How Do You Spell Excellent? K-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O-O

Today’s guest blogger is Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. Read what she has to say. I think you’ll find it most excellent!

Who doesn’t like being selected for an award?  It feels great to have nominated Kalamazoo for a “Communities of Excellence” award, to learn Kalamazoo was chosen and that other winners are Charleston, South Carolina, Wayne County, Indiana, and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Pretty good company I would say.

Since being notified, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be a Community of Excellence.  Is it supposed to mean we are perfect—that we have no poverty, no homelessness, no kids who use illegal drugs, no gun violence, no prejudice?  Does it mean that we talk only about the great things—The Kalamazoo Promise®, two great hospitals, being a vibrant college town, getting a new medical school, having a great Symphony Orchestra, strong proponents of social justice, an exceptional non-profit sector, a diverse economy and a vibrant arts community?  I decided not. Part of our strength is a willingness to be honest about our challenges, and a determination to tackle them head on even when we may be tired.

Last week, I attended the swearing in of the new City Commission, Mayor, Vice Mayor and City Manager and the honoring of long-standing public servants, Hannah McKinney and Ken Collard. And there I got a glimpse of something key to being a Community of Excellence.  Earlier in the day I had listened to a story about a community in southern Illinois and felt as though I were sharing in their overwhelming sense of discouragement—they seemed to be succumbing to a sense of inevitable and profound decline, as though nothing could prevent the downturn. Either you left the town, or you bought 32 guns and taught every family member to use them and hunkered down in fear.

Listening to Jack Urban, Bob Cinabro, Stephanie Moore, Barb Miller, Don Cooney, David Anderson and Bobby Hopewell affirmed why Kalamazoo deserves to be selected for a Community of Excellence award. Knowing that Ken Collard’s legacy to the City is a commitment to telling the truth and doing what is right, regardless of what is popular or politically expedient, is excellence. Acknowledging in the most civil manner possible that they have disagreed with one another, that they will disagree with one another again in the future and that they will do so openly but with the utmost care and respect is excellence. Expressing profound admiration for the outgoing City Manager and strong support for the incoming one is excellence. Providing a preview of hard issues and decisions to come, and taking the long view rather than the short one is excellence.  Taking responsibility and assuring us that we shall positively overcome is excellence. I walked out of the swearing in ceremony feeling very proud of Kalamazoo and wondering if these public servants might teach a class in Lansing and Washington DC.

Kalamazoo will be celebrated as a Community of Excellence by the Communities In Schools National network at an awards ceremony in Charlotte, North Carolina in late January. And I have more than two months to think about all the additional reasons that Kalamazoo is totally deserving of the honor—hundreds of ordinary people who volunteer hours and hours each year to tutor kids in our schools or deliver meals to our elders, a public library committed to ensuring that the love of reading extends to all, a Community College determined that students embrace their strengths to find the right future, a community of outstanding teachers dedicated to helping even the most reluctant students to learn, even when we consistently fail to say thank you.

When the Community of Excellence Award is given, I will stand a little taller, understanding that the list of accolades that are recited, aren’t nearly long enough to do justice to the great place where I live. What can you add to the list?

Students Tell Kalamazoo: “Keep the Lights On!”

20131021-_DSC4027Over 1,000 children throughout ten Kalamazoo Public School buildings benefited in the 2012/2013 school year from after school programming through Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo. This resource has been available thanks to the support of the Michigan Department of Education (21st Century Community Learning Centers). CIS is in the fifth year of this five year federal grant.

“Afterschool programs are vital to creating healthy outlets for students during this critical time of day, says Artrella Cohn, CIS Director of Secondary Sites. “We cannot expect young people to make healthy decisions in life such as attending school regularly and improving their academics when we are not willing to invest our time and resources to support them.”

In conjunction with Lights On Afterschool 2013 events across the nation, Kalamazoo Public School students who participate in CIS afterschool programming have been coming up with their own unique ways to shine the spotlight on quality, afterschool programming. Throughout October, students have been posting facts and research regarding afterschool programming, creating public service announcements, working on special projects with school personnel, and more.

20131021-_DSC3968And just this past Monday evening, close to 80 students, parents and CIS staff filled the Chamber of City Hall. The students present were representing all students from CIS afterschool sites: Edison Environmental Science Academy, Lincoln International Studies School, Milwood Elementary School, Washington Writers’ Academy, Woods Lake Elementary, Milwood Magnet Middle School, Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, Linden Grove Middle School, Hillside Middle School and Loy Norrix High School. They came together at city hall to share with the Kalamazoo City Commission the importance of extending the learning day through afterschool programming. Commissioner Don Cooney, on behalf of the Kalamazoo City Commission and Mayor Bobby Hopewell, read aloud a proclamation announcing October as “Lights On Afterschool Month” in Kalamazoo and committed to engaging in activities that ensure that the lights stay on and the doors stay open for all children after school.

Surrounded by children and parents, Melissa Holman, the CIS Afterschool Program Coordinator accepted the proclamation. Reflecting upon the experience, Melissa says, “I was extremely proud of our students for having the courage to advocate for their after school programs to our public officials. I believe that we are helping to develop world changers, who will first start by creating a better community through after school programs.”

Sure enough, one by one, students stepped up to the microphone to speak to their elected officials.

“The afterschool program provides us with food, clothes, and other things we need,” fifth grader Antonio said before a packed audience. “The afterschool program helps us stay away from drugs and off the streets. The staff help us with our homework and any issues we struggle with. The staff will do anything to make sure we are respectful, responsible, and safe so we can grow up to be anything we want to be and treated equally. This helps us so we can do the same for others who need help and think they can’t find it.”

Leasia Posey, a 7th grader at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, said, “I have been in Communities In Schools afterschool program since elementary school at Washington Writers Academy.  I think the afterschool program is amazing because of the staff, the clubs, and the transportation home.” Leasia told Commissioners that her favorite clubs are art, drama, and gardening.

Tiara Blair
Tiara Blair

Loy Norrix High School student Tiara Blair spoke up as well, “Communities In School has made a huge difference in my life. It has helped me to maintain my grade point average at a 3.7 average.” [Applause errupted in the chamber.] “Not only has it helped me with my academic studies but also with community building and networking. Communities In Schools connects me with a lot of resources, such as dental, vision, and food pack services. Also, because of CIS, I am provided a room with materials and the needed space to complete my homework. I appreciate the team staff that are hired here, they really take the time to help me succeed in my education.”

Rather than citing a bunch of research demonstrating that students who regularly attend afterschool programs are more likely to improve their grades, tests scores and overall academic behavior (there is a lot of it!), we’ll let Shediah, a fifth grader from Milwood Elementary School wrap up this post. Here, in her own words:

What Does the CIS Afterschool Program Mean to Me?

To me, afterschool program means to always be loved and helped. Afterschool program is a place that I can let my feelings go and be myself. I will always be safe and cared about.

To me, afterschool program is a place I can go to and calm down. I know I can always go the CIS staff when I need help. I can always be comforted when I’m going through a hard time.

When my [Site Coordinator] Ms. Abby left, I was very sad. After a while she came upstairs and comforted me. So did all of my classmates and my teachers.

I still miss Ms. Abby but Ms. Korrine who has taken her place is really nice. CIS is still fun.

Check out the inspiring City Hall photos (taken by Don Kingery) on our facebook album.

If you missed any of the WWMT coverage that aired on these recent events, not to worry. Just check out the following links:

What CIS Executive Director, Pam Kingery says about afterschool programming can be found here.

Students speaking out for afterschool programming during city commission meeting can be found here.