You make a difference

Imagine what it’s like to be…

…a student so hungry he rummages through a garbage can in the cafeteria, snatching and stuffing into his pockets a partially eaten sandwich, a bit of apple. He is worried about his younger sister who isn’t yet school age and wants her to have some food in her belly before the day slips away.

…the third grader who messed up big time on an assignment. The class was learning sequencing and she couldn’t figure out how to put in proper order the steps for making a bed. She sleeps on floors and, if lucky, couches of friends and family. It’s hard to figure out steps to making a bed when you don’t have one, when the only pillow you’ve ever seen is in a book.

…the sixth grader who wears shoes so worn that the soles flap up and down as she walks through the halls. She feels like a clown. Though some of her classmates tease her, one offers up a pair of their own worn, but respectable pair of shoes.

These students bring to mind a conversation with a CIS friend who said that as a child she was thankful for school each and every day. “I didn’t want to leave it. I’d figure out strategies to stay as long as possible. Anything to not go home.” School, she said, was her haven. For some children, weekends, holidays, and snow days take away the solace that comes in knowing they will have a breakfast and a lunch, a warm and stable environment that isn’t necessarily a given once the school bell rings at the end of the day.

What will children—who sleep on floors and worry where their next meal will come from—what will they doing this Thanksgiving? Will they have enough to eat? Anything to eat? Where will they lay their heads to sleep?

The good news is that in each of the above situations, CIS was able to reach out to these children because of you. We—and those students and their families and schools—are thankful for YOU. Thank you for giving your heart, financial support, resources, and time. You make a difference.

We Can’t Have a Strong America with Weak Kids

Hunger, by its very nature, takes bites out of academic success. When a child is hungry, it impacts that child’s ability to learn. It’s harder to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, it’s difficult to focus on reading, and to regulate behavior. A chronically hungry child is worried when and where their next meal will come from.

I had written the above words and then met Billy Shore, Founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Actually, we didn’t really meet and Mr. Shore has no clue who I am. I was just one in the crowd when he stepped out to the podium the day after the Awards of Excellence celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s just that he was so engaging, funny, and thoughtful that I felt like we met. He said a lot of important things in his speech but what has stuck with me is this: “We can’t have a strong America with weak kids.”

In America, there are 11 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade who live in poverty. That is, as Mr. Shore pointed out, a lot of children coming to school in a state of distress, sitting at their desks “fundamentally compromised in their learning…plopping them in front of a great teacher” does not solve the problem. If anything, it is, in the eyes of Mr. Shore “setting children up to fail.”

Since 2003, here in Kalamazoo we have learned that if we can send kids home with food on Fridays, they return to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn.

Thanks to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Friday Foodpacks have been one of the “tools” CIS Site Coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help. Just last school year, 750 elementary students received a weekly foodpack while food pantries served students in El Sol Elementary and all six secondary schools.

As third grade Kalamazoo Public School teacher P.J. Bucholtz puts it, “No amount of love in the world can fill an empty tummy.” Only food can do that. And it is only because of the efforts of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Anne Lipsey, the entire KLF staff and their board that our Site Coordinators, with the support of many organizations and volunteers can get Friday Foodpacks into the hands–and tummies–of our hungriest of children. For students like Charles (not his real name), it can make all the difference.

Identified this year by his CIS Site Coordinator as someone who could benefit fromFriday Foodpacks, Charles was looking forward to receiving his pack. At the same time, it so happened his school, like many schools, was engaged in a food drive. So when Friday arrived and his Site Coordinator gave him his first ever foodpack, he informed her he was going to donate all of it to the food drive. After all, he knows what it feels like to be hungry. He is hungry a lot. Weekends especially.

She looked into eager eyes and in her wisdom said, “How about this time you pick one thing from your bag to donate? Just this one time, okay?”

He loved the idea. So, he parted with one item and then went home, with dignity and food still in his pack.

Upon hearing this story, CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery replied, “Loaves & Fishes is about feeding hungry people, but it is also about dignity.” How true. One of the hunger stories noted on the KLF website quotes someone as saying, “KLF volunteers always made me feel like somebody instead of nothing.” Our Site Coordinators and community volunteers are doing the same thing within the schools. Providing both access to food and embodying the KLF values: respect, diversity & inclusion, stewardship & accountability, integrity, collaboration, urgency, and service.

By working through us within the Kalamazoo Public Schools, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes taps into the heart of one of our values or what we refer to as a “CIS basic”:  that all children deserve a healthy start in life. And, for one little boy, who, according to the Site Coordinator is now eating every last crumb in his pack, it spoke to another CIS basic, the opportunity to give back to peers and community.

We are thankful for the ongoing commitment of members of this community who make it possible for our children to arrive to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn. Milwood Christian Reformed Church (MRC helped pilot this program back in 2003) both carry out the foodpack distribution at Milwood Elementary and financially support this program. And when MCR volunteers Helen Anderson and Thelma Vantill go on vacation they find people from the church to step in while they’re gone. Mt. Zion financially supports the foodpacks at Northglade. Workers who are part of the MRC Industries sheltered workshop pack food into bags for Edison and Spring Valley each week. Out at other KPS schools, our kids rely on CIS volunteers like Allison Leonard (Parkwood Upjohn), Rose Blackwood (Prairie Ridge), and Cortney Afton (Lincoln) to make sure the packs get to kids in time for the weekend.

CIS Site Coordinator Leslie Poucher Pratt refers to these foodpack volunteers as “All Stars.” We couldn’t agree more.

Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier, says we still need a number of volunteers to help deliver foodpacks to children within several schools. So, if you or someone you know may want to volunteer, click here.

There is, Mr. Shore reminds us, much work to be done when it comes to eradicating child hunger. Until then, we will only be as strong as our weakest child.

A version of Charles’ story first ran in Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes newsletter. You can find it here.

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.