movie, even angels need help. You, me, all of us together are what gives wings to the Promise.

In the movie, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. Here in Kalamazoo we can imagine that every time a bell rings, a child is being lifted up–a child is staying in school and succeeding. A wonderful life is within reach because of all of you and hundreds of others in our community.

Got CIS?

As a parent of a Kalamazoo Public School student, James Spencer has love, luck, and courage on his side. He also has Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS).

“I have a high opinion of CIS,” says Mr. Spencer. “It’s outstanding and I’m glad to see that this support is continuing yet another year for my son. Due to the positive attention Kal-El has gotten—particularly within the afterschool program—he’s seeing that what I’m saying has validity.” Since Kal-El’s involvement with CIS at Linden Grove Middle School, Mr. Spencer has noticed that homework time has vastly improved. “Before, it was a struggle to even get him to bring it home. Now it’s is much easier. It’s no longer uncool to do homework.”

“What you say as a parent doesn’t always resonate,” points out Mr. Spencer. “Kids need that little extra push. I appreciate that what my son is hearing at home—the importance of grades and good study habits—is being reinforced at school by teachers and CIS. Sometimes it just helps that kids are hearing the same things repeated and that it’s not coming from your face!”

Mr. Spencer’s son, Kal-El, is featured in our annual report that recently came out. Kal-El talks about how he is motivated to do his best by his parents, CIS Site Coordinator Donyll Lewis and Youth Development Coach and Western Michigan University student Ples Wyatt, III.