Pam Kingery, CIS of Kalamazoo’s Founding Executive Director Retiring

Pam Kingery, Founding Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo

On behalf of the Board of Directors of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), CIS Board President Tony McDonnell announces the retirement of our founding Executive Director, Pam Kingery, which will occur at the end of June, 2019. [Look for McDonnell’s article on Pam’s retirement in the upcoming CIS Connections.]

In 1998, the City of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Public Schools, with the input of many community stakeholders concluded that they had strong mutual interests for investing resources to improve the education and graduation of KPS students. Economic development, social justice, quality of life and workforce development interests intersected to create a local affiliate of Communities In Schools (CIS). Representatives of this community selected Pam Kingery as the person who could breathe life into this promising approach for supporting kids. As McDonnell notes, “In December 1999, Pam Kingery took on the challenge of developing the Kalamazoo version of Communities In Schools, using a national model to overcome the barriers that derail kids, giving them hope and the belief they can succeed in school, graduate and be prepared for life.”

In 2003, CIS joined with the Chamber of Commerce’s Kalamazoo Area Academic Achievement Program [KAAAP] and the Kalamazoo Public Education Foundation [KPEF]. Pam’s leadership has been “extraordinary” says McDonnell. “We all—the board, the staff—this entire community—owe her a debt of gratitude.”

Assures McDonnell, “the CIS Board has already embarked on its search for the next executive director. We look forward to a smooth transition and finding someone with the same passion and drive, a new leader who, in the wake of exciting opportunities and intriguing developments, will take this incredible organization to the next level, and help us serve even more students.”

Before Pam retires, Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids wanted to find out what she has discovered along the way. Here’s our conversation with her:

Kids first! This has been your mantra over the years. So, let’s start with kids first. Tell us a story about one of the 12,000+ kids CIS has helped that has stuck with you over the years.

I still think of one of those first kids. His site coordinator worked so hard to get him eyeglasses. While he was incredibly excited to see clearly, he ended up tossing the glasses out of the third floor window of his school—what was then Vine Alternative [now KAMSC]. The frames of the glasses, purchased by his Medicaid coverage unfortunately branded him as low-income with his peers. He pointed out he would rather go back to not seeing than to have other students bully him for his Medicaid-frame glasses.

And I can’t help but think of the young man who had school failure after school failure. He had moved around a great deal, often missing school. At age 15, the CIS site coordinator took him for an eye exam. Following the exam, the optometrist informed them that the student was legally blind. He received glasses with extremely thick lenses.

All the way back to school, the site coordinator, worried about how the student would be perceived by his classmates, tried to prepare him for the possibility that kids might make fun of his glasses. But this young man was totally enthralled with everything he could see. He was especially taken by the trees. For the first time, he could see that the green of the trees was made up of individual leaves. He said he didn’t care if he got made fun of for thick lenses. He was just so happy to be able to see. At fifteen, his whole world suddenly opened up. You can’t help but wonder, how might things have been different for him if his vision problem could have been identified earlier, when he was five and not fifteen?

What happened with the first student?

With both of these students, we dipped our toe in the water with vision as one significant barrier to success. The first student I mentioned, it is because of him that we reached out to The Junior League of Kalamazoo. He had introduced us to the complex challenges with solving vision care needs and what kids and their parents were contending with at the time. Back then, I think there were three options for Medicaid frames and these were easily identified by other kids as evidence of poverty. So, while we were able to meet his need, it came at such a great social-emotional cost to him. Junior League gave us that first vision care grant of $5,000 and it allowed us to help that student upgrade his frames, and it helped many other families struggling to meet their children’s vision needs, some families who couldn’t even access the Medicaid frames.

As is always the case, there were lots of incredibly caring teachers, who on top of everything else they do, were trying to get glasses for kids. Others like the Lions Club and the KPS nurse were also working very hard to help with glasses, one student at a time. What we added was this organized, systematic approach to making sure that all kids who failed vision screening could then be supported to get them across the glasses finish line.

It’s one thing to be screened for vision—or any other need for that matter—but if nothing happens as a result, screening has no value. That we’ve been able to take identified needs and create systems for intervening is what I am still most excited about in terms of what CIS is able to do for kids and families. The creation of an ongoing system—one we’ve built together with the Kalamazoo Public Schools and the community—means lots of kids will continue to get lots of help long after any one of us is gone.

Back in 1999, you started CIS here in Kalamazoo from scratch. What was one of the first ingredients you used to get started?

I don’t know if it’s an ingredient, so much as a realization. What struck me early on is that this thing we were trying to create was not going to be successful if I was a traditional leader in the traditional sense of one charismatic person who would create and carry this organization on her shoulders. No one person could do this and sustain it. We would only be successful if what we were trying to do was owned by many, many more people that just me.

And early on, you did see that sense of shared ownership, beginning with our board, and our founders. And since then, together, we have only continued to grow the systems of support and the number of students and schools CIS serves.

I hope that our sustainability over the last almost twenty years suggests that my educated hunch was correct. I think the joint ownership and passion for CIS and what it could be, has made for a much broader and stronger foundation. Organizations come and go. When an organization has been “owned” by one person, it is especially easy for that organization to go with that person. Joint ownership makes it a lot harder to let something go. It’s this shared sense of passion and ownership for CIS and its mission that so many people have invested in; it’s the glue that holds this organization together.

[An article posted last month in Nonprofit Quarterly, speaks to Pam’s collective leadership approach. You can read it here.]

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

The creation of a systemic approach and the assembling of an incredibly talented staff and board. You can create a wonderful system, but if you don’t have talented people to do the work, it’s impact will be nonexistent. And if you have talented people, but no organized system to apply their talents, there will also be limits. It’s because of those two things—in combination—that I feel such optimism for the future of CIS.

What advice would you give to the person who will ultimately step into your position when you retire at the end of June?

Listen.

When examining myself and when I’ve messed up is probably when I’ve succumbed to the temptation to talk more and not listen enough. We can all probably listen better and more often. I don’t think there are too many of us who are listening too much. It’s good advice for all of us to take in and listen more, whether we’re at work, at home with our family, our kids, with friends, you name it. Listen.

Back in 2014, you helped kick off our “What’s your Story?” series by sharing your own moving story. [You can read that post here.] You said that your mother instilled in you a love for education. You also said that you were the first and only person in your family to receive a college education.

Pam as a little girl, with her mom

I had originally told staff the story of what my mom had only told me as an adult. Growing up, I remember how my mom always talked about how much she loved school. But it wasn’t until years later, as a grown adult with my own kids that she told me she had dropped out in high school because she was so incredibly poor.
I have this photo of my mom as a child and she is wearing a potato sack for a dress. She described herself as a bow-legged child who always had a terrible haircut. She and her sister literally got their hair cut by having a bowl placed on their head, and dull scissors used to cut around the bowl.

Pam’s mother (right) with younger sister

Kids made fun of her and she finally couldn’t take it anymore and dropped out of high school. She ended up going to Detroit at age sixteen—by herself—and got a job.

That knowledge about my mother’s experience informed my thinking around what we are doing with CIS Kids’ Closet. From that very personal story, I know that sometimes the piece of clothing we offer is far more than that piece of clothing. Through Kids’ Closet, we aren’t just handing out pants or socks. We are also handing dignity to that child. We are sending the message to kids that, as adults, we are going to care for and protect you.

In speaking with CIS staff, some of the qualities they mentioned that you possess that have helped us grow into the organization we are today: a visionary leader, someone who is passionate, compassionate, ethical, fearless, and thoughtful. Which of your qualities has helped you best lead the CIS team in Kalamazoo?

Pam leading the CIS crew during a staff development training

I’d like to think that I am a life-long learner. That I never stop learning and trying to find out how we can improve and how we can do a better job for kids. Being open to learning and considering new ideas and flexibility is a really important trait. Flexibility is a one of those things that is both a strength and a limitation.

How so?

When you let flexibility drive you, you can unknowingly keep reinventing the wheel. Instead of building on what you’ve learned, you can end up with twenty or two hundred different ways of doing something because you are trying to be flexible with everybody. There are benefits to having standards for the way some things are done based on evidence. I’m glad I’m flexible but there is, I think, an inherent tension between those two things: when to be flexible and when not to be flexible. There is a time for flexibility, a time for creativity, and a time for standardization.

We know you love a really good book. What are you currently reading?

I just finished Tim Geithner’s book, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises. I found it a fascinating book… I was on plane to Austin the other weekend and a young kid, about 22 years old, came up to me and said, I saw you reading Tim Geithner’s book. He definitely wanted to know what I thought of the book. Turns out he worked for a think tank in Washington, D.C. with some of Geithner’s former colleagues.

I’ve started reading Relationshift: Revolutionary Fundraising that CIS Board member Terry Morrow recommended. It’s written by Michael Bassoff and Steve Chandler. Members of the CIS Development Committee and other staff are also reading the book thanks to the generosity of Development Chair, Darren Timmeney who purchased several copies for us.

Pam, thank you for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids. And thank you for your leadership. Your relentless focus has given Kalamazoo a priceless gift; a proven way for the community to collectively and systematically address critical needs for students—whether it’s a pair of glasses, or shoes, a tutor, a mentor, or mental health support—so barriers to learning are overcome and students, surrounded by this web of community support are empowered to stay in school and achieve in life.

 

Doing What It Takes To Get Her Promise Back

IMG_2959When JacQuese Steele graduated from Loy Norrix High School in 2008, she headed off to Michigan State University, fully intending to use the gift of The Kalamazoo Promise® to obtain a degree.

Bonnie Terrentine, CIS After School Coordinator for Lincoln International Studies and former Kalamazoo Area Academic Achievement Program (KAAAP) staff  knew JacQuese as a young student at Chime Elementary, then Milwood Elementary, Milwood Magnet Middle School, and then Loy Norrix High School. “She was extremely bright,” recalls Bonnie. “Talented, too. Even when she faced obstacles, she kept on going. She’s very resilient, a pioneer, really, as she was the first in her family to head off to college. I remember she had really supportive grandparents. She was just a great kid.”

JacQuese recalls Ms. Terrentine fondly and says that when she was in fourth grade, the KAAAP mentor she was connected to, Carol McGlinn, changed her future. (Initiated in 1992 by the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce, KAAAP was later absorbed by CIS. It matched elementary students to a mentor committed to seeing the young person through high school graduation.)

JacQuese started doing better in school thanks to the tutoring support she received from her mentor. “I wouldn’t be able to read if it wasn’t for her [Ms. McGlinn]. She saved my reading life. She saved me.”

Yet, the transition from high school to college was challenging. “Going off to college was hard for me,” recalls JacQuese. “My family loved me. They were in support of me going and said, ‘Do it!’ but that was it. I needed someone to guide me. I needed help with the how. I realize nobody has a blueprint for you but when you go to college you need a game plan. I felt like I just got dropped off. ‘Do good,’ they told me. Okay, but how? What are the steps I need to take to get through college?”

A talented woman with a variety of interests, JacQuese found herself changing direction frequently and switching majors. While at Michigan State, she studied Communications, Interdisciplinary Arts and Humanities, Religious Studies, Social Work, and Theater.

It was at the start of her fifth year of college, her degree in sight, that things began to unravel. JacQuese’s grandfather, a great ally and whom she was very close to passed away on her first day back to school. To make matters worse, shortly thereafter, JacQuese was robbed. “My bank card was stolen and my entire bank account was wiped out. I was very depressed. I couldn’t pay the rent. I didn’t know what to do.” So, when a new opportunity arose, JacQuese dropped out of college and headed to Atlanta to “chase my singer-songwriter dream.” While JacQuese experienced some success with her musical career she ultimately determined “it ended up not being the opportunity for me that I thought it would be.” As she puts it, “The music industry, well, let’s just say snakes aren’t always low in the grass.”

Recently, JacQuese decided to return to Kalamazoo. Through Facebook, she connected with her former middle school math teacher, Diane Lang. They met for lunch, caught up, and talked about JacQuese’s future. Afterwards, with JacQuese’s blessing, Diane reached out to friend and Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Pam Kingery. Was there a way for JacQuese to get her The Kalamazoo Promise back?

And before September faded into October, JacQuese, with Diane Lang at her side, met with Bob Jorth, Executive Director of The Kalamazoo Promise®. Thanks to Bob, JacQuese got the information she needed and is now doing what it takes—including making a recent trip to Michigan State University—to finish what she started.

JacQuese couldn’t ask for a better cheerleader at her side—and someone to help navigate the how questions all college students have—than Diane Lang.

“This kid has tons of talent and positive energy,” says Diane. “She just needs to finish up her degree. I’m proud of her.”

“This time, I’ll be going back to college,” says JacQuese, “just  a little wiser.”

 

Signing On For Life

Today we celebrate the work of Rosalie Novara who was honored at the seventh annual Champ celebration. CIS Board Member Stephen Denenfeld along with Stacy Salters, CIS Site Coordinator at Edison Environmental Science Academy, presented the award.

Kawyie Cooper (left) and Rosalie Novara (Right)
Kawyie Cooper (left) and Rosalie Novara (Right)

Rosalie Novara began her extensive volunteer commitment by signing on to become a mentor with the KAAAP initiative—the Kalamazoo Area Academic Achievement Program—when it was still part of the Chamber of Commerce. When Rosalie signs on, Rosalie signs on!  Not only did she embrace her role as a KAAAP mentor for the girl to whom she was assigned, she also became a key support person for the sister. Rosalie took seriously the importance of staying with her mentee from the beginning of the relationship at 4th grade throughout high school to graduation and entry to college.

When we say that there is a role for everyone in the community in improving the lives of our children and helping the whole community thrive, Rosalie sings our song. She began her volunteer stint while she was still a busy CEO of a large non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. She could have easily been given a “pass” on volunteering. She now has six grandchildren in Chicago and Denver, another reason to be given a “pass” on a regular volunteer stint. Rosalie’s KAAAP mentee and sister are now adults and have their own children. Rosalie even served as a labor and delivery coach for one.  She has more than fulfilled her KAAAP obligation—and qualified to retire.

20140506-DSC_7635Fortunately for CIS, Rosalie is definitely not in retirement mode. Like Star Trek, the Next Generation, Rosalie has begun her commitment to another generation of children by tutoring in a kindergarten classroom at King Westwood Elementary School and serving as a mentor/tutor for two students. According to CIS Site Coordinator, Laura Keiser, Rosalie advocates for them relentlessly, implementing behavior and academic interventions. Rosalie connects easily to a variety of students, finding out what motivates them and what they are passionate about.

Whether it’s tutoring, mentoring, attending student conferences, stopping by to touch base with the CIS Site Coordinator, Rosalie understands and embraces the critical role that volunteers play in students’ lives and in the quality of life of an entire community.  In addition to volunteering with Communities In Schools, Rosalie serves a key role in the Great Start Early Childhood Action Network.

Rosalie Novara, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.

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