James Devers Selected to Lead Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo

James Devers

CIS of Kalamazoo Board of Directors have announced that they have selected James Devers to serve as the nonprofit organization’s second Executive Director. “After a very thorough search, the Board is excited to welcome James Devers to lead Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo into the future,” said Tony McDonnell, President of CIS Board. “James bring tremendous experience, passion for helping kids succeed and a steady leadership style to his new role as CIS Executive Director,” says McDonnell.

When Pam Kingery, CIS of Kalamazoo’s founding executive director retires from CIS at the end of June, James Devers will begin his tenure as executive director the first week of July.

James has more than 19 years of diverse experience in the field of education, ranging from working for the Ohio Department of Education, to doing community-based computer literacy training, to serving as principal at a K-8 public school in Ohio. Most recently, James has served as the Senior Director of Site Services for Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.

A graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, James holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in public administration from The Ohio State University. A passionate advocate for youth and families, James’ volunteer work over the years has included starting several summer camps, tutoring youth, and mentoring high school students who were at risk of dropping out of school.

“I am grateful to be stepping into the role of Executive Director with the perspective gained from my current position as Senior Director of Site Services,” said James. “I already know our staff—we have a terrific team. In my new position I want to ensure that the work we’ve begun, as well as the progress we’ve made together—both programmatically and relationally—will continue. I’m looking forward to bringing my perspective and experience to this dedicated team of staff, volunteers, school and community partners at CIS. Together, we will continue and build upon CIS’s successful history focused on helping kids stay in school and achieve in life.”

You can look forward to learning more about James, his thoughts on leadership, and more in our next CIS Connections (due out this fall). Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids will also bring you an interview with James in the months to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened with the first student?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

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

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

Listen.

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

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

Pam as a little girl, with her mom

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

Pam’s mother (right) with younger sister

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

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

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

Pam leading the CIS crew during a staff development training

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

How so?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

What Do You Love?

We know you love seeing kids succeed. We do too! What else do you love? We polled a few CIS staff. Here is what they said: 

“I love my new apartment, my independence and all these new possibilities that come with that: with designing and laying things out just how I want. I get to be unapologetically me.”

-Laurin Mathis, Administrative Assistant

“I love spring board and platform diving. I was a diver in high school and college. I’m soon to be training for tower diving.”

-Phillip Hegwood, CIS Afterschool Coordinator

Musical theater!”

-Nicky Aiello, Volunteer and Development Coordinator

“Music and playing guitar.”

-John Oliver, Director of Quality and Evaluation

“A really good book. As I look over the course of my life, it is so enriched by reading.”

-Pam Kingery, Executive Director

“First of all… I love my daughter with all of my heart and soul and am very proud to be her mother. I love all of my family, even with our differences. I love my friends who have become part of my family. Last, but not least, I love each and every one of the students I have and continue to come in contact with and support through my work at KPS and with CIS.”

-Martha Serio, CIS Site Coordinator, Spring Valley Center for Exploration

 “The Great Lakes…still.”

-John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator

 “I LOVE, my two daughters, Alyssa and Leila.”

-Felicia Lemons, Development Coordinator

 

Come back next week and meet Principal Amira Mogaji, KPS Principal of Northglade Montessori Magnet School. In the meantime, here’s what she shared with us when we asked her this same question:

“Oh, I love so many things! Learning. I know that’s such a principal thing to say, but it’s true. Anybody who knows me knows I love learning. Pizza, too, but I’m gluten-free now.”

Amira Mogaji, KPS Principal, Northglade Montessori Magnet School

As long as we’re on the subject of love, we love you, dear reader and CIS friend! Thank you for putting love into action by sharing your time, talents, and financial gifts with Communities In Schools. Thank you for working with us to help students stay in school and achieve in life.

 

Creativity: A Path for Future Generations

The majority of students today will be employed in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. The predictions for this range anywhere from 65-85%. So what is a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle to do? How can we prepare our kids for life and work in these increasingly uncertain and rapidly changing times?

One thing we can do is to encourage their creativity. Creativity has been linked with positive academic achievement and it can help young learners successfully navigate and thrive in this ever-changing world.

But just what is creativity? According to Paul Collard, who runs the UK-based organization Creativity, Culture & Education, creativity is “a wider ability to question, make connections and take an innovative and imaginative approach to problem solving.” Collard believes it’s important to explicitly teach creativity. “Creative skills aren’t just about good ideas, they are about having the skills to make good ideas happen.”

Those who study creativity agree. A number of organizations in Scotland worked together to look at creativity across learning environments and identified core creativity skills such as:

-Constructively inquisitive (by being curious, flexible, adaptable, and exploring multiple viewpoints).

-Harness imagination (by playing, exploring, generating and refining ideas, inventing).

-Identify and solve problems (by demonstrating initiative, persistence, and resilience).

These type of creative skills which help kids (and grown ups, too!) play with ideas, look at things with fresh eyes, learn from mistakes, adapt to changed circumstances, stay focused, meet new and unanticipated challenges, and much more, really resonate as true.

Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids interviewed two business people who also serve on the CIS board in Kalamazoo. They both touched on the importance of creative skills. When we asked Dave Maurer, President of Humphrey Products, what parents can do to help prepare their child for today’s labor force, he told us that we can help them persist. He also talked about the importance of developing new ideas. (You can read his interview here.)

Mike Stoddard, chief operating officer of BASIC, talked about the importance of being nimble.  “It’s important to keep up and be flexible. In a blink of an eye, things change, particularly when it comes to technology.” (You can read his interview here.)

While there are a million ways to nurture creativity in our kids, here are two things we can easily do: One. Recognize that creativity is important to our children’s future success, both in life and in their future job, a job that may not even exist yet. Two. Help kids look for the second right answer.

A second right answer? In a classic book on creativity, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How to Unlock Your Mind for Innovation, author Roger Von Oech encourages us to shrug off what many of us have been trained to do: look for the one right answer. This approach, he says, is fine for some situations, but we shouldn’t give into the “tendency to stop looking for alternative right answers after the first one has been found. This is unfortunate because often it’s the second or third, or tenth right answer that is what we need to solve a problem in an innovative way.”

Let’s encourage our kids to wonder more and come up with different solutions to a problem. We can ask them questions. Have you thought of any alternatives? How else might this work?

We can read this article, “Tools to encourage kids’ creativity,” that says with a little nudging, kids can build creative skills by sharing stories, opinions, and their ideas. (It was this very article, passed along by CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery, that inspired today’s post!)

Remember, there is no one right answer for how to nurture our 12,000+ kids’ creativity. The important thing is to do it.

 

Gulnar Husain: A Good Life

When I think of Gulnar, I think of someone who hears a problem from a child or a teacher and immediately responds with, ‘Well, let’s see how we can fix this.’ Never a list of reasons why we can’t.”                                                     -Dr. Timothy Light, CIS Board member

 

On January 1, 2018, Kalamazoo lost a giant: Gulnar Husain. Pancreatic cancer may have taken her from us, but she has left a tremendous legacy.

Gulnar Husain worked tirelessly to unleash her fellow citizen’s own potential, encouraging others to share their gifts and talents to strengthen this community she loved. Gulnar immigrated from Pakistan in 1981 and for over 35 years, gave joyously of her time to numerous Kalamazoo entities, such as Kalamazoo Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Justice, Kalamazoo Islamic Center, Michigan Festival of Sacred Music, Western Michigan University, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS), AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA), Kalamazoo Public Schools, Portage Public Schools, ISAAC, St. Augustine School, Kalamazoo Non-Violent Opponents of War, Kalamazoo County Summit on Racism, Michigan Interfaith Coalition for Peace, Kalamazoo Lend a Hand, and Fetzer Institute’s Gardens of Many Faiths. The list goes on.

For over 14 years, Gulnar worked with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS). She first served as an AmeriCorps worker and then as an AmeriCorps VISTA at both Arcadia Elementary School and King-Westwood Elementary. In the last decade of her career she was the CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia. During that time she worked ceaselessly to surround a diverse population of students with whatever it takes so they could succeed in school, graduate and be prepared for life. For Gulnar, doing whatever it takes meant coordinating and supporting more than 30 volunteers in a given school year, as well as a host of community partners to provide in-class tutoring, mentoring, counseling, music therapy, food packs, “Literacy Buddies” (a twice a week after-school program funded through State Farm), dental clinic, vision assistance, CIS Kids’ Closet (distributing basics like clothing/hygiene items), First Day Shoe Fund, Warm Kids-Winter Gear, Friendship Circle, Lunch & Learn, Math Club, Higher Thinking Club, Girls on the Run, the Recycle Project, and more.

While it’s impossible to fully capture Gulnar’s contributions to our kids and our community we want to honor her memory by providing a few photos, quotes, and links to stories (with more photos) about her, here, in one place…

Here she is back in her AmeriCorps days (2002):

Alice Gordon, on left, with Gulnar.

Gulnar worked closely with her principal, Greg Socha, and cherished his wisdom and support. Despite the daily demands principals have, she knew she could count on him to help identify and prioritize school needs, share what types of partnerships were necessary to meet the needs. Here’s what Principal Socha has said about Gulnar:

Gulnar Husain has been described as the ‘heart’ of Arcadia. Through her years of CIS service to the students and staff at Arcadia, Gulnar provided clothing, food, counseling, mentoring, tutoring and lunch-and-learn programs for students. For the staff, Gulnar offered guidance, a quiet persistence of providing needed services to students, and education on the multi-cultural needs of our families. But her world did not end at Arcadia. Gulnar promoted the Literacy Buddies program at Arcadia and Kalamazoo Central High School, matching high school students with elementary students to enhance the reading and writing of both parties. When the KPS Immigrant Program needed tutors after school, Gulnar provided her expertise and time to help students improve their English and complete their homework. Through her work with CIS, Gulnar made Arcadia a national award- winning school.”

“Still, that was not enough for Gulnar. Despite an acknowledged frustration with technology, she often provided articles and websites for staff members that promoted literacy, learning, and tolerance. She completed scholarship information to help her students expand their experiences. Her community involvement with interfaith organizations often placed her on the podium to speak of inclusion, and caring, and providing services for others in our community. All of this was completed in her humble way – quiet, but persistent.”                                

Gulnar with Arcadia Recyling Team
Gulnar checking in with student during a “lunch and learn” poetry workshop.

Gulnar believed in the five CIS basics, especially that all students deserve a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. She felt such joy seeing volunteers in action with students, offering encouragement, academic support, and hope. Pam Kingery, CIS Executive Director, once noted, “In her role as CIS Site Coordinator at Arcadia, Gulnar has accomplished so much because she understands and values the role volunteers play in student success. Wearing that hat of ‘volunteer’ herself over many years and in a variety of settings, she knows the power of volunteers. That’s why she’s invested countless hours into supporting numerous volunteers throughout the years–she understands the potential return on that investment.”

Here’s Gulnar with just a few of the many volunteers she worked with over the years.

With Dianne Roberts.
With Mohammed Mohammed.
With Cindy Kesterke and Lenny Williams.

You can find a photo of her with Howard Tejchma in the 2016 CIS newsletter themed “Why Boys?” on page 6. Just go here.

Gulnar loved seeing students succeed. Here’s a link to Lenny’s success story, “Finding His Voice.”  And here’s the link to Lacey’s story.

Gulnar with Lacey Weston.

Gulnar was part of the Kalamazoo delegation that went to Charlotte, North Carolina when Kalamazoo was one of four communities from across the country honored as a community of excellence in 2013. Gulnar also received national recognition for her work within Arcadia Elementary School and joined the ranks of only a handful throughout the country to receive an Honorable Mention for the prestigious Unsung Hero Award. We blogged about it here, “Gulnar Husain: No Longer Unsung”. And Julie Mack covered it in a Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive article here.

When Arcadia Elementary School was one of just four sites across America honored in the school category by the national Communities In Schools’ network at the 2015 Unsung Heroes Awards in New Orleans, LA, Gulnar was there. Here she is with the Kalamazoo contingent, along with Bill Milliken, Founder and Vice Chairman of Communities In Schools, Inc. (left) and Dan Cardinali, then President of Communities In Schools, Inc. (third from right at back):

Gulnar with (from left): Greg Socha, Pam Kingery, Carolyn A. Williams, and Dan Cardinali

We blogged about all this in the post, “Singing Loudly and Proudly of Unsung Heroes.”  National CIS also wrote about it in this article, “Overcoming Cultural and Language Barriers.”  Before Gulnar left New Orleans, she took in some of the sites.

Gulnar with (from left): Mary Oudsema, Jennifer Clark, Pam Kingery, Elyse Brey, and Dominique Edwards.

An interview with Gulnar, along with a copy of the City of Kalamazoo’s Welcoming Proclamation (she helped to craft it, along with a rabbi, a United Methodist minister, and Kalamazoo’s vice mayor) is included in the anthology, Immigration & Justice For Our Neighbors. Released in April 2017, her interview begins, “Hospitality can be a radical act, particularly when one steps out of her comfort zone to indiscriminately welcome, accept, and love others. Gulnar Husain marches through her own fears and discomforts to welcome and connect with people from cultures and religions beyond her own…” Gulnar also appears in the essay, “Blueberries,” by Nicholas Baxter. More about the anthology project and where to find it here.

Here’s Gulnar, after receiving The Good Neighbor Award at the 2017 STAR Awards. She was recognized for her efforts in uniting people in the community who share different religions and backgrounds.

Gulnar with CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery.
Gulnar (second from right), surrounded by family and friends.

Shortly after being awarded the 2017 Good Neighbor Award, Gulnar was interviewed by Public Media Network‘s Pillars of the Community. You can watch it here.

If you go here to the “About Us” page on the CIS website, scroll down and click on the arrow. You can watch a really cool, three minute video about Arcadia Elementary School. Gulnar is featured in it.

In their January 2018 newsletter, ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community) wrote about Gulnar and included some photos. Here’s that link.

Upon learning of Gulnar’s passing, Dan Cardinali, CEO of Independent Sector and former national president of Communities In Schools wrote this: I had the honor of meeting Gulnar a number of times and visiting with her and the children with whom she worked for so many years. Her gift of love and vision for peace were contagious. Her life is a powerful example what a good life can and should be. For me she taught me that we’re all called to live courageous lives of mercy in the face of violence, tolerance in the face of intolerance, hope in the face of despair, and love in the face of hate…”

Gulnar enjoying a moment with Dan Cardinali during his visit to Arcadia.

To honor Gulnar, her commitment to kids, and her special appreciation for volunteers and their impact on students’ success, her family has established the Gulnar Husain Legacy Fund at Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.  Those wishing to make a gift to the Fund may donate online.  Checks may also be sent to CIS with a note in the Memo line indicating that the gift is for the Fund.

Gulnar with Principal Socha.

EVERY MINUTE COUNTS

Pictured (left to right): Sara Williams (Retail Regional Manager, Fifth Third Bank,) Ron Foor (Community President for Fifth Third Bank,) and Pam Kingery (Executive Director, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo)

Fifth Third Bank is partnering with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) to support students’ school attendance with a donation of 500 alarm clocks. This comes just in time for September’s Attendance Awareness Month, a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the importance of regular school attendance and reducing chronic absenteeism in the new school year.

“Alarm clocks are an important resource for our students,” says Pam Kingery, CIS Executive Director. “We are grateful for Fifth Third Bank’s donation, which will help students attend school on time, every day, ready to learn.”

“Every minute counts,” notes Kingery. “Tardies, early departures, excused  and unexcused absences all lead to missed classroom  instruction,  putting students at risk of falling behind. Missing time in school can affect core knowledge, grades, and even graduation rates.”

Fifth Third Bank and CIS agree that good school attendance is essential to academic success. But far too many students are at risk academically because they are chronically absent, missing 10 or more days for any reason, excused or unexcused. Research shows that’s the point at which absenteeism begins to risk serious consequences.

According to Attendance Works, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving school attendance, starting as early as kindergarten or even preschool, chronic absence predicts lower third grade reading scores. By middle school it’s a warning sign that students will fail key classes and drop out of high school. Absence from school is not just a matter of truancy. Many children, especially in the early grades, miss too much school because of chronic health problems, unreliable transportation or housing moves—barriers that the community can help families address.

“School attendance matters to all of us, not just those with school-age children,” says Ron Foor, Community President for Fifth Third Bank. “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. And we know that every second counts in a lot of different ways.  Whether it is school attendance or saving for the future, every second really does matter.”

 

Thank You, Friends

Today’s post is written by Pam Kingery, Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo.

Since the regular school year has wrapped up for students and teachers, and we are gearing up for the CIS Think Summer! program and KPS Summer School, it is a natural time to reflect on the 2015-16 school year. Gratitude is the overwhelming sentiment—for you, for our community. “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it,” wrote William Arthur Ward, “is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” So this is my expression of our sincere appreciation. As part of our community, you have chosen to lift up our children and youth as part of Communities In Schools. Thank you!

The important work of helping our kids succeed in school and in life does not happen without you. Your time, energy, talent and determination are essential investments in the future of the next generation and in the future of Kalamazoo. I believe the return on your investment is both measurable and immeasurable. The measurable part—-all of the graduates will have greater earnings, pay more taxes, be more well-prepared parents, and have better health outcomes, to name just a few—inspires us all to work harder to help more kids graduate. The immeasurable part—knowing how much you cared and how much each student felt cared for, converting tears of sorrow to tears of joy, listening to that graduate proudly announce he is the first in his family to graduate from high school—these are but a few of the priceless experiences that assure you will be back next year.

Did you know you helped grateful parents “fill the gaps” for their children? As one parent put it, “I want the best for my child but I can’t give them all that they need. I’m so grateful that CIS connected my child to the services she needed.”  We were able to step in because of you.

Our kids count on you and you have been there for them, even in difficult times. It has been an especially challenging year for Kalamazoo. Our community has been rocked by unexplainable tragedy. We’ve lost giants like Charles Warfield. Chuck had much to teach us and was always interested in learning from others, particularly our kids. Ed Gordon, one of the two founding board members of this organization, passed away last year. A member of the City Commission, Ed insisted that supporting our kids is a community responsibility and opportunity.

Each time you show up for kids—whether it’s to work, to volunteer, to partner, or to donate, you add to the foundation of others and you show our kids what it means to be a part of a community that acts together and takes care of one another. So, thank you for believing that CIS and the kids of Kalamazoo are a sound and worthy investment.

Think summer, think-think summer!  The learning and caring continue…

Thank you!