“It takes a village to raise a child”

Time and time again I have circled back to the thought that one or two parents cannot possibly bear the weight alone of nurturing, educating, training and preparing a child to live “in community”. And every time I bounce to this thought, I wonder “why?” What is it about parenting and raising kids that make it nearly impossible to do in isolation? And it occurs to me that parents themselves have not yet learned everything about parenting; we don’t magically acquire perfect child rearing skills once a kid pops out. And yet there is a much more subtle undercurrent that begs for attention on the topic of raising kids in society; “community” is not merely a telephone book of anonymous individuals. We see each other on the streets and sidewalks, we rub shoulders in grocery stores and libraries, we provide commodities and services for each other, we worship together in churches, but perhaps most importantly, we relate, socialize, talk with, and learn from one another. We are constantly changing, growing, learning – we don’t “arrive” at being parents, rather it is a long journey.

Having just finished Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis“, I came away with three main points:

  • it posits an excellent argument that by investing in the “have-nots” (whether you call them poor, low-SES, low-class, less educated, etc), we better our community overall more than if everyone only looks out “for their own”
  • throwing money at “problems” does not automatically fix them; the more impactful approach is listening to and caring for one another
  • there are no fast-acting, overnight solutions, much less a panacea; we have to be committed to the long-haul

The main point of Putnam’s book is that there is an “opportunity gap” widening between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of our nation. And perhaps what hit me the hardest is that a child does not have a choice into which environment she is born, yet that very environment stacks the deck either for or against her. Putnam carefully researches the differences in opportunity between 1960 and 2000 and discovers that one of the biggest factors in the “opportunity gap” is that the “haves” used to mingle with the “have-nots” much more than they do now. There is a strong correlation between the “opportunity gap” and how well the various classes are integrated. If Putnam were to expand his scope to other countries, I wonder if he would have found the same to be true elsewhere (I am thinking “yes”).

Like Lisa Delpit’s “Other People’s Children“, Putnam points out the many advantages of viewing all kids as “Our Kids”. I would go further and say, in alignment with Dr. Edna Olive of Rocket, Inc, that we are morally obligated to take responsibility for all the children in our community.

Todd Lash, an Instructional Specialist at Kenwood, recently wrote the first of many blog posts (*wink*) documenting the work going on at Kenwood via CTRL-Shift. Titled “Shifting Education Through Local Community Building“, Todd talks about the “powerful and transformative” impact of local learning communities for teachers (and building staff). He mentions that they often develop more questions than answers, which to me is perfect – they have formed an inquiry-based group that is traveling together on a journey. This is just one example of community coming together to make the educational experience for children more relevant by empowering students (and teachers) and providing students with the tools they need (ie, critical thinking skills) to live well in community.

Putnam highlights another “school-community approach” known as the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). Local activist Imani Bazzell has worked with a number of groups to form “At Promise … of Success”, a form of “community schools” approach based on HCZ and tailor-designed for the north end areas near Garden Hills, Stratton and BTW. It is an excellent “wrap-around” system to provide for the educational and social/mental health needs of children and families in need.

Putnam does have a suggestion for those that want a “quick fix”. First, he suggests that all “pay-to-play” schemes for extracurricular activities be addressed, removing any and all barriers for those of “low opportunity” to participate. Second, he suggests you become a mentor. Or if I may extrapolate that a bit, be the “village”.

I will conclude this post by reflecting on a meeting I had at the United Way offices yesterday. I really love how the main thrust of United Way, both worldwide and locally, is to promote and sustain unity as a way to have a positive impact on their three pillars, Education, Health and Income. I learned about the different funding initiatives, how decisions are made, the desire to fund programs and not agencies, and even some of their struggles. In a sense, they are providing a basic “asset-mapping” service in regards to taking the pulse of the community, learning what the needs are, and working to facilitate those needs by partnering with service providers and donors.

I love that there are so many good things going on in our community. We have many awesome people, even some that are yet undiscovered. Who is awesome in your “village”?

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Jails, computers and standards, oh my!

There have been many things brewing in Unit 4, and this post will only cover a small fraction of them. I believe the topics I have chosen for today are actually all related – let me explain as I go.

Jails

What in the world do jails have to do with a public school district? I am so glad you asked because that means you haven’t turned your brain off. Reading various materials from the CU Cradle2Career, the United Nations criticizing the US about high rates of incarceration, Dr. Wiegand’s own mantra of “reading at third-grade level by third grade” and a myriad of findings via google (I know…), something as simple as reading proficiency in the early years has a high correlation to whether a child will later go to jail or not. That freaks me out. Because if that is true, why the hell don’t we do EVERYTHING humanly possible to make sure that doesn’t happen?!?

Tomorrow a group of folks have provided an opportunity to listen to state representative Carol Ammons and participate in a public forum:

Build Programs, Not Jails is sponsoring a public forum on Thursday, April 30.  Carol Ammons will be the keynote speaker.  The title of her talk will be:

“Envisioning Future Directions for the Criminal Justice System in Champaign County”

Time: 6:15 p.m.

Place: Urbana Civic Center 108 Water St.

Also featuring performances by spoken word artists Klevah Knox and T.R.U.T.H.

Co-sponsors: Champaign County ACLU, Champaign County NAACP, First Followers Re-entry Program, Peace and Service Committee of the Friends.

Light refreshments will be served.

More information is available from the “Nation Inside” website and the News-Gazette (“forum set on criminal justice reform“).

Computers

Yesterday and today various administrators and tech team members are in Saint Louis at a “Future Ready Regional Summit” learning about the effective use of technology. The St. Louis Public Radio offers another take for those who are curious:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/school-superintendents-gather-share-ideas-keeping-pace-digital-changes

Having talked to a few people about technology in the classroom and the trend to go more and more hi-tech, I know there is a wide spectrum of perspectives on this direction. And this is where I can going to make my first connection, between jails and computers; rather, more specifically, it comes down to addressing the achievement gap and issues of equitable access, not just to technology, but skill building and attainment of knowledge. How? Is it possible to go beyond all the buzz and hype and show that all the money we are dumping into technology is actually having a positive impact on some of the deepest and most critical issues of our society?

Allow me to segue to a News-Gazette story in which Dr. Wiegand briefly mentions a desire to expand computation-thinking that is being pioneered at Kenwood. I have written about Kenwood several times, not to mention that they have a pretty public presence on social media if you want to follow them yourself (techtime blog, twitter accounts for Todd Lash and KenwoodStars, Ctrl-Shift’s website, U4Innovate website). Last night I learned that Kenwood and Dr. Wiegand are enthusiastically exploring the Mission Hill School model of a public school (referenced in a previous post).

Forget about the computers for a moment. Forget about all the hype wrapped up around Obama’s push for the reformed NCLB. The point I want to make here is that school can be fun. Or to use a different word, learning can be (and should be) fun. And by “fun” I don’t mean utterly undisciplined free time; I mean to imply something with a very definite structure and purpose, something that nurtures and develops a sense of awe and wonder about the world around us. Peel away the jargon, the buzz words, the fads, and what I want to find is the joint passion shared between teacher and student.

The connection between jails and computers? Give a child a love of learning, a love of books, a love of people, and she will change this world into a better place.

Standards

Dr. George Reese suggested I read Raymond Callahan’s “Education and the Cult of Efficiency“. I actually found the book to be rather depressing since he points such a drab and dire picture of how Education has evolved. Until I got to the last chapter. I do not agree with all of Callahan’s final conclusions about what we can do, but I do believe in what I think his intent was. We have idolized Efficiency; we have been on a quest to ever “do more with less”. There are thousands of examples where this is most likely a good thing. But when it comes to the unique position of a teacher and a child, “efficiency” is the enemy. To be clear, I am referring to the relationship-building aspect, the need for the teacher not just to understand the material, but to understand the child as well. Callahan seems to make an argument for “teacher as social worker”, which I have grown to respect. In the past I have mentioned Lisa Delpit’s “Other people’s children”; recently, I learned about Robert Putnam’s somewhat similar book “Our Kids”. After watching a video of a book discussion, I was reminded of how we too often look to protecting our biological children, and blissfully look the other way when it comes to other children.

And what does this have to do with standards? I am going to submit that we have standardized on the wrong things. Furthermore, who has set these standards? Why is it that the powerful and rich get to determine what is most important? And how has that worked out for us these past 50 years?

I am fully convinced that we do not need to raise academic rigor for the sake of being competitive in the global marketplace. In fact, I would go one further and say that is the absolute wrong direction to focus in. Our enemy is corruption, greed and hate towards our fellow humans. The News-Gazette recently ran a story about the “shooting epidemic” in Champaign. (epidemic: “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.”) Did the ISAT help any of the victims?

In all the controversy swirling around PARCC and standardized tests, I am hearing a lot of complaints. But what I do not hear that much of are feasible, practical solutions. To that end, I have some homework for you.

Get off your computer/device/screen. Take a walk outside, or sit in your favorite chair, maybe on the porch, visit a lovely coffee shop, have some comfort food, drop by the local barbershop. And think. Look around you. What are some of the biggest problems in our community today? If you need help to jog your thinking, try visiting the 1000 block of Northwood Drive. Or the Times Center (70 East Washington, Champaign), the Crisis Nursery (1309 West Hill Street, Urbana), or the County Jail (502 S Lierman Ave, Urbana).

What standards do you want our children to focus on in order to make Champaign a better place?

Governance and civic responsibility, take 2

I recently talked to representatives of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). As mentioned previously, I really like their mission statement and the ideals they lay out for board members of all school boards. After a wonderful and in-depth chat with Cathy Talbert (Associate Executive Director of Field and Policy Services), I came to learn that the IASB is going “all in” with John Carver’s “Policy Governance model“. This is reflected primarily in how the IASB has recently re-architected its own policies, and further trickles down to how the IASB will be training new board members. It is a model that utilizes servant-leadership and clearly states organizational purposes with the sole intent of having those purposes fulfilled. Again, the word “accountability” comes up – not with the intent of going on a witch hunt, but rather, for the good of us all, seeking out mutually beneficial solutions.

This is the kind of mindset I have when I ask various city managers/planners and the school district Business office about Tax Incremental Financing (TIF). TIF, and it’s brother “Enterprise Zones”, have a very strong focus on “economic development”. Which sounds all good and dandy. What really concerns me is that 1) the public is largely uneducated on these issues and 2) a significant lack of accountability on promises and goals. I believe city managers and planners have good intentions at heart. I think there is a systemic mentality about meeting the letter of the law but not really addressing the intent of the law (another example of normalized deviance).

Let’s take another example – the district’s Promises Made Promises Kept (PMPK) committee. I have harped on this before, and I will probably do so again. Back in June of 2010, I attended a PMPK meeting and personally asked Mr. Gene Logas if he could post online some of the awesome documents that they share at PMPK meetings. Again in March of 2012, I formally asked Mr. Logas, the Board and Dr. Wiegand the same thing, to post all informational documents on the committee website. In October of 2012, I again made the request that documents be posted online for Unit 4 committees.  In February of 2013 I made a post of documents I had personally received. Another post in March of 2013, with a little bit of delicious irony (Agenda Item V: How to Effectively Share with the Community the Work and Oversight of the Committee). At various times throughout 2012, 2013 and even this year, I asked individual committee members for relevant documents, and asked them to convey my wish that documents be posted online. On Feb 10th of this year (almost three weeks ago), I asked the Board (again) to have these documents posted on the PMPK committee page. I was told by the Board that these documents are indeed online. Imagine my surprise! So I asked where.

Silence.

Why am I so anal about this? Why am I “wasting” the time of various administrators and board members? Why am I making a big deal about this?

I hope to make it a point that I am not shaking my finger at individuals; entire Administrations have come and gone, and the Board has changed many times since 2010. The problem is that nobody else really cares (from my point of view), we have all come to expect that the PMPK committee (and other Unit 4 committees) have a standard way of operating, and that’s how it is done. Yes, I get it that the public is invited to attend any and all committee meetings (with the rare exception). I get it that information is freely shared at these meetings. Good job, keep it up! But sharing information at meetings does not equal engaging the community, nor engendering a sense of ownership. I realize posting informational documents isn’t a silver bullet either – it will not magically, instantly make all the stakeholders suddenly enjoy all the sunshine and transparency. This is just one step among many.

The exact same thing applies for the City of Champaign and TIF. The same thing applies in many areas of “governance” in our lives. We have lost the art of being informed and holding each other accountable.

The solution? Society itself must change. We have to think about others.

In Lisa Delpit’s insightful and enlightening “Other People’s Children”, she quotes a Native Alaskan teacher she had the honor of befriending; “In order to teach you, I must know you.” We must allow our walls to break down and get to know each other.