Planting the Seeds for Greener Schools

Greenhouse.jpgWe laid the groundwork for an amazing playground for the kids of Tapestry Charter School and the surrounding community a few years ago. It was a ton of work but one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved with. From the moment it was built you could always expect a  regularly cacophony of shrieks and laughter as the kids navigated and explored their incredible “play and learn” space, the first they had ever had in the Tapestry community.

GLS.jpgWhen I planned the playground I also envisioned a green learning structure, a free standing outdoor classroom for the students to use to learn about weather, sustainability, science, even art with paintable surfaces and an outdoor stage floor for performances. Then I took it even further and won a grant to be used for a greenhouse. What did we end up with? A green learning structure that was underutilized, a green roof that was planted and regularly died and a greenhouse that took time, energy, additional money and commitment to get off the ground. Nothing happened over night, but, after things fell into place, perseverance, a word that is such a strong part of Tapestry’s message, fell into place.

One parent could not make this project work. You have to build a network and that has happened at Tapestry through a strong Americorp volunteer base. This year we’ve had a volunteer who is particularly committed to wellness initiatives and sustainability and that is a big part of the reason this wonderful outdoor learning space has been further developed.

There will always be reasons for not pushing a new learning experience forward but in these days of Common Core and tired and stressed out students and teachers, shouldn’t we take a moment or two to reexamine current learning and  curriculum development structures and think of ways to invigorate and engage students on a new level? Tapestry is doing that and it’s something to pay attention to.

Parent Engagement: A Two-Way Street

imagesI’ve been on a hiatus from writing my blog lately,  a self-imposed exile from doing something that I really enjoy doing, writing and sharing information about health and wellness as it pertains to kids. The reason being? A malady that I came down with a couple of months ago. It left me tired to the bone, anxious, deflated, hopeless, and uncertain of the future. The clinical name for this malady is PVBO or Parent Volunteer Burn Out and I’ve had a pretty bad case of it. It’s only been over the past week or two that I’ve been able to peel myself off the couch and stop my endless re-reading  of”Waiting for Godot”. Parent Engagement is a difficult challenge that School Districts across the nation face. I hear the rumblings in our District on a regular basis. We’ve even got a District appointed Director of Community Engagement whose plate is full when it comes to reaching out to families in our communities. Families whose challenges of everyday life present a greater problem than worrying about the next PTA meeting, whether or not homework is done, or if a child is even on the bus in the morning. Many feel hopeless in their own situations so why would they think their efforts could improve the outcomes in our schools? On the other side of the spectrum you have the actively engaged parents who are ready to do anything to improve schools and they can be counted on for involvement on a number of different levels, joining committees, working on various initiatives, helping to raise money, advocating at Board meetings, etc. You name it and they do it because they believe in getting things done and that change is possible in their lifetimes or better yet in the time that their children are attending public schools.  There are probably a handful of these parents in any given community and they’re probably the last group that you would think would benefit from the acknowledgement that parent engagement is a two way street. Unfortunately it’s a costly mistake when dealing with volunteers and it has a precarious ability to drive a parent to that all-consuming malady, PVBO. I don’t have a one-stop solution to solving the issues that Districts face when dealing with parent engagement but I could try to offer a bit of support and advice. When dealing with our underprivileged and underserved families we need to do a better job of taking services to the affected neighborhoods, breaking down socioeconomic stigmas and language barriers, and learn to communicate effectively to get families the supports they need. As I mentioned earlier in this post, our District has appointed people who are doing just that but the needs are far greater than what a few can fulfill. With the PVBO’s we need to recognize that many are taking time away from paid work or other responsibilities and we need to consistently recognize their efforts. A simple return of a call or an email of acknowledgement would probably suffice for a lot of these parents. When hours of work have been done on  forward thinking initiatives that would benefit the whole school community we should respectfully and openly address why things are not moving forward. It is a poor reflection on any District to have a volunteer, a parent, a person on the “outside” muttering how it’s business as usual, nothing ever gets done and we seem to be stuck in a Beckett world just waiting for Godot.

Focusing on the Positive in the Classroom? Who’d a Thunk.

imagesI read something really great in the paper today. A charter school in Western NY has received a $575,000 grant from the US Department of Education to change the way they approach student behavior in the classroom. The school is going to be using a model called “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support”. Instead of focusing on negative, punitive methods,  a common theme in classrooms nation wide, they will  adopt methods of positivity, praise, and reward to improve student teacher relationships, and the classroom environment in general. In preparation the school has been training faculty and staff on rewards-based solutions for positive behavior.  The idea is that if  kids are praised for a job well done they will feel greater self worth and be more committed to contributing positively in the classroom. This approach is based on the fact that student behavior is influenced by many factors and that we need to look at the individual student as we work towards a very necessary shift towards the model of “Whole Child, Whole School, Whole Community”. A foundation of wellness. Doesn’t it just make sense?

http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/applied-technologies-charter-school-gets-575000-federal-grant-20150505

Fixing What’s Broken in our Schools

images-6

The other day I watched an excellent documentary called “180 Days: Hartsville”. It was about a school district in a small South Carolina town that, despite high poverty rates and low employment has turned into a success with a 92% graduation rate.

Adversities

In the community of Hartsville you have to work 100 hours each week at a minimum wage paying job to meet the median income of $38,000. Parents are stuck in an endless cycle of struggle as they try to keep their heads above water, working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Family time is compromised and the result is a lack of structure in the home for many. In Hartsville, these societal adversities were directly impacting performance in the schools. They knew they were in need of major reform in order to rescue their students and community from a system that was failing them.

Focus Lost  

images-8What Hartsville points out they were doing wrong was multi faceted and could apply to many school districts. Simply put they had lost focus on the whole child and they had failed to recognize all of the factors that influence behaviors in schools.

Hartsville educators felt like they had been forced into an “unhealthy relationship with an overreaching federal government that rewarded states for adopting common core”. While they understood that we live in a data driven society and that a certain level of importance would always be placed on these metrics, they realized that their students needed to be worked with as human beings, not pieces of data.

The educators in Hartsville also realized that many of their students were burdened with issues from their home lives that directly affected their behavior in the classroom. Overworked parents with little to no involvement in their kids’ lives resulted in a lack of structure surrounding time out of school for many. Additionally, because of the hardships that many in the community faced, the level of parent engagement within the schools was virtually non-existent.

As educators they were tackling  these issues alone and they were getting nowhere. They realized that there were many contributors to their failures and there needed to be many contributors to their successes. They knew that they had to grow their foundation of stakeholders for successful reform. Business leaders, community members, parents, educators and students all had to be a part of the solution and the drive to success. The idea of school as a reflection of community needed to be a focus and a goal.

Embracing Changeimages-7

The Hartsville schools set out to establish a framework of positivity. They embraced the notion that “the ultimate measure of success was in the holistic well being of the child.” They began to celebrate student achievement and successes in the classroom. They validated students by emphasizing their ability to be positive contributors to their schools and their communities. They were consistent with the affirmation that all students, no matter what their background, were capable of success. One school Principal started her entire student body off on the Honor Roll at the beginning of the school year to show that they were all fully capable. They used their testing data not to show deficits but to find solutions, encourage and showcase successes.

They also looked at the role of leadership differently. There was still a hierarchy of teacher, principal and superintendent, but the emphasis shifted from being in power to that of empowering.  This approach enabled them to establish a foundation of healthy challenge, encouragement, and reward.

The Hartsville schools also changed their approach to parent engagement. They began to view parents as part of the solution not part of the problem. They sought out open communication and asked parents what was working, what wasn’t working, and what could be improved.  They also went directly into the neighborhoods of the families they served instead of asking the parents to come to them. They broke down the barrier of “us against them” and allowed the parents to feel like they had a voice and a stake in the success of their children and the schools as a whole.

In implementing and embracing these changes the Hartsville schools moved from a district that had been ranked below average in 2010 to a district of excellence in 2013.

What’s Happening in Buffalo

images-9Although Buffalo is a much larger urban district, there are many parallels with that of Hartsville’s district prior to reform.  The Buffalo Public School District has a graduation rate of 53%. More than half our kids live in poverty, unemployment rates are high, and many kids deal with absentee parenting because family members work long hours at multiple jobs.

Like the Hartsville of 2010, our district is also failing because we have lost focus on the students.  Very rarely will you read an article that casts our schools or students in a positive light. As a district and a community we could be doing a lot better at celebrating  successes. We could also do a better job of treating our students as individuals with issues that can directly influence their behavior and their performance in school. Just last week there was an article in The Buffalo News about a student who had behavioral issues and struggled in class. He is now 15 and repeating 6th grade for the 3rd time. Our district’s response to this student was  to write him off. It wasn’t until the student’s mother reached out to a parent organization and the article appeared in the paper, that the student was removed  and placed into a different school with the appropriate resources to help him succeed.

We also have a school board that is in dire need of reform. They are so insistent on name calling and divisiveness that they simply don’t have the time to focus on real issues like the reality of why our schools are failing. Our Board needs to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem, and they should be working collectively to set a standard of excellence for our students and our community.

Any community that is dealing with a failing district  really needs to take a step back and  look to examples like Hartsville. We have to change our focus and start to embrace the model of whole child, whole school, whole community. We are fortunate to have a small but growing group within our school district and community that is committed to this idea of reform, but we need more stake holders and more buy in to realize the full potential that this paradigm shift has to offer.

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365401829/

I’m Sick of Smelling Like Peppermint

shutterstock_230559166I thought it was a good idea when I purchased my organic peppermint deodorant over the holidays. It was 11 bucks but well worth the purchase price to protect myself against the harmful aluminum in regular deodorants that can contribute to Alzheimer’s.  Now I’m done smelling like a Christmas tree and so is my daughter. Not to say that she’s abandoning hygiene. She’s  embracing it to an extreme! But this wasn’t so only a few short years ago. When my daughter was in the 7-10 age bracket she had a very different relationship with water. Hand washing, showers, teeth brushing, and general cleansing simply did not agree with her. It was like the commingling of nuts and raisins or peas and carrots. Some people feel that they just shouldn’t be mixed. So I had the arduous task of trying to instill an understanding of the importance of proper hygiene in my child. During those years that I fought my battle I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if this was part of a health curriculum that was being taught on a regular basis to kids in school? Doesn’t it seem like it should be a basic right for our kids to receive this fundamental information? Sadly as a society we think differently. If your school district has a mandated health curriculum that is offered on a regular basis from grades K-12 you are lucky. I guess our district feels that that education should happen at home. But what about the kids who don’t have that level of parent engagement? In our district those kids are in the majority. That’s right. MAJORITY. An adopted health curriculum that follows a student from K-12 is a necessity. It should not be viewed as an option.

Last year for several days I worked with a group of dedicated teachers and administrators to adopt a health curriculum. I’ll be honest, the work was tedious and difficult but the end result was that we selected on a company that could provide our district with the necessary materials. That was half the battle. Next is getting our school board to agree with us that these materials are necessary to properly educate our kids and move us towards adopting the foundation of whole child, whole school, whole community. I for one will be at that meeting imploring the board to find the money to support this very important initiative.

Girls Will Be Girls

shutterstock_129701267

I was going to do my next article about healthy vending until I had a disturbing conversation with a friend at a party last night.

I was made aware of a twitter account that appears to no longer be in use but is still floating around in cyber space. The account was created by a few girls who wanted to peg classmates as whores and the expletive language holds nothing back. It is raw and does a good job of competing with the choicest language from any XXX web site or publication. It’s shocking and depressing content and what’s worse is that I recognized some of the names of the followers and tweeters. Good kids with engaged parents living in my own neighborhood. Some are even educators.

I don’t know why I’m so shocked. With 2 years under my belt working on student wellness issues you would think that I would have developed a thick skin. I’m aware of the pregnancies! I’m aware of the affluent suburban school district where 5th graders are engaging in oral sex under the staircase or in the janitor’s office.  I know these things! I guess what’s troubling to me is this other dimension that attaches these behaviors to social media. A place where shocking allegations and gossip will go on living forever and ever in cyberspace.

Do you know anything about Snapchat? It’s an app that’s widely used by kids where they can snap a photo or a video, send it to anyone they want, and then choose how many seconds they want it to exist in cyberspace. Ingenious! After just one second the damage is done!

Because of social media abuse I have heard of kids who have developed “reputations” in their communities, had suicidal tendencies, and have even committed suicide. As parents it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about social media and the deep impact it can have on our kids. Below is the list of the sites that your kid might be accessing. Take the time to check them out. Ask your kid if you can “follow” them on Instagram or “friend” them on Facebook (although I’ve been told that FB is for old people like me). If they say no you might want to ask why. Which leads me to another point about privacy. I’m  not the kind of parent who condones sneaking into their kid’s room to read their diary. I’m not the parent who wants to police their every move. I’m the kind of parent who, as uncomfortable as it might be, wants to be able to openly discuss with my children the perils they might face if they engage in abusive behaviors on social media.

http://www.twitter.com

http://www.snapchat.com

http://www.instagram.com

http://www.facebook.com