Jennifer Johnson: Ever Moving Towards the Possibilities

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 Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, Jennifer grew up in northern Michigan. “People won’t like to know that I love snow,” she laughs. “But I grew up with snow! I love it!”

Jennifer attended Central Michigan University, double majored in psychology and English and then obtained her Masters in English, Language and Literature. “When people learn I have an English degree, they’ll often ask, What makes you qualified to do this? I tell them I’m annoying,” says Jennifer. “And I ask questions.”

We’d describe Jennifer not as annoying but rather, persistent, focused, and curious, always looking for possibilities and moving not just her and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes towards them, but the whole Kalamazoo community.

Alright, Jennifer Johnson: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

When we talk about hunger these days, we often hear the term, ‘food insecure.’

That is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of hunger.

What is your definition of food insecurity?

People need enough food to lead a healthy active life. They need food that counts nutritionally. A person may be eating food, but not the right food. They may be taking in calories, but not the right calories. The reality is that some people don’t have enough money to buy the right food, or perhaps they have enough money but they live in a food desert. Their only access to food is the local Family Dollar or corner store that doesn’t have fresh fruits and vegetables; the foods they need to grow health and strong.

Hunger presents itself in many different ways. Teachers see it in the form of concentration problems and behavioral issues. For kids themselves it is more of an out loud thing, literally. My stomach is growling! My daughter’s teacher, like a lot of teachers, has a snack drawer in her classroom. We see the holes and we’re all trying to fill them.

Speaking of filling a need, let’s talk Friday Food packs! We are so grateful to you and all those at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes for your commitment to this program. As you know, since 2005, your food packs have been one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students.

In the early days with the program, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes saw the food packs as merely a bridge, a bridge to more things. It was, and still is, helpful for us that CIS site coordinators, working with teachers and administrators, identify students who need that little extra help on weekends from Loaves & Fishes. Identifying the kids has been a way to help us reach the families. We want to feed the whole family as well as the child.

So the Friday Food Packs has helped bridge that end?

It has helped with that, yes… I’d add that we are limited by the number of packs we can provide. Around 6,000 kids are on free and reduced lunch. The number of food packs provided are small in proportion to the need. We know how tough it is for CIS site coordinators to prioritize what students will receive the packs.

You’ve been with KLF for eleven years, serving these last four years as executive director [and prior to that, as resource development and public relations director]. When it comes to feeding hungry people and engaging our community in the fight to end hunger, what is one of the biggest changes you’ve noticed over the years?

One of the most recent things I learned was from talking with Deb Yarbrough, the CIS site coordinator at Kalamazoo Central. She’s been there a long time and really knows the kids. So I asked her, “When it comes to hunger in the high school, what’s changed?” She said that it’s changed a lot. Kids, she said, are more responsible than they’ve ever had to be for their food, their sibling’s food, as well as accessing food for their household.

What a responsibility that puts on our children’s shoulders! Now, there are lots of reasons for this, one being that a parent may be working at night. Whatever the case, the level of responsibility that has been put on kids in the last few years has greatly increased…I grew up as a latch key kid, but it was different then. It’s not the same thing.

If you could feed us one statistic on hunger, what would it be?

In our community, there are 40,000 food insecure people. That means in Kalamazoo County there are people living right on the edge and there are also people living deeply in poverty. It’s the whole spectrum.

One of the thing people don’t realize is that just because you have a couple of jobs doesn’t mean you have all the bases covered. Imagine, you have two part time jobs, no benefits, and something happens where you have medical bills. Or maybe your car dies and you don’t have the dollars to fix it. You need groceries, but don’t have a vehicle. Life is complicated for many people. Holes and gaps hamper their success and their children’s success. At Loaves & Fishes, we live with that every day and work to create as many access points as possible to help kids and the surrounding community.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you “love the possibilities” as seen through your daughter, her friends, and this community. What possibilities have you been noticing recently?

It’s hard to see them sometimes. It’s easy to get bogged down by external things, like what’s going on in the environment, the media, the world. It’s hard to not be negative. I encourage everyone to push all these distractions out of the way to see the possibilities. They are there! We believe at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes—we believe to our core—that we can create a hunger free community. That is an immense task, but it is possible! And CIS is an integral part of that task.

How so?

Your CIS people are incredible connectors. We couldn’t do this work without CIS. CIS site coordinators are on the ground and in the schools. They see and can help identify a child in need and that helps us know where our food needs to be. CIS is one of many agencies that are helping us do that throughout the community.

We love partnering with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes in the Kalamazoo Public Schools! Your organization really has an open mind set. Back in 2003, when we came to you and sought out your expertise about kids coming to school hungry, especially on Monday mornings, KLF was quick to say, Let’s figure something out! Soon after, the Friday Food packs was born.

Sometimes, possibilities are stopped by a system. We adhere too strictly to boundaries or the way things have always been done. When we open ourselves up to looking at ways systems can be stretched, that’s when possibilities can happen and we can leverage things like breakfast, lunch and summer feeding programs to their fullest.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Systemic change is hard. Real change takes work! We’re all busy and it’s hard to stop, to take the time and figure out better and new ways to do something. But if we can stop and focus—together— and say, I know this isn’t easy work, but let’s take the time to figure this out, together, we can make things better.

Do you have a favorite condiment?

I’m anti-condiment. I don’t like condiments, and that includes salad dressing. I’m boring, I know. That will be the theme of this blog interview! I’m boring.

Far from it! So, what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? What one food item is a “must have” in your own home?

We love fruits and vegetables. Mostly fruits, if you ask my daughter.

My best meal? Probably the home-made pizza I made with my daughter. I love baking and cooking with my daughter. Growing up, I cooked with my mom and grandmother and I am trying to instill that love of cooking with my eight-year-old daughter. We recently made spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. Not the noodles, though. We don’t have a noodle maker. But my daughter helped with the meal. She squished and formed the meatballs with her hands…I know how much it meant to me to bake with my mom and knowing I can do that with my daughter, well it’s thrilling to have that experience with her. Cooking and baking together is an important part of our life.

Favorite word?

Possibilities. That’s been one of my favorite words for a very long time. I can trace my thinking on possibilities back to Zora Neale Hurston and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. That book taught me a lot about possibilities. It really made me think beyond my own life. When you think there is no other way to go, nowhere to turn, there is. You just need to stop, collaborate, and take a different road.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History.

Loved that book, though it was a lot of pages.

God Bless America, that was a long book! But it was so good. I really enjoyed reading about Graham’s growth as a woman, her running the Washington Post, and working in a male-dominated industry. I found it inspirational and relatable for our times: don’t give up! Oh, and I’m just starting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. To think about the contributions to the world both of these women made, and in completely different ways. It’s inspiring.

Did you know that the librarian [Jermaine Jackson] at the Alma Powell Branch Library is related to Henrietta Lacks?

Yes, there are several of her descendants living in our community. That is exciting.

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

I’ve had several. Both my parents have been my caring adults. I lost my dad four years ago. My mom is still here. My mom was my baker, teacher, and challenger. So was my dad. I’d go to Rotary with him, we’d collect for UNICEF together. I learned to give back at a very young age.

I’d also have to say my English teacher was very influential. I didn’t like school, didn’t find it very challenging. She changed my life by showing me books I should read. In college, I even ended up going into English Language and Literature.

Without a doubt, another caring adult in my life is Anne Lipsey. She became a friend but she is also my mentor, having been my boss for years. I’ve learned so much from her, how the voice of the people we serve must be heard and how we must stand up for them, particularly during these judgemental times. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from her. She is just amazing.

We’re so grateful to the KLF staff and board for your on-going commitment to helping hungry kids in the schools and for all you do to end hunger throughout our community. We know there are many volunteers who work behind the scenes to make your work, such as food packs and school pantries, possible. What is the size of your volunteer force?

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes would not exist without volunteer support. On a weekly basis, it takes 300 to 400 volunteers to do what we do. That’s a massive amount of people! From front desk people volunteering, helping us answer the phone, escorting people through the building, to drivers who pick up and deliver our food, and those volunteers who deliver those food packs to schools. [If you would like to learn how you can volunteer with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, go here.]

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

In Step with John Curran

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 Curran, Executive Director of First Day Shoe Fund (FDSF). We met up with John a few weeks back at Walnut & Park Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, John grew up in St. Joseph and then came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University. He graduated with a degree in political science.

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

Pop Quiz

Tell us a shoe story.

When I think of First Day Shoe Fund stories, one memorable moment that comes to mind is of a young man who got shoes with Batman on the sides. He put them on and started running circles around the gym. That’s how it works, right? Oh, and then there were these twins who each got a pair of shoes, different colors. Their teachers were grateful as, not only did they have shoes that were comfortable and fit them, the different colors made it easier to tell them apart!

Can you talk some about the partnership FDSF has with CIS in the Kalamazoo Public Schools?

I’m glad you asked that. I really want to put in a plug for your site coordinators!

CIS is really a special partner. We were, as you know, founded by Valerie Denghel. It was in volunteering with CIS at Edison that she was inspired to start this organization. In a way, First Day Shoe Fund grew out of CIS. And our partnership with CIS and KPS over the last twelve years, the help we’ve received with both identifying students in need and making sure they got the shoes that were right for them has been critical to our growth and success. Having CIS site coordinators in the school building dedicated to facilitating resources from the community to connect them to children who can use them makes our program possible and makes sure no child is left out.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “Lake Michigan and the bike trails that can get you there from Kalamazoo.” What else do you love about Kalamazoo?

I love that this town puts its collective focus on education. That is unique and one of the things that attracted Sakhi and I to live here and buy a home here.

Any favorite places?

Walnut & Park Cafe, of course. And Kleinstuck. It’s a hidden gem, a 48-acre nature preserve right in the neighborhood.

In 2016, First Day Shoe Fund celebrated its tenth anniversary. Tell us more about your organization and what’s happened since then.

Photo courtesy of FDSF.

We are now in our 12th distribution of providing shoes to elementary school-aged children. This past year, in 2017, we distributed 4,687 shoes! That a record high for us. The shoes were distributed across all the districts we now serve: Kalamazoo Public Schools, Comstock Public Schools, Paramount Charter Academy, and KRESA’s WoodsEdge Learning Center. Also, in 2017 we introduced a pilot program to serve Vicksburg’s students at their ‘Back to School Bonanza.’ That was organized by South County Community Services and Generous Hands, Inc.

As a grassroots organization, we depend on hundreds of volunteers to get this work done. We welcome new volunteers throughout the year. Those interested in volunteering with FDSF, can just fill out a form on our website. [You can do that by clicking here.]

One question we get a lot: Where do the shoes come from? We buy them. They don’t just come out of nowhere! A truck from Adidas doesn’t just pulls up and drop them off. We raise the money and buy the shoes.

What is the connection between shoes and academic success?

We are a piece of the puzzle. I mentioned that collective focus on education. First Day Shoe Fund is a part of that. We are doing everything we can do so students are ready to learn when they enter the classroom. When they have comfortable, correct fitting shoes, they are one step closer to that opportunity to be successful. Oh, I just said a shoe pun, one step closer, but it’s true!

We also believe shoes are important to a child’s self-esteem, feeling a sense of belonging and self-worth. Having the appropriate shoes leads to a healthy and active lifestyle. Students can participate in activities both inside and outside of school, they can be part of gym class, a school or community sport, and feel like they belong.

A pair of shoes put the young person on equal footing with their peers, providing them the same opportunity to walk into their classroom, feeling comfortable and good about themselves, ready to learn.

Favorite word?

Process. As in the process of how we do things at First Day Shoe Fund and in my personal life I’m a big believer that if you’re doing the right thing, if you commit to the process, it may not always turn out right, but in the long term the outcome will be good.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was doing some research on the depth of need throughout our county. I learned that there are over 9,000 kids that would qualify for our program in Kalamazoo county. Throughout every community, in every corner of our county, there are children that could really benefit from a pair of new shoes.

What are you currently reading?

I’m a grad student—I’m in the MBA program at Western—so I’m reading a lot for school, much of which I find particularly helpful in my work as an administrator of a non-profit. When I have the pleasure of reading something that hasn’t been assigned, I read a few pages of Hard Labor by Sam Smith. It’s about the history of organized labor in the NBA. It combines my interest in social justice, worker’s rights, and basketball. Those are the topics I tend to gravitate towards for my leisure reading.

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

I’ve had a lot of them, but perhaps the person who has been the most impactful is Professor Don Cooney. He set me on the course that my life has followed for the last decade. I’d always had a vague idea that I wanted to make a difference in the world. Don showed me how. He gave me—as he does other students–a wealth of information as well as how to apply my energy. He introduced me to a great deal of learning and opportunity. He’s the best…such a decent human being.

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

[You can read more about First Day Shoe Fund in this 2016 post, First Day Shoe Fund: A CIS Partner with Sole.]

 

 

 

 

Gulnar Husain: A Good Life

When I think of Gulnar, I think of someone who hears a problem from a child or a teacher and immediately responds with, ‘Well, let’s see how we can fix this.’ Never a list of reasons why we can’t.”                                                     -Dr. Timothy Light, CIS Board member

 

On January 1, 2018, Kalamazoo lost a giant: Gulnar Husain. Pancreatic cancer may have taken her from us, but she has left a tremendous legacy.

Gulnar Husain worked tirelessly to unleash her fellow citizen’s own potential, encouraging others to share their gifts and talents to strengthen this community she loved. Gulnar immigrated from Pakistan in 1981 and for over 35 years, gave joyously of her time to numerous Kalamazoo entities, such as Kalamazoo Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Justice, Kalamazoo Islamic Center, Michigan Festival of Sacred Music, Western Michigan University, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA), Kalamazoo Public Schools, Portage Public Schools, ISAAC, St. Augustine School, Kalamazoo Non-Violent Opponents of War, Kalamazoo County Summit on Racism, Michigan Interfaith Coalition for Peace, Kalamazoo Lend a Hand, and Fetzer Institute’s Gardens of Many Faiths. The list goes on.

For over 14 years, Gulnar worked with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS). She first served as an AmeriCorps worker and then as an AmeriCorps VISTA at both Arcadia Elementary School and King-Westwood Elementary. In the last decade of her career she was the CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia. During that time she worked ceaselessly to surround a diverse population of students with whatever it takes so they could succeed in school, graduate and be prepared for life. For Gulnar, doing whatever it takes meant coordinating and supporting more than 30 volunteers in a given school year, as well as a host of community partners to provide in-class tutoring, mentoring, counseling, music therapy, food packs, “Literacy Buddies” (a twice a week after-school program funded through State Farm), dental clinic, vision assistance, CIS Kids’ Closet (distributing basics like clothing/hygiene items), First Day Shoe Fund, Warm Kids-Winter Gear, Friendship Circle, Lunch & Learn, Math Club, Higher Thinking Club, Girls on the Run, the Recycle Project, and more.

While it’s impossible to fully capture Gulnar’s contributions to our kids and our community we want to honor her memory by providing a few photos, quotes, and links to stories (with more photos) about her, here, in one place…

Here she is back in her AmeriCorps days (2002):

Alice Gordon, on left, with Gulnar.

Gulnar worked closely with her principal, Greg Socha, and cherished his wisdom and support. Despite the daily demands principals have, she knew she could count on him to help identify and prioritize school needs, share what types of partnerships were necessary to meet the needs. Here’s what Principal Socha has said about Gulnar:

Gulnar Husain has been described as the ‘heart’ of Arcadia. Through her years of CIS service to the students and staff at Arcadia, Gulnar provided clothing, food, counseling, mentoring, tutoring and lunch-and-learn programs for students. For the staff, Gulnar offered guidance, a quiet persistence of providing needed services to students, and education on the multi-cultural needs of our families. But her world did not end at Arcadia. Gulnar promoted the Literacy Buddies program at Arcadia and Kalamazoo Central High School, matching high school students with elementary students to enhance the reading and writing of both parties. When the KPS Immigrant Program needed tutors after school, Gulnar provided her expertise and time to help students improve their English and complete their homework. Through her work with CIS, Gulnar made Arcadia a national award- winning school.”

“Still, that was not enough for Gulnar. Despite an acknowledged frustration with technology, she often provided articles and websites for staff members that promoted literacy, learning, and tolerance. She completed scholarship information to help her students expand their experiences. Her community involvement with interfaith organizations often placed her on the podium to speak of inclusion, and caring, and providing services for others in our community. All of this was completed in her humble way – quiet, but persistent.”                                

Gulnar with Arcadia Recyling Team
Gulnar checking in with student during a “lunch and learn” poetry workshop.

Gulnar believed in the five CIS basics, especially that all students deserve a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. She felt such joy seeing volunteers in action with students, offering encouragement, academic support, and hope. Pam Kingery, CIS Executive Director, once noted, “In her role as CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia, Gulnar has accomplished so much because she understands and values the role volunteers play in student success. Wearing that hat of ‘volunteer’ herself over many years and in a variety of settings, she knows the power of volunteers. That’s why she’s invested countless hours into supporting numerous volunteers throughout the years–she understands the potential return on that investment.”

Here’s Gulnar with just a few of the many volunteers she worked with over the years.

With Dianne Roberts.
With Mohammed Mohammed.
With Cindy Kesterke and Lenny Williams.

You can find a photo of her with Howard Tejchma in the 2016 CIS newsletter themed “Why Boys?” on page 6. Just go here.

Gulnar loved seeing students succeed. Here’s a link to Lenny’s success story, “Finding His Voice.”  And here’s the link to Lacey’s story.

Gulnar with Lacey Weston.

Gulnar was part of the Kalamazoo delegation that went to Charlotte, North Carolina when Kalamazoo was one of four communities from across the country honored as a community of excellence in 2013. Gulnar also received national recognition for her work within Arcadia Elementary School and joined the ranks of only a handful throughout the country to receive an Honorable Mention for the prestigious Unsung Hero Award. We blogged about it here, “Gulnar Husain: No Longer Unsung”. And Julie Mack covered it in a Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive article here.

When Arcadia Elementary School was one of just four sites across America honored in the school category by the national Communities In Schools’ network at the 2015 Unsung Heroes Awards in New Orleans, LA, Gulnar was there. Here she is with the Kalamazoo contingent, along with Bill Milliken, Founder and Vice Chairman of Communities In Schools, Inc. (left) and Dan Cardinali, then President of Communities In Schools, Inc. (third from right at back):

Gulnar with (from left): Greg Socha, Pam Kingery, Carolyn A. Williams, and Dan Cardinali

We blogged about all this in the post, “Singing Loudly and Proudly of Unsung Heroes.”  National CIS also wrote about it in this article, “Overcoming Cultural and Language Barriers.”  Before Gulnar left New Orleans, she took in some of the sites.

Gulnar with (from left): Mary Oudsema, Jennifer Clark, Pam Kingery, Elyse Brey, and Dominique Edwards.

An interview with Gulnar, along with a copy of the City of Kalamazoo’s Welcoming Proclamation (she helped to craft it, along with a rabbi, a United Methodist minister, and Kalamazoo’s vice mayor) is included in the anthology, Immigration & Justice For Our Neighbors. Released in April 2017, her interview begins, “Hospitality can be a radical act, particularly when one steps out of her comfort zone to indiscriminately welcome, accept, and love others. Gulnar Husain marches through her own fears and discomforts to welcome and connect with people from cultures and religions beyond her own…” Gulnar also appears in the essay, “Blueberries,” by Nicholas Baxter. More about the anthology project and where to find it here.

Here’s Gulnar, after receiving The Good Neighbor Award at the 2017 STAR Awards. She was recognized for her efforts in uniting people in the community who share different religions and backgrounds.

Gulnar with CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery.
Gulnar (second from right), surrounded by family and friends.

Shortly after being awarded the 2017 Good Neighbor Award, Gulnar was interviewed by Public Media Network‘s Pillars of the Community. You can watch it here.

If you go here to the “About Us” page on the CIS website, scroll down and click on the arrow. You can watch a really cool, three minute video about Arcadia Elementary School. Gulnar is featured in it.

In their January 2018 newsletter, ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community) wrote about Gulnar and included some photos. Here’s that link.

Upon learning of Gulnar’s passing, Dan Cardinali, CEO of Independent Sector and former national president of Communities In Schools wrote this: I had the honor of meeting Gulnar a number of times and visiting with her and the children with whom she worked for so many years. Her gift of love and vision for peace were contagious. Her life is a powerful example what a good life can and should be. For me she taught me that we’re all called to live courageous lives of mercy in the face of violence, tolerance in the face of intolerance, hope in the face of despair, and love in the face of hate…”

Gulnar enjoying a moment with Dan Cardinali during his visit to Arcadia.

To honor Gulnar, her commitment to kids, and her special appreciation for volunteers and their impact on students’ success, her family has established the Gulnar Husain Legacy Fund at Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.  Those wishing to make a gift to the Fund may donate online.  Checks may also be sent to CIS with a note in the Memo line indicating that the gift is for the Fund.

Gulnar with Principal Socha.

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.

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.

 

17 New Sparks with CIS

The 2017/18 CIS interns. (Front row, left to right): Joe Conrad, Janae McEwen, Angie Franklin, Alyssa Borkowski, and Kaleigh Walters. (Back, left to right): Alyssa Smith, Matthew Krieger, Kelsey Nimtz, Courtney Mahaffy, Kali Hancock, Dan Sullivan, Karly Poole, Travis Guerrero, Neala Smith, Kayla Garrett, and Blaec Arevalo. Not pictured: Karynn Taylor and Ernest Bell.

This is the largest group of interns CIS has yet to connect to the schools! Seventeen of the students attend Western Michigan University and one attends Spring Arbor University and is pursuing her Bachelor’s in Social Work. Of the WMU students, eight are working towards their bachelor’s degree in the School of Social Work, five towards their Master’s in Social Work, three working towards their Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Health Services and one towards their Bachelors of Science in Family Studies.

In no particular order, here are the interns and the schools’ CIS site teams they will be joining. (Drum roll, please): Dan Sullivan (Loy Norrix High School), Courtney Mahaffy (Northglade Montessori Magnet School), Kali Hancock (Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts), Kelsey Nimtz (Spring Valley Center for Exploration), Matthew Krieger (Woodward School for Technology and Research), Kayla Garrett (Hillside Middle School), Travis  Guerrero (Milwood Magnet Middle School), Karly Poole (Linden Grove Middle School), Blaec Arevalo (El Sol Elementary School), Neala Smith (Edison Environmental Science Academy), Alyssa Smith (Woods Lake Elementary: A Magnet Center for the Arts), Janae McEwen (Prairie Ridge Elementary School), Angie Franklin (Washington Writers’ Academy and Linden Grove Middle School), Neala Smith (Edison Environmental Science Academy), Alyssa Borkowski (Woodward School for Technology and Research), Joseph Conrad (Kalamazoo Central High School), Kaleigh Walters (Spring Valley Center For Exploration), Karynn Taylor (Lincoln  International Studies School), and Ernest Bell (Milwood Elementary).

We popped our quiz on these newest members of the CIS family and compiled their answers below.

Alright, interns: pencils out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

  • Wisdom does not always come with age.
  • In Norway, the maximum prison sentence is 14 years.
  • How awesome Communities In Schools is!
  • A Mobile Health Clinic makes stops to local KPS schools for students who need access to them.
  • Boys are a group currently struggling with academics. Our CIS caseloads will be 60% boys, 40% girls.
  • There is an American Sign Language minor now offered at WMU.
  • Learning some Spanish here and there.
  • I’ve recently been interested in Brené Brown’s work on love/belonging and shame/fear. She talks about how love is what you allow your authentic, vulnerable self to be seen and accepted, and how shame, fear, and self-doubt often get in the way.
  • There is a printer that will staple your papers for you.
  • How to play golf.
  • All of the great resources for kids around Kalamazoo.
  • A co-worker of mine used to be employed with CIS.
  • New workout circuit for lower body with bands.
  • Recently, I’ve learned several new ways to participate in self-care.
  • The urge to kill cute things comes from evolution.
  • Expanded my understanding of positive reinforcement.

 What are you currently reading?

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

  • The focus and dedication the community has to helping the students.
  • I think the downtown scene is very cool. There is a lot going on.
  • I love that Kalamazoo is full of diverse cultures. I like eating all different types of food, going to art openings, and local festivals. Oh, also we have live music and good beer. I just went to see Verve Pipe at Bell’s Beer Garden.
  • The resources available to the community.
  • I love that Kalamazoo has a lot of donors and organizations that like to give back to the community.
  • It’s where I grew up and, as a community, we try to support and stick together as a family.
  • The food.
  • How beautiful downtown is.
  • I like that it is a bigger city with a lot of fun things to do.
  • The complexity, yet closeness, of everything.
  • The downtown culture.
  • TNT and soul food.
  • I love being in Kalamazoo because there is always something to do.
  • The arts and diversity.
  • The atmosphere. There’s always something to see and do.
  • The sense of a small town and the community. It reminds me of home.

What is your favorite word right now?

  • Persistence
  • Accomplish
  • Gnarly
  • Fascination
  • Endeavor
  • Indeed
  • Energy
  • Fantastic
  • Free
  • Creative
  • Success
  • Fabulous
  • Gooey
  • Communication & wisdom
  • Interesting
  • Extremely

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

  • How will I use my Master’s degree to make a positive impact of children’s lives? I am interested in being exposed to the potential job opportunities this degree will offer me.
  • My girlfriend, who lives in Boston. Her name is Dulce, and she’s going to accomplish great things for vulnerable and oppressed people.
  • Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing seasons. Fall is one of my favorite seasons so I am excited.
  • The possible threat of nuclear war with North Korea.
  • Moving to a whole new state and finding out where everything is at can be very overwhelming, as well as meeting new people.
  • Taking advantage of every opportunity given and appreciating the little moments in life.
  • Finding a way to come up with some form of a resource that can aide me on how to connect and strategically teach my current 7th graders and how to grasp the new math curriculum of “Engage” New York Math.
  • What life will be like after graduation. I often daydream about my career potential and wonder where I will be living.
  • Trying to live more mindfully and in the present moment, rather than living in the past or future.
  • Since I am a senior, pretty soon I’ll be applying to WMU’s Master program. It’s a long process of applying and then months of waiting. I’m hoping to be accepted into the advanced standing program.
  • I would like to go back to Western and get my Master’s degree in social work. I would not mind being a school social worker since I enjoy kids. I know that I would be good working in the school system, plus I enjoy learning and helping people who want to succeed in school.
  • Graduation and how close I am to finally being finished with my BS.
  • Grad school and where I will be living a year from now.
  • Graduation and my next step in my career. Grad school is on my mind, also the holidays.
  • Post-graduation and the future.
  • My future. I’m getting ready to graduate and have been thinking a lot about the future and what I’m going to do following graduation.

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

  • My two high school football coaches and my high school math teacher.
  • My parents are my biggest support system.
  • My parents.
  • My mom.
  • My mother has always been my caring adult.
  • My brother is my caring adult.
  • My father and my 19 year old daughter.
  • My parents.
  • My aunt.
  • My mother pushed me through elementary through high school and my father has gotten me through the end of my college career.
  • My momma and first high school teacher.
  • My father. Just the way he speaks to me of family and friends helps keep me focused.
  • My best friend, Jessica.
  • My professors at Western, a few memorable instructors in particular.
  • My mom. She has always been there for me, no matter what.
  • My parents are both very supportive and caring.

Thank you, interns! Welcome aboard!