Kalamazoo Through The Eyes Of Dan Cardinali

As an educational leader, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities In Schools, Inc.,regularly lends his voice to the national dialogue on education reform. In a recent visit to Kalamazoo, Dan was deeply moved by how the Kalamazoo community comes together to support the public schools. He shared his thoughts with the nation in a recent post that ran in the Impact section of the Huffington Post under the title “Bridging the False Dichotomy Between Poverty and Education Reform.” Julie Mack also wrote about Dan’s post in the Kalamazoo Gazette. Here now, in Dan’s own words…

20131106-_DSC4515Recently I attended two days of meetings in Kalamazoo, Michigan that gave me a new sense of optimism for the future of our public schools and our neediest students.

It was another reminder to me that school reform is a wonderfully hopeful and iterative process, despite the political and rhetorical flare-ups it may inspire at times. While impatience can set in, given the urgency that passionate reformers feel about improving public education for all students, what I saw in Kalamazoo convinced me that we are moving into a powerful reconciliation of historically dueling camps.

On my first day, I attended a luncheon where an extraordinarily diverse group of nonprofit leaders was exploring ways they could support the city’s public schools. The local food bank was there, along with housing advocates, mental health experts — even the Kalamazoo Symphony. All of these overworked, underfunded folks were looking beyond their traditional turf to discuss how they could partner with Kalamazoo Public Schools to provide the necessary supports so that all students’ basic needs are met, and high quality youth development opportunities are available regardless of a family’s economic means.

On day two, I attended a national conference for communities looking to emulate the Kalamazoo Promise, an innovative program that pays up to 100 percent of in-state tuition for any student who graduates from Kalamazoo Public Schools. The Promise was launched by anonymous donors who believed that public education could drive economic development for the entire city, and eight years later, the numbers are proving them right.

20131106-_DSC4538Since the Promise began, an estimated 95 percent of high school graduates inKalamazoohave enrolled in at least one semester of college, and nearly 900 have attained some type of higher education credential. Public school enrollment has jumped, test scores are up and suburban families are moving back into the urban core, bringing much needed tax dollars with them.

You’ve probably noticed by now the unifying theme in my visit toKalamazoo. What’s tremendously encouraging to me is the way that the entire community is coming together in support of the public schools. InKalamazoo, public education is everyone’s business. The silos that separate schools, businesses and civic organizations are coming down as everyone accepts a shared responsibility to prepare young people for a successful, productive life.

In other words, Kalamazoo is re-forming its sense of community, not just reforming its schools.

I think the importance of that distinction would be difficult to overstate. For too long now, the school reform movement has been dominated by a false dichotomy. On one side we have the “no-excuses crowd” — well-meaning, social entrepreneurs who believe that disruptive innovation can and should drive the larger public education establishment to change. By reforming school-based factors such as teacher quality, district and school management practices, student and teacher accountability systems, or content and delivery of curriculum, the no-excuses crowd believes that schools can be fixed from the inside out, independent of the socioeconomic context in which they operate.

On the other side, we have many education leaders and practitioners making a different kind of argument: While agreeing that schools must be held accountable for driving academic results for all students, they point out that the trauma of poverty is making those results harder and harder to achieve. Research is increasingly demonstrating that the stresses of poverty — homelessness, food insecurity, family breakdown and so forth — can accumulate over time, damaging students’ ability to learn. In other words, no matter how extraordinary the teacher, principal or curriculum, students living in chronic poverty are fundamentally compromised in their ability to take full advantage of the investments being made on their behalf.

AR6What I’m beginning to see all across the country is that this latter view is gaining currency, even as internal reforms continue. In Kalamazoo, Superintendent Michael Rice is working tirelessly to improve test scores and other educational outcomes with the hard-driving conviction of the no-excuses camp. At the same time, he is coordinating with a growing number of community groups that are stepping up to support students impaired by poverty. This determination to simultaneously attack problems from within and without is exactly what we need in the school reform movement.

The great irony of the no-excuses approach is that it unintentionally excuses the broader community from taking responsibility, because all of the burden is placed on professional educators. Think about it: If a problem originates inside the classroom, then it’s a failure of the school, and “they” need to fix it. But if the problem begins in the broader community, suddenly the responsibility shifts, and the pronouns change. Now it’s our problem, a failure that we need to remedy.

When an entire community comes together to support its poorest kids and help them succeed in school, that’s evidence of a whole new mindset at work — one that accepts responsibility, not excuses. This doesn’t happen quickly, of course, and a shift in mindset is never easy or neat. That’s why we’re in a kind of interstitial place right now, reaching for a new model of shared responsibilities while still clinging to our old conceptions.

20131106-_DSC4389We still don’t know exactly what the new models will look like, but there are some tremendously encouraging examples emerging in communities across the country:Say Yes to Education, Elev8, Diplomas Now, City Connects, Communities In Schools and the Cincinnati Public School System. Watching entire communities accept their responsibility under the social contract for bringing young people into adulthood is one of the most positive steps in school reform I’ve seen over the last ten years.

In today’s world, education is an absolute requirement for securing middle class existence and having agency in one’s life. When we start with an understanding of public education as the sine quo non for a successful democracy, then it’s much easier to understand that this is something in which we all have a stake.

In the weeks to come, I plan to unpack these ideas a little more, looking at ways in which local leaders and provider networks can ease the transition to a broader understanding of the social contract and new model of shared responsibility in public education.

20131106-_DSC4154But for now, I’d like to know what you think. Do you agree that public education is a community affair, or should reforms be focused inside the classroom? Do you live in a community with broad-based efforts similar to the ones in Kalamazoo? If so, what kind of success or failure have you seen? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

You can join in this discussion by going to the Comments section within the Huffington Post or by commenting on this blog site. Want to read more posts by Dan? You can find a list of these here.

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?

Open Letter To A Father Who Will Never Read This

Dear Father of That Six-Year Old Girl Whose Name I Can’t Remember:

Eleven years ago our paths crossed for a few minutes. I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me. I, however, can’t shake you out of my head, especially around this time of year.

As my husband and I took our son to start his first day of second grade the image of you—walking up the sidewalk to Edison Environmental Science Academy—burned in my mind. I happened to be one of Kalamazoo Public Schools “Celebrity Greeters” back in 2001, one of many people sprinkled throughout the district to welcome students to their first day of school, help them line up, and find their way.

Remember taking your daughter to kindergarten? It was a warm day and you wore a flannel shirt and frayed, long pants two sizes too big for you. Your daughter’s hair was neatly combed and she was wearing a small but nervous smile. You were sweating. You looked uncomfortable, like you wanted to be anywhere else but at a school. Your little girl was tightly holding your hand. She looked scared but you looked even more scared.

Someone in the crowd of parents, students, and teachers must have directed you to the student list of names posted to wall outside the school. I lost track of you and then saw you again. I don’t know how long you were standing there but you were moving your finger up and down the list. The list fluttered to the ground. Without letting go of your daughter’s hand, you bent over and picked it up. With your fingers, you slowly pressed the four corners of the taped list to the wall. Again, you stood in front of the paper, then shrugged your shoulders, turned to your daughter and said, “You aren’t on the list.” Her face crumpled. You both turned away from the school. I approached you, glancing at the list. I realized then why you looked so scared.

You couldn’t read.

I removed the paper you had taped upside down. I crouched down and asked your daughter her name. Her name has left me but I remember her voice was like a soft wind, a whisper really. I had to ask her two more times before I could make it out. It turned out, she was on the list.

I’ve wondered over the years about your daughter. She should be in high school now. How is she doing? Is she on track for graduating soon? I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but before she had even set foot inside a school she already had a huge obstacle to overcome. Adult illiteracy.

I know you love her. It was obvious that day. You even loved your daughter enough to walk her into a world which you could not fully participate in. When did she stop trying to hand over that book she wanted you to read to her? (A girl can only take so much shoulder shrugging and being turned away.) When she entered third grade, could you read and sign that form that would have allowed her to be in Girls on the Run? You probably couldn’t help much with homework, filling out school forms, reading her school and classroom communications, all things important to your daughter’s ultimate success. You missed out on one of the greatest joys in life—reading with your child.

My heart ached for you and your daughter that day. It still does. I wonder, are you still one of the 31,000 adults (13%) in Kalamazoo County who can’t read? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but have you unknowingly passed down your illiteracy to your daughter? Illiteracy is like a disease. It spreads. Children whose parents are illiterate are twice as likely as their peers to be functionally illiterate. The good news is that it is treatable and there are organizations like The Kalamazoo Literacy Council that are working to combat adult illiteracy.

I’d like to think that you can read now because you eventually got connected with them. It takes a brave man to walk his child into a place of learning, bursting with words and books that he can not read. It takes an even braver parent to admit that he is illiterate and to do something about it.

If you happen to read this, will you write back and let me know how your daughter is doing?