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.

Dropping In

“I’m here for the first time and I’m here to work. I want to get my C up to a B in math.”

“I’m here because my mom thinks that if I put in the extra effort during lunchtime, I’ll do better in school…I think she might be right.”

These are just what two of the more than 30 Milwood Magnet Middle School students have to say about the new Homework/Tutor Drop-In Lab in their school. Initiated this school year by CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best after “feedback from teachers, parents, and the students themselves” students may now drop in for help with homework during their Tuesday and Thursday lunchtimes (from 10:41 to 1:17).

“The response has been wonderful,” says Missy. “I’ve had parents dropping in to see how things are going and encouraging their student to take advantage of the lunchtime support. Students are coming to the lab because they are stuck and want help,” says Missy. “Others come because they want a quiet space to finish up their homework.”

Missy wanted to model the drop-in support after labs that many colleges offer. “It’s a great way to meet students’ needs and address parent and teachers hopes for wanting additional support for struggling students,” she says. So she spoke to Milwood Magnet principal Mark Tobolski about the idea and “he said, ‘Let’s try it.’ The principal has been very supportive of CIS and helped us get this lab up and running. He helped with key logistics, like figuring out how to get kids through the lunch line more quickly and how to do lunchtime passes for kids wanting to drop into the lab.”

Student holding a lunchtime pass.

Missy also credits CIS volunteers like Dr. Jim Zhu, professor of mathematics at Western Michigan University with successfully implementing the Homework/Tutor Drop-In Lab. [We popped a quiz on Dr. Zhu so stay tuned to Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids to see how he did. Hint: He totally passed.]

Dr. Zhu talking math.

When students drop into the lab they are choosing to surround themselves with a community of support. On this Tuesday in November, CIS volunteers Dr. Jim Zhu and Lynetta Carnes are both on hand to help. [Lynette, having just finished her regular volunteer time in Mrs. April Rocco’s classroom, stopped in for the first time. “It worked out today that I could stay a little longer and help out.”]

Lynette reviewing school work that student shares with her.

CIS after school coordinator and former math teacher Shannon Jones is there as well, working with a small group. “How lucky are our kids?” Missy says, a big smile on her face. “Shannon is terrific with the students.”

Shannon with a student.

Travis Guerrero, a CIS intern through WMU’s School of Social Work, is walking around and checking in with kids to see how they are doing.

“The kids are responding to the one-on-one immediate feedback,” he says. “Someone is at their side, able to let them know if they are doing it right or if they are on the wrong track. They can quickly adjust and that helps them get up to speed and where they need to be when they are back in the classroom.”

Missy (right) and Travis checking in with students.

Later, Michael Harrison, CIS Associate Director of Site Services drops in. He pulls up a chair and start talking math with a couple of young men.

The room is humming with learning. At moments, it is quiet enough to hear pencils scribbling. At other times, snatches of conversation can be overheard. Comments made by grownups, like:

What are you working on?
Can I help?
I want you to find your own answer.
Independent variables…
If I distributed biscuits to everyone at this table and…
What book are you reading?
If I brought in ten cookies and…
That one’s still gottcha, huh?
This is definitely right! Open the bracket and…..
Minus 52. Correct.
You are doing a linear equation!
Remember, you can only add terms that are similar…..
Perfect!
Yes, multiply this!
You are really picking this up. Excellent!

From left: Michael Harrison, Lynette Carnes, and Shannon Jones.

“Today was a great day,” says Missy. “We had a lot of students but we also had grownups to help. We need more volunteers, though! Our kids keep showing up. They are asking for this academic support and we need more volunteers who are willing to show up for kids.”

Can you help out? Just an hour a week can change a life. Our kids need you at Milwood Magnet Middle School and at 19 other CIS sites throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools. To become a CIS volunteer, click here.