Beyond the Backpack

As Kalamazoo Public School students prepare to step into their second month of school, they have a community of support that launched them into a successful year of learning.

On Saturday, August 17th, the Beyond the Backpack School Readiness Fair took place at Bronson Park. Hosted by Collaboration Kalamazoo, the fair, designed to increase school readiness for students, was a huge success. More than 1,100 in attendance, families were able to learn about community resources available in literacy, dental and other health supports, and more. From free glasses to free backpacks and supplies, with the support of our community and collaborating together, more students are on the path to success this school year.

Collaboration Kalamazoo is composed of Bible Baptist Church, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, The Kalamazoo Promise, and Kalamazoo Public Schools. “This year’s event,” said CIS Senior Director of Community Engagement & Student Investment Artrella Cohn, “was a tremendous showing of what it looks like when the community brings its knowledge and resources together for the betterment of students and their families.”

The Collaboration Kalamazoo team members: Alexia Jones of The Kalamazoo Promise, Nkenge Bergan of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Artrella Cohn of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, TaKarra Dunning of Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., and Yolonda Lavender and Kandace Lavender of Bible Baptist Church.

With more than 1,100 individuals in attendance, families were able to learn about literacy supports in the community, access dental education and additional health resources, including mental health education, immunizations, sign up for health insurance, and more. In partnership with Hiemstra Optical and VSP Vision Care, 34 students were served on the Mobile Vision Unit, with 27 receiving glasses. Students also benefited from free haircuts and fresh hair styles from area barbers and stylists. The event provided free and much needed backpacks for students, but certainly went “Beyond The Backpack” to prepare students for a successful school year.

 

The 2019 financial sponsors for this event included: Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), Kalamazoo Community Foundation, The Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo Public Schools, Old National Bank, and YWCA Kalamazoo.

In-Kind Donors included: The Presidential Blend Suite, Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., City of Kalamazoo, Exquisite Hair Design, First Baptist Church of Kalamazoo, First Congregational Church, First United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo, GQT Kalamazoo 10, Gordon Water Systems, Hiemstra Optical, Johnny Jackson (barber), Kalamazoo Promise Scholars, Life EMS, Marshall Music Company, Rentalex, Terry Watson (barber), UncLee’s Barber Shop, and VSP Vision Care.

Thanks to each and every one of you for surrounding students with support and launching them into a successful school year.

Check out this short video capturing some of the 2019 Beyond the Backpack School Readiness Fair: https://youtu.be/CboCKgoXU6o

 

James Devers: The Conversation Continues

James Devers

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 Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo’s New Executive Director James Devers. When the CIS board selected James Devers to lead Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, we introduced him briefly to you back in June with this post. And if you read our most recent back to school issue of CIS Connections, you know even more about James, such as what book changed his life. Here’s some of our conversation that, due to space issues, didn’t make it into the newsletter.

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

Pop Quiz

What is a question you often ask yourself? Or perhaps it’s a question you’ve only been recently asking yourself?

I’ve been gone from Kalamazoo for 23 years. Since coming back in September of 2017, in processing the reality of my journey, I’ve been thinking about this play on the question, Why me? I’ve been thinking about how skill, talent, ability, and circumstances don’t always line up. The reality is that, where I’m at now and the place that I’m going as executive director is a result of something bigger than me. I believe I’ve been preparing for this journey all along even though I didn’t know it was coming.

…I come from a family of laborers. I was not introduced to the corporate world or much of any of the experiences I have encountered. All of it is a discovery. I’m grateful and humbled by the journey and where I now find myself.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was at the Douglass Community Association recently and noticed the “1919” imprint on the corner of the building. It’s a good reminder that the black community has had a presence in Kalamazoo, and it goes far back. For instance, in 1968 Judge Pratt, a native of Kalamazoo became the first African American judge in Kalamazoo County. And, of course, Douglass Community Association is celebrating its 100th birthday!

What are you currently reading?

The Bible. That’s my go-to book….I like that the stories illustrate the human experience and show the flaws of people as well as their triumphs. Despite their flaws—despite our flaws—we can do great work.

Do you have a pet peeve?

The thing that bothers me most is when people are mean to other people. That really gets me.

Can you tell us about a person who opened a door for you and impacted you as a leader?

I was planning to obtain my Masters in social work. While working at Ohio State, I had just finished my first year working towards that degree and contemplating taking a year off to complete the second year (clinical work). A Ms. Rivers reached out and invited me to talk with her. I thought I was just going to meet with her for a conversation, not realizing it was an interview, at the end of which she offered me the principal position within the school that she had helped to found. I really had to think about that. Here I was, working for The Ohio State University and did I want to give that up and risk doing something I’d never done before, working as a principal in a small school? I’m so glad I accepted her offer to be principal. Even though I was working in the field of education, Ms. Rivers brought me into the public school sector in a deeper way, and it changed the trajectory of my life.

I appreciated working under somebody who had her passion. She was a former school counselor—had served in that role for 30 some years before “retiring.” She had so much energy and passion at that stage of her life. She could have chosen to ride off into the sunset, but she didn’t. And though she was in her mid to late 60s, I had a hard time keeping up with her!

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

My mother has always been that caring adult for me, but I must say that I did not come to appreciate the significance of her influence until a lot later in life.

While there have been a number of caring adults along my path, those relationships were not so much a sustained and consistent over time. Rather, it was moments of influence from different caring adults that helped shape my thinking and my actions. During my childhood we did lots of moving around. I went to a number of different KPS schools: Woodward, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School [the school is gone now, replaced with the Wilson Recreation Area, an open field and playground on Coy Avenue], Spring Valley Center for Exploration, and Washington Writers’ Academy. After that it was Milwood and Hillside Middle Schools. Even when I attended Kalamazoo Central High School and KAMSC [Kalamazoo Area Mathematics & Science Center], we still moved around.

What is your favorite word right now?

It’s not so much a word as an expression, I consider myself a made-man versus a self-made man. There is a verse in the Bible that says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” …I, like anybody else, had no control over my family that I was born into. I’ve had my share of crazy experiences as well as opportunities that have been presented along the way. So that expression is an acknowledgement that there lot of things are bigger than me, and that I don’t necessarily deserve the credit for who I am or what I have accomplished to this point in life.

For instance, my mother didn’t have experience in a lot of the areas I was going to walk into when it came to high school and college. She had dropped out of high school at age 16 [she later went back to school and earned her GED]. But she gave me responsibilities that, in looking back on it, shaped me. In her own way, she guided me. I was the oldest of five and would often be in charge of caring for them. Also, we were always moving around and going to different schools and thus found ourselves being around different people. Those childhood experiences made me and helped me become who I am today.

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

Be on the lookout for the CIS newsletter to learn more about CIS Executive Director James Devers. Also, James was recently interviewed by Encore Editor Marie Lee for the September issue of the magazine. Pick up a copy at one of these locations or read it on-line here.

Thank you, Dr. Rice!

Dr. Michael F. Rice speaking to crowd at a CIS event.

The 2019/2020 school year has officially begun. Gary Start is serving as Interim Superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools after Superintendent Dr. Michael F. Rice was named Michigan State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In August 2007, when Dr. Rice became superintendent, he also became an active board member of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), championing the CIS model of integrated student services. [More on the CIS model here.] His leadership as an administrator and educator, combined with his passion for social justice propelled CIS and our community to more closely align our resources with the school district to increase our collective impact on children.

The result of this collective response? Every major indicator in the district improved over the years: reading, writing, math, and science state test results; Advanced Placement participation; graduation rates; college-going rates; and college-completion rates.

During his twelve years as superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Dr. Rice has been a relentless force, working hard to create a literacy community and a college-going culture for our children. He created meaningful change by spearheading innovative and sound reforms, like parent education classes, including education for parents of newborns, expanding and overhauling preschool to restructuring the middle and high school schedules to give students more time in core subjects. To combat summer slide, every fourth, fifth and sixth-grader in the district is mailed books over the summer. He made it possible for all first grade students to visit our invaluable partner, the Kalamazoo Public Library and obtain public library cards. Every year, he visited every third grade class throughout the district, talking with students about college and poetry and making our kids feel special. [More on what was accomplished in the district during his tenure, here.]

As superintendent of a diverse district, he championed all KPS families, the underserved, the affluent, and the middle class. He remembered our names. He reminded us that, as much as we have already accomplished, much work remains.

Dr. Rice often said, “We [KPS] can’t do it alone,” because he knows transformational change does not occur in isolation but is birthed and fed only by the community working together. “Let us remember that every time a child learns to read, every time a child learns to write, every time that all members of a family can read well, every time a student graduates from high school, first in his or her family to do so, every time a young man or woman goes to college, first in his or her family to do so, every time a tutor tutors, a mentor mentors, a church, temple, or mosque steps up to serve children, every time a person comes out of retirement to help a child rise up, we get one step closer to a community culture, a college-going culture, a literacy community, which we will be proud to leave to and for our children.”

We are thankful for Dr. Rice’s leadership and we’re excited that all of Michigan’s children will now have Dr. Michael F. Rice advocating for public education on the state level.

Continue reading “Thank you, Dr. Rice!”

Pop Quiz: Gary Heckman

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 CIS volunteer Gary Heckman, who is also a 2019 Champ recipient. [If you didn’t get a chance to read about the great work Gary is doing with middle school students, click here for that post.]

Gary Heckman with CIS Staff Melissa Best (left) & Shannon Jones (right)

Upon retiring three years ago as the plumber, electrician, and steam operator for Manchester University, this grandfather of four has plunged himself into a new campus of learning as a CIS volunteer at Milwood Magnet Middle School.

CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best has come to rely on him and says the students have, too. She says he is “an irreplaceable part of the team.” Gary modestly says, “I do a little bit here and there.” One of the biggest “little bits” he does is supporting students academically by serving as a push-in tutor for Ms. Alexandria Hopp’s strategic math class and Ms. Jamie Ottusch’s seventh grade science class.

Gary grew up in rural Indiana, twenty miles northeast of Fort Wayne, near the tri-Lakes. As he puts it, “Only preachers and teachers had degrees in my town that was not even really big enough to be a town.”

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

Pop Quiz

How did you become involved volunteering with CIS?

When I retired, I wanted to do something in the schools. I did research and found that CIS is the way to do it. [In “retirement,” Gary still works two days a week doing building inspection services for Oshtemo and Coopers Townships.]

What insights have you gained about kids from volunteering?

The other day with the students, we were sitting around the table having a conversation about tides and oceans and stuff. I learned a number of the kids here haven’t been to the Great Lakes, haven’t gone 40 miles from their home. They just haven’t done stuff like that. It’s bothersome how poverty creates a lack of opportunity for kids.

I’ve also noticed how some of the toughest kids are the ones whose moms have band-aids and candies in their purses. They keep their kids going. Their moms really support them…I know there are a lot of dads and grandpas out there and I’d love to see more of them volunteering in the school. These kids, particularly the boys, could benefit from greater male involvement.

[Come on, dads and grandpas! Join Gary and sign up here today to become a CIS volunteer.]

What are you currently reading?

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. The author, Michael Sorkin, is an architect talking about his daily walk to work; it’s all very deep into city history and the architecture he encounters during this twenty minute walk.

I just finished From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett; he’s a philosopher and linguist. And before that, I read Enlightment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steve Pinker.

Once every year or two, I’ll read some fiction, but nonfiction is what I enjoy reading most.

What is your favorite word right now?

Blower door.

That’s a new one! Nobody has ever told us that is their favorite word!

I’m doing a blower door test on a house tonight.

I have one foot in the building trades and one foot in academics. [He chuckles.] As a former plumber, electrician, and steam operator at a small college, I also have a degree in sociology, which is, as I say, the dismal science. It’s the study of social problems and yet, you don’t do anything about it.

But you are doing something about it.

[Nods head affirmatively.] I guess that’s right.

Where is one place in Kalamazoo you love hanging out?

The Air Zoo. I have a membership—the grandparent plus two—and love going there. I wish I could take all the kids there!

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

I have a couple of mentors, Tom and Jim. One taught innovation and entrepreneurship, and the other heads an award engineering firm. Also, growing up, I had two Kens who I’d consider mentors.

What characteristics would you say these mentors have in common?

They saw the real world, they had broader views, patience, and innovation. Every one of them could get things done. I should add that I have had some moms and ladies in there, too, who have been caring adults and influenced me. One of my teachers as well as the neighbor mom next door. She was elegant and even though she never went to college she was all about education.

Anything else should we know about you?

I was not a strong student in middle school. And yet, here I am! [CIS Site Coordinator] Missy makes this volunteer experience fun. She intentionally works hard at this, and supports us, knowing that volunteering can sometimes be frustrating.

It’s not necessarily easy work, is it?

That’s right. But I’m enjoying it. I like working with the kids. Missy and [CIS After School Coordinator] Shannon [Jones] are wonderful and the teachers and principal are all great to work with, too. Principal Mark Tobalski is terrific and really provides strong leadership for the school.

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

Champ recipient Gary Heckman with CIS Staff Melissa Best & Shannon Jones

School is about to start and our kids need you. Consider becoming a volunteer today. To learn how you can help, go here.

Rod Raven Coaching Kids Both On and Off the Court

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 Rod Raven, who is the lead Activity Helper at Arcadia Elementary School where he also serves after school as basketball coach for both boys and girls. In both these roles, Rod works with CIS to assure students have what they need to succeed in school and life. Rod is a 2019 Champ recipient and if you missed what was said about him at Champs, go here.

Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Rod came to Kalamazoo in 1985 seeking better employment opportunities. Prior to working at Arcadia Elementary, he ran summer programs, including working six years at the Boys and Girls Club. Rod is also the proud father of three children. His son Demonte is a military police officer, daughter Taysha attends college at KVCC, and daughter Nakia is a therapy behavior technician here in Kalamazoo.

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

Pop Quiz

Practice is the foundation of success in sports (and other things). It’s been said that whatever you do in practice, you’ll do that during the competition. Do you find that what kids do in practice, carries over from the court into the classroom?

Definitely. And that behavior carries over into the halls, onto the playground, and into the future. Take manners for example. That’s an important life skill and something we practice. A lot of the teachers will stop me and say how students are greeting them by saying “Good morning” and “Good afternoon,” and that this is a turn-around from the previous school year.

I love seeing our kids doing their work in school, reading, working on art, listening to teachers, and walking calmly down the hallway. They are echoing each other’s positive behaviors.

A commonly shared aspect of success on and off the court is being a consistent performer, to try hard in all conditions and never give up, responding positively to winning and losing, taking up both success and failure in a positive way. Is this a teachable trait? And if so, how do you teach it?

I do believe it’s a teachable trait. I encourage the boys at the beginning of practice and before games that no matter how the game turns out; we’re all winners here. I will give that message to both teams—there is no failure here. Participation is honorable in itself.

I stress teamwork, politeness, kindness, and respect. The way I coach is by structuring things a little differently during our time together. The first half hour is educational and students read and do homework. The second half of the hour is devoted to life skills. We talk and reflect on both the positive and negative behaviors that have occurred in school and home. We discuss and debate what choices could have made or made better, so that should they experience a similar situation later on in life, they will be aware of it, and make a positive choice in the future. After all that, we then have about 25 minutes of basketball practice. I realize that’s not a lot of time, but it sends the message that academics and behavior are more important. The students will be going on to middle and then high school and behavior is key to success in school and on the court.

I tell the kids that Michael Jordon and Lebron James may be the best known players, but a lot of other players out there were just as good but because they had behavior problems, they didn’t get to be on the platform and go to that next level. Getting a good education is important. To get to that next level—whatever area they see themselves in—behavior and academics need to be a focus.

Rod, Myah (left), and Joan (right) listening as Bob Miller (not pictured) introduces Rod at Champs.

CIS Site Coordinator Joan Coopes and CIS After School Coordinator Myah VanTil say you are not only invested in the students’ success, but you get them to invest in each other. Can you talk some about how you do that?

We work as one. We practice life skills together, talk as one, help each other with homework, whether its math or social studies we’re working together. And students help each other with choice-making. Say a player is making a bad choice on the playground. Other members will step in and remind that student that they are representing not only themselves, but the team. They remind them what they stand for.

Over the last four years, I haven’t had to break up any fights and that is because they have been learning to make better choices: to walk away, to talk it out, or resolve the situation with support from others.

Several of the boys have commented [about you] to both Joan and Myah that “he is teaching us how to be gentleman.” How do you go about imparting this?

The way you present yourselves tells others a lot about you. I never was one for slacks hanging down so every Friday, the boys dress up in a shirt and tie. As the “Young Men of Arcadia,” they demonstrate politeness and being a gentleman. At the end of the school year, I take them to a formal dinner so that they can experience that setting and practice their manners. They really improve from the beginning to the end of the year. All this helps them be role models to their friends and family now and later in life.

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading lots of sports magazine. And I also love reading poetry.

Have you read Kwame Alexander’s work, like his book, The Crossover, that blends basketball and poetry? It combines two things you love!

One of my friends told me about his books. I need to read that one! I do enjoy reading poetry and writing it, too.

You write poetry?

I write poetry for friends, mostly. I’ll write poems for valentines and birthdays, illnesses, things like that.

What is your favorite word right now?

Ambition.

Where is one place in Kalamazoo you love hanging out?

School. I don’t do a lot of club stuff. I’m always busy with kids, at school and during the weekend in my community.

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

So many! Right now, I’d have to say Mr. Greg Socha. Over these last six years that I’ve been with Arcadia he has provided such encouragement. He shows a willingness to listen and take on challenges with me. When I’ve come up with an idea, he’s 100 percent behind it. We never look at an idea—or trying out an idea—as failure. I’m going to miss him. [Principal Greg Socha retired at the end of this school year.]

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

What We Are Made Of – Kalamazoo Edition

Mosaic of Angelo, created by Jason Mecier

In Kalamazoo, we continue to be inspired by the national CIS office unveiling of What We Are Made Of. Initiated earlier this school year, this collaboration between pop artist Jason Mecier and CIS students resulted in 3-D mosaic portraits of students being displayed in a gallery in Washington D.C.

Since then, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we’re made of. We’ve been curious about what others are made of. CIS staff told us what item represents part of what they are made of, and if you missed that January blog post, you can learn what they said here.

During April’s poetry month, Mrs. Andrea Walker and her fifth grade class at Woodward School for Technology and Research collaborated with student leaders from Woodward’s Poetry Club to create a combined What We Are Made Of piece.

Their work—made up of words like tiger and turquoise, books, snow leopards, lip gloss, and glitter— graced the lobby of The Civic Theatre as part of the 2019 Kalamazoo Poetry Festival “body themed” offerings.

Putting the final touches on the collaborative work.

Sophia attending the Champs Celebration with her family.

Inspired by the national campaign, CIS of Kalamazoo created a What We are Made Of exhibit as part of our 12th Annual Champs Celebration. The local photo exhibit, sponsored by Warner Norcross + Judd, was a collection of six CIS students from the Kalamazoo Public Schools reflected in mosaic form. Each portrait was assembled with elements from the students’ lives that represent who they are as individuals. Below are a few samples to share from the event.

 

Here’s Sophia’s along with what five items she identified represent her and her story:

1. Venezuela   My home country.
2. Soccer / Running Shoes   I have played soccer the majority of my life. I participate in the Girls on the Run Program. It is my first time being in a program like this.
3. Wolf   If I were an animal, I would be a wolf because of the way they think and they are fast.
4. Pizza   It is my favorite food.
5. Puzzles   I love to do them with my lunch buddy mentor at school.

Here’s Matt’s mosaic:

Here’s his response to five items that represent his identity and story:

1. Lion   Symbol of confidence and bravery; I stand up for what I believe in.
2. Mom’s Obituary   My mom passed away a couple of years ago.
3. Sketchbook & Pencils   I like art and use it to express myself and how I feel.
4. Hammer   Represents my dream of giving back to the community by building more schools and activity centers for kids.
5. Brick   It’s solid and can’t be easily broken.

We so appreciate learning what kids are made of and hearing the stories that shape who they are. You can check out the National CIS website page here and discover more stories. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and you may spot a few students from Kalamazoo who are featured along with other CIS students from across the country on the site!)

 

Coach Rod Raven Receives Champ Award

At the 12th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, Rod Raven was honored with a 2019 Champ Award which was sponsored by Comerica. CIS Board Member Bob Miller, CIS Site Coordinator Joan Coopes, and CIS After School Coordinator Myah VanTil presented the award. 

Bob: “Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates.” Magic Johnson may have said this, but this next Champ lives it. By day, Rod Raven is the lead activity helper at Arcadia Elementary School. After school, he serves as Arcadia’s basketball coach for both boys and girls. Regardless of what position he’s playing, Coach Raven works with CIS to assure students have what they need to succeed in school and life.

Myah (left) and Joan (right) listen with Rod as Bob Miller talks about teamwork.

Like basketball, teamwork is key when it comes to CIS. Each of us must do our part so kids succeed. Mr. Raven plays his positions exquisitely. And he has such a gift for getting kids to invest in each other.

One way he does this is by giving former students a chance to live out one of the five CIS basics that every child needs and deserves—and that’s an opportunity to give back to peers and their community. We love seeing young leaders like Linden Grove Middle School’s Devin Harris and Kalamazoo Central High School’s Keyten Thompson-Johnson and Le’Montae Daniels-Thompson, who, after a full day at school, come to Arcadia and give back by coaching, mentoring, and modelling positive behaviors for our students.

Myah: Like any good teammate, there are times Mr. Raven has turned to us for helping students, and times we’ve turned to him. I remember when I first started out as Arcadia’s CIS after school coordinator. One of my students was really struggling. I knew I could turn to Mr. Raven. Together, we came up with a behavior plan. His input—combined with the trusting relationship he had with the student—resulted in a complete turnaround: the student’s attitude dramatically improved, his assignments were completed and turned in on time, and behavior incidences went to zero.

Joan: Young men at Arcadia will come up to Myah and me and comment with great pride that Mr. Raven is teaching us how to be gentlemen. As the “Young Men of Arcadia,” they dress up in a shirt and tie on Fridays and practice the life skills Mr. Raven is teaching them from his open playbook, such as politeness, manners, listening, and making good choices.

Bob: Here’s what two of these gentlemen-in-training say about being part of Coach Raven’s team, in which academics always come first: Jazary says, “He’s brought our team far and helped us get better at basketball and school. He gives us lots of training. We’re even learning during recess!”

Mohammad appreciates that he’s always learning something new. “I’ve never played basketball before and he’s teaching me. It feels good to be part of the team.”

Both agree that if you want to be on Coach Raven’s team all you have to do is just work really, really hard.

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

Myah (above) and Joan (below) congratulating Rod on his Champ award.

P.S. Please don’t get rid of after school programs.

The title of this post was inspired by the postscript Izaiah Markel noted in a letter he wrote to the President of the United States. He, along with his peers at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, wrote letters to their elected officials during the CIS After School Program at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts.

CIS After School Coordinator Phillip Hegwood initiated the letter writing project as a way for students to let their voices be heard, advocating in a constructive manner for something they feel passionate about: the importance of extending their learning day through after school supports and experiential learning. As the letters from officials start trickling in, he’s expanding on the writing project by asking students to reflect on the experience of writing the letters as well as discussing the responses they receive.

Students proudly holding responses from several of their elected officials.

Associate Director of Site Services Michael Harrison points out that this project “is not only a creative approach to strengthening literacy skills but it boosts confidence. Learning to communicate with someone who can effect change builds confidence.” That, he says, is a “powerful lesson. It’s something our young people can carry into other aspects of their lives.”

Just what did Kayla, Izaiah, Zi’arra, Jesus, Whysper, Jazmin, Cruz, Renell, Tarqes, Grace, Lisandra, Taisia, Jasmine, Tiana, Navia, KaVon, Aniyah, Walter, Devin, Arielle, Akeelah, and Yousef want their elected officials to know about the importance of the CIS After School program? Here, in their own words pulled from their letters…

Students explain that after school provides a safe place to learn and grow.

“After school program is very important. That is because lots of kids don’t have a safe space to go after school, or a quiet workplace. After school provides that. It is from 2:20-5:30 p.m. here at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts…”

“Do you know about the after school program? The after school program is a class where you can do your job, have great teachers and students, a class that you can share and help people, and the after school program expects you to be a good person and no one will forget an after school program.”

“After school program is a great way for students to work on homework, to achieve better grades in school so we can go on to 7th grade…”

“The after school program provides a nice environment for us to meet new friends. After school program is a nice way to teach us how to do productive things together, and it teaches leadership skills. It also teaches housekeeping, and everyday useful skills for students.”

“They care for us and they watch over us and they keep us safe.”

Students share the benefits to their own growth.

“It made me a better person because we have art and it shows my talents/artistic abilities. After school gives me a lot of confidence in school.”

“…after school program helped me get smarter and improve my grades and study.”

“…[it] helped me with my homework and any problems I had at school at home (really any problems I had).”

“It helps me improve my grade in ELA (English Language Arts). I had a C- and since they have a big homework system I got a B+.”

“In after school I can talk to someone when I am mad or sad.”

“…and helps us talk to students if we’re too shy to talk. It even makes us feel at home.”

“It helps me focus throughout school, that’s why I love after school. They taught me that it’s okay to get stuff wrong in class. So now when the teacher calls on me in class I answer it with confidence even if I just guess. After school gives me every possibility and every chance.”

Students express appreciation for the CIS staff, partners, and volunteers.

“The coaches help us so much with our homework.”

“…they even teach us other languages!”

“…I can talk to someone when I am mad or sad.”

Students state facts about the benefits of being involved in CIS after school programs.

“…it helps students stay out of the streets and gangs. Research shows more than 70% of kids drop out due to drugs or early pregnancies.”

Students care about the younger students who are coming after them.

“Also I think it will help other kids who want or are going to be in program someday.”

“Please don’t let it end so that the new sixth graders next year will have the same opportunities as us.”

Students express themselves in honest and straight forward ways.

“Honestly, if I never went to the after school program I would just be at home playing video games and watching TV all day. I probably would not like my mom as much because she does not understand how to help me with my homework and we would fight about it. The after school program gives me an opportunity to eat dinner because there are nights where we don’t have any food in our house. We get free transportation so I can also play sports. My mom gets some sleep so she can go to work at night, and that helps the economy.”

“I will be honest, I don’t know who you are but I know you are African American and it makes me happy that there is a black person in power to help make decisions, so please fund after school programs.”

Students urge their officials to continue funding after school programming.

“So I hope you think about this…”

“I hope you can see how important it is to have after school.”

“Students will be happy and we will all remember you did the right thing.”

“So can you try to help us?”

PS. Students pepper their letters with P.S.’s.

P.S. Please don’t get rid of after school programs.

[To Mayor Hopewell] “P.S. I saw you at the chili cook out.”

“P.S. We <3 After School!!!”

[Note: <3 = love]

CIS After School serves students in 15 after school sites—11 elementary and 4 middle school sites. CIS After School is available in the Kalamazoo Public Schools thanks to the support of federal dollars awarded through the Michigan Department of Education, 21st Century Community Learning Centers.