Sara Williams: Rolling Up Her Sleeves for Kids

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 Sara Williams, Vice President/Financial Center Manager III with Fifth Third Bank. She’s also stepping into her third year of service as a CIS Board Member, although, as you’ll soon learn, she has been involved with CIS since 2011.

Sara grew up in Otsego and for the past 26 years has called Kalamazoo home. She lives with her husband Kevin, their 12-year-old daughter, one cat, and a dog. Her 24-year-old daughter recently graduated from Western Michigan University and is working as a rehabilitation specialist. Sara is also a proud grandmother to 2 ½ year old Oakli.

With a degree in finance from Davenport University, Sara’s career has always revolved around banking. She started out as a licensed personal banker at Bank One (now Chase) and for the past 20 years has been in management.

She is passionate about CIS and helping kids succeed in school. “I know community support can make all the difference,” she says. In fact, it’s this very philosophy of building stronger communities that drew her to Fifth Third Bank, which partners with CIS in several ways. Most recently, Fifth Third supported the annual Bundle Up project by serving as a host site at seven of their locations, making it convenient for the community to drop off a needed item or two. [More about Kalamazoo Rotaract’s Bundle Up project and how it helps our 12,000+ kids, here.]

On the home page of Fifth Third Bank’s website, it states, We love rolling up our sleeves and helping out our neighbors. Sara Williams, as you’ll soon learn, embodies this philosophy.

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

Pop Quiz

You were involved with CIS before you became a board member, right?

Yes, I first got connected with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo back in 2011. I was working at our Burdick branch at that time. We wanted to do a school supply drive. I’ve got to say, that’s one of the things I love about working with Fifth Third… Anyways, I called one of the schools in the area and they said, “We should connect you with CIS.” So, shortly thereafter, CIS scheduled an appointment to come out and talk with us. It was Emily Kobza who came. When she said, “We don’t need paper and pencils right now. We are in need of deodorant,” well, that blew me out of the water. They need deodorant? We assumed we knew what the needs were but, at that time, deodorant was the bigger need. Deodorant!

So we rallied up as a team at Fifth Third and collected money for hygiene products. That was what, eight years ago? I’ve since learned more about CIS Kids’ Closet and how the community can work through CIS to meet students’ basic needs. There is so much more that CIS does and I still have a lot to learn. But what I do know is that I can’t solve it myself. What I can do is let people know about CIS and some of the needs we help meet.

That reminds me. Want to hear a story?

We’re always up for a story! Do tell.

This is a few years back. I’m at the grocery store. I do extreme couponing and with my coupons and the sale going on, I had figured out that I could get 260 hygiene items for the price of 200 items.

The cashier was helping me ring up these items and was taking quite an interest in why I was purchasing such a large quantity of personal care products. So I started talking about CIS and explained that we were donating these travel-size personal care products to CIS Kids’ Closet to make sure students were in school every day and able to focus on learning without the distraction of being embarrassed about their personal appearance. At the end, the cashier thanked me for making this donation. I told her that no thanks was needed as we love doing this for the kids.

“No,” she said. “I really want to thank you for what you are doing. You see, I’m one of those parents whose child has benefited from Kids’ Closet.” She went on to say that her child came home from school last year with a small pack of items, including some clothing. She said she was a single mom and while she works, it was still hard to get everything her child needed. I don’t know what I’d do without you!” she said.

I knew we were making a difference through CIS, but to hear it directly from a mother who said it made a difference for her and her son, well that was really amazing.

That is a fabulous story. And you might never have learned her story if you hadn’t shared how Fifth Third was supporting kids through CIS.

Educating our employees and the community about the work of CIS is important. People don’t necessarily connect hygiene products with success in school. It’s being able to see that relationship—of how not having a needed hygiene products can prevent students from learning or learning as well as they can. Lacking the necessary items of soap, deodorant, a feminine hygiene product affects self-esteem, attendance, and grades. Children want to do their job: be the best student they can be. In some situations, they need help with having the basics covered so they can focus on learning.

That mother got it. But many people don’t. And at CIS, we do so much more beyond even providing these necessary basics.

Speaking of doing more, Fifth Third Bank also partnered a couple years ago with CIS to bring greater awareness to the importance of school attendance and supported students by donating 500 alarm clocks. [We blogged about it in this post, “Every Minute Counts.”]

That’s right. Ron Foor, Community President for Fifth Third Bank was involved with that.

Yes, he pointed out that school attendance should matter to all of us, not just those with school-age children. When our schools graduate more students on time, our communities and our economy are stronger. We have more people who are prepared for the workplace and more engaged in our community’s civic life. Students who attend school regularly are more likely to be employees who attend work regularly.

We have such great, caring people at Fifth Third, like Ron and others like Pat Lonergan, our Senior Vice President/Community Development and Economic Development Manager II. They are not only personally involved in supporting our communities, but they encourage our employees to do the same.

Education is also incredibly important to us at Fifth Third. That’s one of the reasons we want to partner with our schools. And it’s why we offer our employees the opportunity to take eight hours a year to volunteer in the community, in particular, through Communities In Schools.

As a community, we have a responsibility to our 12,000 plus kids, One of them could be our future caregiver, our grandchild’s teacher, the fire fighter or police officer serving our community. I often ask myself, What I am I doing or not doing to help get them there?

In this community, we have something as great as the Kalamazoo Promise. However, we can’t win with the Kalamazoo Promise if we can’t get our kids in a position to use it. We need to all be about the business of helping students cross that finish line and graduate from high school. We can do this if we set judgements aside, and through CIS, link arms together, and get behind our kids. We must learn and educate each other and welcome people be a part of this movement.

There are many great organizations within our community. What is it about CIS that attracted you to give of your time and talent to this particular board?

I was a young, single mom. I know what it’s like to worry about some of those same things our moms worry about—Am I going to be able to meet all the needs of my kids? How am I  ever going to juggle my job and school and make it all work for my children?

And even though I had a huge village of support from my family, friends, and even my employers, at times—even with that help—it was still incredibly difficult. When you don’t have that support, what do you do? Where would some of the families CIS serves be without our community behind them, being that village of support?

You really are passionate about CIS.

I am. Our kids have so much to deal with today. The last think they should have to worry about is what to do now that they have spilled milk on their only pair of pants or have broken the button off of their pants.

Here’s another story. As a new board member, I went into my CIS site visit thinking that I already knew everything. During the visit, an adorable little boy came into the room. He was holding up his pants with his hands and asked the site coordinator, Can I get a zip tie? He was so happy to get it and then headed back to class, hands free. I didn’t even know about zip ties. Why did he need that? I asked. The site coordinator said he’d lost his pant button. That’s all it took, something as simple as a zip tie to keep his one pair of pants up so he could stay in school. We had barely started, and I thought, I’m not going to make it through this tour.

What are you currently reading?

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy by Thomas  Stanley and William Danko. It’s educational and gives insight into the mindset of the average millionaire. In my line of work, I’ve learned that you don’t judge a book by its cover. You quickly learn that millionaires are not necessarily detectable. You would be surprised who is and who isn’t a millionaire. It’s not necessarily the person wearing the fancy clothes or driving the nice car.

What is one of your favorite “go to” places in Kalamazoo?

I don’t drink coffee but I do love going to Starbucks. Something about the atmosphere. Plus, I love the smell of coffee. I just can’t drink it!

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

A positive attitude and friendly personality. That’s number one in my book.

Those soft skills are so important, aren’t they?

Yes, they are the foundation for which you can build upon, acquire more skills, and grow.

Speaking of skills, what are your thoughts when it comes to financial literacy skills in America? Research has shown that we’re lagging behind other countries. [Here’s a 2017 study that found 1 in 5 teens lack basic financial literacy skills.]

I think that is more a reflection of what goes on in our society. We think: this is the way we have to live. Our kids—grownups too—think I have to have “x” or “y” to fit in. Barriers, including our mentality around money can get in the way that prevent people from being successful financially.

We live in a world today of instant gratification and this can drive people to make poor financial decisions.

I recall listening to an NPR piece about how living in poverty with limited resources influences our brains. When just trying to get through the day or week, we are likely to make short-term financial decisions that make things worse-off for us in the long run. When we have less, our brains adopt a scarcity mindset.”  

Add to that the spoken and unspoken messages kids receive regarding how they should dress, what they should wear. These impact our decisions. As women, we might think, Oh my nails look horrible, so we go out and have them done. We feel better, but our bank account is not feeling so well. Our culture makes it easy for us to consume and make impulse buys even when we can’t afford to do so. We now live in a time of Black Fridays deals, and pre-black Friday sales now. It’s genius from a retail marketing standpoint. Not so much for the consumer.

What’s your favorite word right now?

It’s more of a phrase: needs versus wants. I say that all the time. Do you need it? Or do you want it?

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

It would be a tie between my mom and my dad. While my parents may not be rich in money, they are rich in other ways. They are givers and both are the type that give the shirts off their back to someone in need. While waiting in line at the grocery store, if someone is short on paying their groceries, they have picked up their tab. They give and give. They are examples of selfless living. I learned early on from them that the rewards you get from giving are not physical or tangible. They may not necessarily be something you can look at and hold. The reward is more a feeling. You put that good out into the world and to others, and good things come back.

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

 

 

Principal Amira Mogaji: Guiding Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

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 Principal Amira Mogaji.
Principal Mogaji was working as the CEO/Head of School at a Montessori school in her hometown of Philadelphia when she was recruited by Kalamazoo Public Schools to lead its Northglade Montessori Magnet School. Now in her eighth year as principal, she says, “I love making a difference here and helping our students achieve the Kalamazoo Promise.”

Principal Mogaji serves on the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism (ABAR) committee at both the school and district level. Her leadership extends beyond the district as she is a board member for Montessori for Social Justice as well as the American Montessori Society (AMS), the national board governing body for American Montessori schools in the U.S. and abroad.

She and her husband, Olatubosun, have six children at home. This includes: one KPS graduate who is in WMU’s aviation flight science program, two who attend Northglade, and three “little, little people,” including two-year-old twin girls.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough, she is also working towards completing her dissertation for a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Management.

We met in the school’s Peace Room. Peace education is an essential component that is infused throughout a child’s Montessori education. Mogaji’s own passion for engaging in peace and justice work flows through her work, home, and community life. Peace and justice isn’t something that just happens. It is challenging, hard work and, as you will discover, Mogaji doesn’t take the easy way out when conflicts arise. Instead of choosing to disengage or yell back with an unkind remark, Mogaji, always mindful of the example she is setting, responds from a place of peace.

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

Pop Quiz

You clearly enjoy welcoming students in the morning, don’t you?

Greeting kids in the morning is my favorite part of the day. I love to see their faces and feel their energy coming into the building. I can quickly discover if someone is struggling and it’s an opportunity to check in with parents, too.

Two days a month I’m not here as I have meetings and I miss it. Otherwise, I’m out there in rain, snow, monsoon, you name it. Everybody deserves a hello and it may turn somebody’s day around. It’s important how you come into the building.

I’m always struck by the sense of peace and zen-like atmosphere of your school. As the leader of the building, I’m sure you have a hand in creating this environment. You seem to radiate peace.

Thank you. I’m not always zen, as my kids can attest to when I am trying to get ready for school each morning. [She laughs.] Hurry up, we can’t be late! For the most part, though, things don’t ruffle me.

What does ruffles you?

Dishonesty bothers me a lot, to the point that I have to manage how I manage that feeling. In my personal life, if I find you to be dishonest, I’m not going to bother with you. I’m a bubbly person and I love everybody until I find you to be dishonest. That said, when it comes to my work, I don’t have the right to not give 100 percent of myself. I must be intentional and give everybody the same support.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

When twins learn how to, one: get out of their cribs and, two: open the door, your life changes forever. Life as you know it, is over. [She laughs heartily.] I haven’t slept since Wednesday!

What are you currently reading?

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been reading a lot of articles about it [like this one].

It’s nice for this book to come out; some things can’t come from people of color. [The author and anti-racist educator, Robin DiAngelo, is white.]

It helps to explain the difficulty of doing anti-bias/anti-racism work. People who want to do this work—and I believe everybody has good will—but you find people automatically start blocking things and they become defensive. I see it all the time. They want to do the work and then they get stalled. The book helps explain this.

Anti-bias/Anti-racism work is not something that is not done to people. But rather, it is what you do with yourself, in your own journey of self-transformation. All of us need to go through it and become the best we can be. This book can help with that. I have friends who are white who love the book and it is helping them on their journey and I have friends of color who love it as well. It’s helping them, too.

May I ask what, as a Muslim woman, has been your own experience with bias and racism?

I’m always randomly selected at airports. I have been yelled at and told to get out of this country and go back home. My car has been vandalized in the Walmart parking lot. I was in the doctor’s office with my children and in the waiting area we were yelled at and called terrorists. Unfortunately, over the past few years these kinds of things have been happening more often.

That is stressful. How do you handle that?

I carry my passport at all times. And when it comes to flying, since I’m always randomly selected I have to add an additional hour and a half or more to my schedule so I won’t miss my flight…

Honestly, it stresses me out to think that some people are afraid of me… My self-care is walking around Walmart and buying things I don’t need [laughs heartily]. In fact, I was there recently and one of the ladies who worked there informed me she was okay with me being covered. This I can handle, she said. But if you had all black on, I wouldn’t like that. I’d be afraid of you. A lady who worked at Walmart felt she could say that to me, in front of other people.

Incredible. How do you respond to something like that?

The way I see it, my job as a person—as a covered, black, woman—is to set the best example I can so that when situations like that occur, people will think, Oh, that was a nice lady. You need to set a good example and give a good experience to people. You may be the only contact they’ve ever had with a Muslim.

Where else, besides Walmart, do you like to frequent in the community?

The public library. Always!

What is your favorite word right now?

Intentional. I try to be intentional in everything I do. My second favorite word is kindness.

Can you tell us, from your perspective as a principal, what it is like to have CIS in your building?

I love CIS! My experience has been very positive. Over the years, we’ve had a few staff and they have all been strong people. I’ve been most appreciative about the people and the way in which Pam [Kingery] and those helping with staffing Northglade do this. CIS understands that we are a unique school. All schools are unique, but we are really unique and CIS takes that into consideration. They have always invited me to come in and participate in interviews.

The way CIS operates in the building, whether it’s during the day [post about CIS Site Coordinator Steve Brewer here] or when Ashley [Serio] is running the after school program, it doesn’t feel like a separate entity. We’re working together to support kids. I laugh with the CIS staff every day. We have fun! It’s those relationships that children see—between CIS staff and the teachers and administration—and how we are all here together. We’re a family. Children can’t go to mom because they don’t like what dad says. We are one, collective voice.

CIS really remove barriers for children. It’s just a wonderful program!

What drew you to Montessori?

I knew of it when I was a student at Chestnut Hill College and had learned some about the philosophy having taken a Montessori class in elementary education. But I fully appreciated the beauty of it when I was a CEO/Head of School in a Montessori school in Philadelphia. It was in a very poor area with a high percentage of socio-economically disadvantaged students. It was awesome working there…

Montessori is a great way to educate children in an urban setting. That is the reason why I’m here: on the northside of Kalamazoo, in a Title I, American Montessori Society accredited Montessori public school, providing high quality Montessori education to children who would not otherwise have an opportunity to have it.

We have one of the lowest behavioral referrals in the district.

Why do you think that is?

There is a level of respect children have for each other here. That is because Montessori emphasizes respect for self, for others, and for the environment. We focus on the whole child and our children have opportunities to meet Montessori outcomes which are not all academic, such things as responsibility, global citizenship, and self-regulation. They learn to walk to the bathroom without the whole class—in kindergarten they are learning that. They have freedom within limits and as self-directed learners, they are figuring out how to prioritize their work, a skill some students may not learn until college! So while our children are learning to read, write and do math, it is also important to learn things like, How do you care for others? How do you help someone in need? What if someone is hungry?

We all recently learned that one in six children in Kalamazoo go hungry. We know this because the upper elementary students researched hunger, they wrote persuasive essays, and went from class to class sharing what they learned. Hunger, they said, is not justice. The children collected food and donated it to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A Montessori education provides opportunities for those kind of conversations to exist. We support the children in what they want to learn more about—whatever that is. We all have a place in the world and it’s our job to find out what our responsibility is in it.

My husband says Islam is a way of life. It’s not about ‘when do you pray?’ It’s more about what kind a person you are. It’s about giving back to the world. The same is true for Montessori. It is a way of life. It’s about how you treat children, giving them opportunities, and meeting them where they are at—that is very important. Follow the child. That is a famous Montessori quote: Follow the child.

Not necessarily an easy thing to do.

When children do get off task, we have conversations, reflecting on how can you be respectful to yourself? Others? Your environment? You are not getting all you need because you are not doing your work. So what do you need? What is it you are not getting? These are the conversations we have with each other and that is the beauty of it.

With Montessori, we’re offering children options in their learning environment. Today, do I want to read sitting in a chair or work on the chalkie [a moveable table] or floor? That’s one less argument to have. We don’t have to be on their backs all day.

I happen to think we have the most wonderful children in the world!

What’s your philosophy of leadership?

A leader is there to serve, and to serve everyone. Leaders set a good example and model the expectation…We have lots of leaders here—students and teachers—and my job is to grow the leaders in this building.

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

Obviously, my parents. And I have a really wonderful and supportive husband who gives me the strength I need to take risks. I trust him and he’s wise. He doesn’t just say, Go for it. He says, You should do this because of a, b, and c reasons. Take, for example, my being on the board of directors for the American Montessori Society. I never would have submitted my application and run, except for his encouragement. While I wasn’t sure about it, he pointed out that they contacted me about running. They’re reaching out to you about doing this because you are the best, he’d said.

I never would have put myself out there like that, in that arena of running for an elected position, without his support. He really has been most influential in my life. We’re partners in everything.

I have to add that my children make me want to be my best self. While they don’t say it, we are models for our children… If I see them fussing or not being kind—of course, sometimes it may be a developmental stage—but I can’t help but wonder, what in the environment is causing the child to act this way? Have I been fussy lately? Do I need to adjust myself? That’s a Montessori way of thinking.

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

In the weeks to come we’ll be featuring Ashley Serio, a graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools and Northglade Montessori’s CIS After School Coordinator. In the meantime, practice peace with yourself, your neighbors, friends, and strangers at Walmart.

High School Graduate: CIS Helped Me Find My Voice

Dreon Smith recently graduated from Loy Norrix High School. In May, he reflected on his CIS experience at the 11thAnnual Champ Celebration. Dreon has given permission for us to publish his remarks here, at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

PNC was the Student Spotlight Sponsor and Steve Powell, on behalf of PNC, presented Dreon with an Apple iPad Pro as a gift to help him continue his education this fall as a Kalamazoo Promise scholar

I still remember that day. I was a fourth grader in Ms. Clawson’s class at Washington Writer’s Academy. I was nervous and scared as I made my way to the CIS office. I got there and saw my cousin, Dalanna. She is the CIS site coordinator at Milwood but back then she was at Washington. Well, Ms. Hoskins—that’s what Dalanna told me to call her at school—she introduced me to this tall dude. Turns out he was Mr. Larry Manley, the CIS after school coordinator.

Thinking back on that moment, it was like I was a young branch that became planted in CIS. I became a part of something that was bigger than me. I also became part of the first group of students who got to be part of the CIS after school program at Washington.

Not only did my grades begin to improve, but I grew in ways I didn’t know I could. Sports has always been important to me. So it really helped that Mr. Manley liked basketball just as much as me. He used basketball to help us kids grow. It was a way for us to talk and learn and dream. He taught me how to be a young man and how to be a gentleman. You know, like at lunchtime, let the ladies go first.

With CIS, there’s always been people there to catch me. Like Ms. Melissa [Holman], who worked with CIS Think Summer. It was a time when, as a branch, I had to learn to grow a different way. See, I’d had some surgery and my dream of a sports career over. There I was, a middle school student with a pin stuck in his hip, in a wheelchair. I’d wanted so badly to be part of CIS in the summer but now I didn’t even know how I could make that work. It was Ms. Melissa [Holman] who caught me then. She helped me to get there. Literally. If I didn’t have that ride, I would never have been able to go.

CIS helped me find my voice by giving me opportunities I might not have had otherwise. I’ve been able to explore my passion for poetry and music. My grandma loves music and can sing and I wanted to get into that too. I believe putting poetry and music together really gets your voice out there. One CIS partner that especially helped me with that: Bangtown Productions. We wrote and performed songs and to this day, you can find some of them on YouTube, songs like “Rise Above It”—we performed that one at Bronson Park.

CIS helped me find my voice by helping me speak up about things that are important to me, like funding after school programs. Back in 2013, when I was in 7th grade, I was one of the student representatives who went to City Hall. We wanted the Kalamazoo City Commission to help us: keep the lights on! Thanks to our voices—and those of you who advocate for after school funding to remain a priority, the lights have stayed on. At least for another year.

 

Back in 2013, Dreon (far right) advocating for after school funding before the Kalamazoo City Commission.  (Ms. Melissa is at the podium.)

When you find your voice, you can do things you never thought possible. Just this year, I wrote a poem called “We have something to say” and it was a finalist for the MLK Courage to Create Poetry contest. I read it on the campus of Western Michigan University. That was really special, to think that people came to hear my voice…

Now back to when I left eighth grade. There wasn’t an after school program at Loy Norrix; it kind of hurt. It had really helped having the structure, the homework help, and all the enrichment activities. Monday through Thursday it had been a big part of my life. So, in 9th grade, I found myself going home after school and struggling to get homework done. And even though my mom and dad were on me, I didn’t always make the best choices, like choosing to sleep over doing homework.
In 10th grade, things started to look up. Ms. Trella [Artrella Cohn], who I knew through CIS Think Summer caught me and connected me with Mr. [Montrell] Baker, who has been my CIS Site Coordinator ever since.

One thing I’ve learned along the way is that I like helping people. A lot of freshman look up to me. Being tall helps! They literally look up to me. So, by connecting me to a lot of opportunities, Mr. Baker has helped me with being able to give back to my peers and other, younger students. Because I’m really good at math, I’ve been able to tutor students that need help with math. I volunteer with the food pantry we have at my school, thanks to CIS partner Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. I do a lot of the heavy lifting and sorting, and stacking the food items. I’m working Tuesdays and Thursdays at Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School. Through Literacy Buddies, I support students in their reading.

Most recently, I have become involved with the Men’s group which is led by Dr. [John] Oliver. Young men meeting with older men. We talk about our futures, current events—important things that need to be talked about for us to grow. Some of my good friends are a part of the group and for some of them, I never knew their stories until we had that group. It’s meant everything to me, to hear from those higher branches. I’m going to be that higher branch some day. And I’ll be passing that wisdom they poured into me, down to the next branch.

I’m grateful to CIS for catching hold of me, nourishing me, and feeding my desire to help others. Thanks to CIS, I am the young man I am today. And I’ve made great friends along the way. We have all came together as one through Communities In Schools.

As for my future plans? I have a few ideas. I’m thinking about going into business or communications, or maybe I’ll pursue teaching and coaching in a sports area. What I know for sure is that thanks to all those of you who have nourished me, I am using the Kalamazoo Promise to go to college because I’ve been accepted to KVCC!

I’d like to close with a poem I wrote for this occasion. But first, thank you all for doing your part. Know that when you work and volunteer and partner and donate to CIS—you’re making sure the kids that come after me will have the “Mr. Manley’s,” the “Ms. Melissas,” the “Ms. Trellas,” and the “Mr. Bakers” they need to grow strong, so they can be there for the next group of branches that have yet to even bud.

Thank you.

Dreon Smith with Dr. John Oliver

Dr. Marilyn J. Schlack

This year’s Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, sponsored by an anonymous friend of CIS, has been awarded to Dr. Marilyn J. Schlack. At the 11th Annual Champs Celebration, CIS board member and Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema presented this prestigious award to Dr. Schlack who has served as the president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College for more than three decades, becoming Michigan’s first female community college president in 1982.

When I found out that Marilyn Schlack started out as a middle school English teacher in Saginaw, it all made sense. She learned early in her career about growth spurts and rapid changes. She learned to tolerate awkward and clumsy and to understand that blemishes aren’t forever. She learned what all parents of young adolescents must learn—stay positive, keep the lines of communication open and set limits that are firm and fair. It sounds like a formula for a successful community leader. And that is what Marilyn Schlack is.

Marilyn is a builder. If you look at the number of college and community buildings that have been erected because of Marilyn’s initiative, your conclusion has to be that she is a successful builder of buildings, of places—doubling the Oshtemo campus, building the Arcadia campus, creating the culinary arts center. But the core interest in construction for Marilyn Schlack, is in helping to build lives, build talent, build futures. The scores of young people just starting their independence journey and the countless number of older workers who started over after down-sizing, right-sizing and outsourcing, can point to the career building opportunities born of Marilyn’s creativity, her commitment to evidence and her genuine interest in stronger families, stronger communities.

Some see a certain irony in giving the Diether Haenicke Award, named for the late President of Western Michigan University, to another higher education president in the same community. Both of these individuals share several traits, in addition to their commitment to excellence and their belief in education as a means to better lives. One person suggested that Marilyn Schlack is “no-nonsense”—if Marilyn is involved, there just won’t be any nonsense. You might think you have the most compelling idea around, but if you want Marilyn’s endorsement, you better be prepared with the evidence. Innovative—how many wind turbine education programs are there in the country that can boast 100% employment for their graduates? Excellence, no-nonsense, evidence, innovative—all words that Diether Haenicke would approve of.

Bob Jorth, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Promise, sums it up best: “Marilyn desires to improve this community—no one exemplifies that more. She is smart and knows how to get things done. Compared to what she has accomplished, her ego is small. She is driven by her desire to improve things for students and for families.”

As a CIS Board member and as the City Manager for the City of Kalamazoo, which has benefitted greatly from your selfless and inspired leadership, it is my great honor to present you with the 2018 Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award.

Dreon (left) and Tyresse (right) hold up quilt for all to see. Billie Gunderson created the stunning quilt.

Marilyn, this hand-sewn quilt was selected for you as an apt symbol of the many, many unique pieces you have stitched together over the years to make this a stronger community for those who live here, work here and go to school here. Thank you for your service and for your love of Kalamazoo.

Please join with me in congratulating Dr. Marilyn Schlack, this year’s recipients of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence.

Dr. Marilyn Schlack and Jim Ritsema

Pop Quiz: Dr. Jim Zhu

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 more. Today we feature Dr. Jim Zhu, Professor of Mathematics at Western Michigan University. Dr. Zhu is also a CIS volunteer who comes out to Milwood Magnet Middle School each Tuesday to tutor students as part of the new Lunchtime Homework Lab (featured in this recent blog post, “Dropping In”).

One of the students, an 8th grader who spent his lunchtime in the lab working on math said this about Dr. Zhu: “He made it easy to understand stuff. I’m coming back.”

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

 

POP QUIZ

Optimization is one of your research interests. Thinking about this mathematical term from an educational standpoint, how can kids optimize their academic success when it comes to math?

Practice, practice, practice. While I’ve been into math for a long time, I see that there are many fields for which this is the case. For example, learning math is not much different than learning to play piano. What’s the most important thing in learning piano? Practice, practice, practice. You can learn all the theory you want, but it is practice you want to do, that will help you succeed. Ultimately, it’s your finger hitting the key. In math, it’s when your pencil hits the paper.

How did you get involved with CIS?

One of our faculty members at Western Michigan University, Professor Nil Mackey, sent out an email saying CIS is in need of tutors. I wanted to help.

Dr. Zhu talking math at Milwood Magnet Middle School.

For years I have seen students who are not well prepared with math knowledge. They have not had enough practice during their high school years and they didn’t have enough practice in middle school. With my own son, I have seen this. He attended the Portage schools, and like many school systems today, the emphasis is on conceptual stuff and not enough practice. Students need to be encouraged to practice math. Practice, practice. It’s as simple as that. Practice leads to doing math well.

What are you currently reading?

Reading with Patrick. It’s a touching story written by Michelle Kuo, who is a family friend and grew up in our community. This is Kuo’s personal story of helping kids in the Mississippi Delta and it inspired me to help with the tutoring.

What is something you’ve recently learned?

There are surveys indicating that two thirds of Americans are not financially literate. This adversely impacts people’s ability to manage their own financial situations as well as  understand the impact of policy changes to their own lives and to the country. The lack of basic training in math is largely responsible for this undesirable situation.

What is your favorite word right now?

It’s a Chinese word from a Buddhist tradition. It roughly translates to “Let go.” Don’t try to grasp and get hold of everything. Many things are out of your control.

What is something you love about our community?

It’s quiet and peaceful, but also vibrant. There are a lot of opportunities. My son grew up here and participated in a number of activities—tennis, piano—there are good piano teachers here! There are also opportunities to attend cultural activities. Western Michigan University often offers free concerts for faculty and the community.

Also, the community spirit. I really appreciate the community leaders here and those who have the desire to contribute. You see this with the Kalamazoo Promise.

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

My grandparents. When I was a little guy my parents were quite busy. I am from a big family and my grandparents were very close to me. I have many dear memories.

Where did you grow up?

From China, Changchun, an area very close to North Korea. Many of my childhood friends were Korean.

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

 

Pfizer: All In For Kids

Today we highlight Pfizer, honored with a 2017 Champ Award. The team’s Champ award was sponsored by Schupan & Sons. CIS Board member and Humphrey Products President Dave Maurer presented the award.

Pfizer is committed to applying science to improve health and well-being at every stage of life. A global company with a local heart, Pfizer also works with CIS to ignite hope and help our young people become the prosperous citizens of tomorrow. As a CIS partner, they play an important role in supporting students on their path to using The Kalamazoo Promise®. From encouraging their employees to volunteer to providing career exploration opportunities, Pfizer is making it their business to ensure our children fulfill their promise.

When businesses go all in for kids, everyone profits.  A few years ago, in 2015, two Pfizer colleagues reached out to see if CIS would be interested in  working together on their Community Art project. Along with other community groups tapped by Pfizer, sixty-five students participating in the six-week CIS Think Summer! program, created artwork for Pfizer’s Global Supply facility on Portage Road. Organizers Julie Righter and Laura Martin said that collaborating with CIS on projects like this “is mutually beneficial to both Pfizer and the students.” The artwork, they say, “inspires our colleagues every day as we manufacture safe medicines for the community.”

The students’ art graces the walls of a company they could very well work for one day. That’s because Pfizer is helping students envision a future beyond high school by offering career exploration opportunities. Through hands-on activities developed by enthusiastic Pfizer colleagues, students explore science, technology, engineering, math, and skilled trades-related careers and learn about the education and training needed for these jobs. Through these career exploration opportunities, Pfizer plants seeds of hope, inspiring students to envision their future, perhaps even a future that includes a career with Pfizer.  

While there is much to admire about our partner, one of the qualities CIS staff appreciates most is how student-focused Pfizer is: They want to know what students are interested in and what they’re working on. They are receptive to input from staff and always seek feedback so they can continue to improve what they offer to students.

Pfizer’s commitment to excellence—to listening to the views of all people involved in health care decisions and using that to focus on improving the way they do business—readily translates into the work they do in the schools. For instance, when Pfizer site leader, Bob Betzig, attended the CIS Think Summer! celebration, he listened closely to a CIS Youth Development Worker—and a Promise scholar— who wondered how she could get an internship with Pfizer. The result of Bob’s listening? The local Pfizer site revived their internship program. And in 2016, when Pfizer returned to CIS Think Summer!—they came with their college interns and even “bigger and better” career exploration activities for students.

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

 

Susan Knox: Doing Her Part to Create a Community of Hope

Today we highlight Susan Knox, honored with a 2017 Champ Award. Her Champ award was sponsored by Greenleaf Trust. CIS Board member and Kalamazoo Promise Board Member Dr. Janice M. Brown presented the award.

A child’s success in school and life often hinges on the opportunity to have a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. It’s one of the five CIS basics, something every child needs and deserves. This relationship can make the difference between a student staying in school or becoming one of the 1.2 million students who drop out of school each year. Since the Fall of 2010, Susan Knox has been that caring adult for many of our high school students, particularly those struggling academically.

When Susan, a chemical engineer, retired from Pfizer, she sold her house and car, and moved downtown. “I wanted to start volunteering,” she said, “to contribute to something I felt passionate about. I picked up a pamphlet about volunteering and circled the ones I thought I could do.” We’re forever thankful she circled Communities In Schools.

Susan, on right, with CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough.

She has been a CIS volunteer at Kalamazoo Central for seven years now. Regardless of the weather, she catches the city bus and week after week, year after year, shows up consistently for our kids. “Suzie’s passion to serve students goes far beyond what is expected of any volunteer,” says CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough. “She’s willing to adjust her schedule to accommodate the needs of both our students and staff.

Her flexibility has allowed CIS to connect her with the students who need her most. She provides academic support to student one-on-one and in small groups. She’s worked with students during study hall, after school, and during the lunch hour. While she primarily focuses on math, she’s willing to tutor in other subjects. “No French or Spanish,” she says, “but I’ll give everything else a try.”

Susan and Kalamazoo Cental student taking a break from tutoring to smile.

Smart, compassionate and humble, Susan credits her success with students to the support she’s received along the way. “CIS gave me the training I needed to be successful. I learned how to do things and just as importantly, what not to do.” She refers to CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough and CIS Success Coach Jenna Cooperrider as her “CIS bosses…They aren’t bossy, though,” she says. “Because they know the students so well, they give me insight into what the students need from me. They’re role models. I watch their interactions and it helps me figure out what I should do, what I should tolerate or not tolerate when it comes to behaviors. They coordinate with each other and give me the support I need so I can support the student.”

“Volunteering,” someone once said, “is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Through her rock solid and steady support, Susan is creating a community of hope, one in which all children can fulfill their promise.

Susan Knox, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.