Keeping it Real With Condoms

images-3I’m finding a lot of good stuff to bring to people’s attention today. I also like to write about condoms which you might have noticed. In the article below there’s a 14 year old’s response to a condom survey. I guess the teacher wasn’t too happy  but I’ll  bet it would speak to a group of her peers.

http://elitedaily.com/news/world/teen-amazing-responses-no-condoms/1022735/?utm_source=comp&utm_medium=tr&utm_campaign=p10k80

Check this one out too. There was an outbreak of chlamydia in a school that teaches kids to practice abstinence. Hmm… think they’re curriculum is affective? The condoms in their community certainly aren’t.

http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/05/04/3654650/outbreak-texas-sex-ed/

We’ve really got to wake up and change the way we educate our kids about sexual health.

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

Giving Students A Voice

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I hear a lot about what’s wrong with our public education system in NYS from teachers, board members, and people in our state and local government. It’s usually delivered as a messy tangle of invective, finger pointing and name calling and it gets us nowhere. I’m always amazed by how infrequently I hear the voices of the students, many of whom are dealing with peer pressure, lack of resources, no parental support and teachers who have given up on them. If we would all stop and listen to the kids I think we’d find a very clear message of what their challenges are and how they affect school performance.

Below is a link to something our District is doing to give the kids a voice. Take a minute to listen then propose it to your District.

http://news.wbfo.org/post/focus-education-student-voices-part-i

I Wish My Teacher Knew….

This article was a tough read but so revealing of the issues that kids face outside of the classroom. Depression, absentee parenting, lack of money for food and school supplies, we can’t ignore the fact that these issues can directly affect behavior in the classroom. I wish all teachers would give their students this assignment.

http://wapo.st/1b9abMO

School Lunches!

BlogLunchroompicsI make a lot of school lunches for my daughters because they refuse to eat what their schools offer. Over the years there was one exception to this lunch mandate where my daughter was considered “one of the kids who buy” but it didn’t really count because she happened to have a bagged lunch that day too. The reason she didn’t eat it you ask? Because her lunch contained a chocolate coin,  a very special chocolate coin from the North Pole, given to her by her Christmas Elf. When she unwrapped the chocolate,  worms that turn into pantry moths fell onto her lap. I learned of this incident not because she told me, she was far to traumatized, but because I got a call from the teacher. That’s right. A CALL FROM THE TEACHER who told me my daughter would be considered a “kid who buys” that day.  Of course I was mortified but that was the day I found out what it would take for my daughter to eat a school lunch; a worm infested piece of chocolate.

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The thing is my daughter doesn’t realize how good she’s got it with her school cafeteria but she’s so jaded by what she hears of her sister’s lunch room offerings that she flat out refuses to buy. She goes to a charter school that is not a part of a big District whose main source of funding for the lunch program is the Federal Government. Her school has more control of what they serve and the local produce truck brings fresh fruits and vegetables in on a regular basis. They have a light filled cafeteria with small tables where the kids can gather with their friends in a communal style. They have a person they call “chef” as opposed to “the lunch lady” who makes appealing sounding items like souvlaki: Greek salad with tomatoes, feta, lentils, and whole wheat pita wedges, and vegetarian stir fry with brown rice, roasted carrots, yogurt and fresh fruit. Compare this to our District’s offerings: chicken patty on a bun, potato, mashed fresh vegetable blend, assorted fresh or chilled fruit. The alternative “Fun Lunch” is a peanut butter and jelly on white bread.

UnknownI can distinctly envision what the lunch tray would look like with these items and it’s hardly appealing. I’m assuming it’s a typo but “mashed fresh vegetable blend” instead of “mashed potatoes” doesn’t sound too good either. What about the “Fun Lunch”, a peanut butter and jelly offered as the alternative choice every single day. I guess because it’s called a “fun lunch” it’s supposed to bring a certain amount of happiness to the kids who eat it, but if I were to walk into a school cafeteria I doubt that I’d find too many students having a knee slappin’ good time with their monotonous “fun lunch”. Regardless, this is what the kids have grown accustomed to and the meals are free or reduced cost for many so who’s to complain?

The move towards a free or low cost school lunch program began during the Depression Era as a means of feeding hungry kids whose families lacked resources. It was also an opportunity for the Government to help farmers with their surplus foods. In the 1940’s it gained further momentum when it became evident that young draftees to the war were being rejected for service because they had poor nutrition. All of this led to the adoption of the National School Lunch Act by Congress.

Since that time the NSLP has fed millions of children and it continues to do so but those numbers are declining. The program currently finds itself in turmoil because of an overreaching Federal Government with severely restrictive nutritional guidelines, and a growing interest in fresh, local foods as opposed to processed, prepackaged options.

Healthy! Hunger Free!

In 2010 the Healthy Hunger-Free Act was passed as a means of reducing burgeoning obesity rates by reducing calories and incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and grains. As you can imagine these new requirements were not well received and they also had seemingly ridiculous implications. Schools that had salad bars were forced to remove them because there was no way to control portion size, kids walked around hungry because the caloric intake for 5th graders and 8th graders were considered equal, tomato paste became a vegetable so for profit companies could continue to sell their pizza, and ketchup on a cracker was deemed acceptable as a serving of grains and vegetable. Additionally, Districts faced high costs for implementation, low participation rates and lots of waste.

In one study of the Boston Public Schools it was “estimated that $432,349.05 worth of food is wasted monthly”. The study went further to estimate that on an annual basis, that number would be about $1,238,846,000 annually. Not only is the waste due to the fact that kids aren’t familiar with the new healthier foods and therefore not willing to try them, but there is also a requirement that kids must take all components of the healthy lunch for the District to be reimbursed. If a student doesn’t want everything on the tray the other items go into the garbage.

Unknown-1Although the acceptance of healthier foods in students’ diets has been a challenge, what’s come out of it has been a growing movement in school communities towards farm fresh foods prepared by scratch. Kids are becoming educated about healthy foods and are learning more and more about what local means.  With school gardens popping up and farm to school initiatives taking hold in our communities, kids are learning about what real apples straight from a local farm taste and look like as opposed to the prepackaged apple slices trucked in from other parts of the country. They’re starting to understand that if the “fresh mixed vegetables” that their cafeterias feed them come from a can and not a farm or the local produce market they probably shouldn’t be called fresh.

This speaks to the need for a complete overhaul of school food service, as we know it. Kids need to be educated as to what local, farm fresh food is and they need to have more access to it. Meals should take place in cafeteria environments that are bright and inviting and conducive to a positive experience. Lunch ladies should be treated more as chefs and be given the proper culinary training and tools such as fully functioning kitchens to make them successful in their work environments. Kids should also be allowed to contribute to the lunchroom experience by acting as chefs for the week, creating recipes, or partaking in behind the line taste testing. Additionally we need to be thinking outside the box when it comes to the Federal Government subsidies. If school Districts opt out of the NSLP could we look to different partners for private funding or grants to subsidize the program instead so we’d have more control over what our cafeterias offer?

It seems evident that what is needed is new collaborations and an increase in the stakeholder base to achieve the common goal of appealing, fresh, healthy food for all kids. Something as important as proper nutrition for healthy kids needs to be considered a necessity and a basic right, and it should not be deemed unattainable because of  government regulations and big for profit corporations.

Changing School Food

A friend just shared this wonderful article with me about a woman in Detroit who did an incredible job of transforming school food. More out-of-the-box thinking is what we need if we’re going to change our current system. I know in our District that we’re too bogged down with Federal guidelines and state audits. How great would out be if we said good bye to the federally subsidized school lunch program and gained more control over the foods we offer our kids?

http://civileats.com/2015/04/06/how-one-visionary-changed-school-food-in-detroit/

Rethinking Discipline in Our Schools

Unknown-2I came across this article today about zero-tollerance policies in schools and their negative impact on students. It’s an important read as it discusses alternative approaches to disciplinary action in the form of “trauma-informed methods” to improve behavior. This goes back to the idea that kids are coming to school with a lot of issues based on socioeconomic background, and these issues are directly affecting behavior in the classroom. Punishing and suspending isn’t working it’s only adding to the problem. Out-of-the-box alternatives are what we need to focus on.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/zero-tolerance-fails-schools-teaching-students-cope-trauma/

Teaching to the Test- “This is Genius.”

images-12Check this out. A Western New York student’s rap about testing and our educational system. Think about the stress that the current system projects onto our kids. When my daughter took her first standardized test in 3rd grade she was   so out of it the night before that she couldn’t sleep. She came downstairs, walked into a wall, and took the test with a big goose egg on her head. What are your thoughts on testing and our current system?

Behind Closed Doors

images-11I know of a little girl who just had her 6th birthday. When she got home from school on her birthday, the day that so many kids wait for in wild anticipation, her mom wasn’t standing there with presents and cake. Instead she was lying on the floor in a catatonic state because she was so high on drugs. This was all too familiar a scene in the little girls life. Sadly she had grown used to the fact that there would be no celebration for her special day, and she also knew there would probably not be any dinner.

This girl’s mom had been in and out of jail on drug charges. Her dad was absent from her life. She and her 2 older siblings all had different fathers. Her house was filled with smoke and strangers would come and go on a regular basis. There was no refrigerator and one of the sinks was broken but there was no money to replace or fix these things. She had her own room but no one ever put her to bed and she would often put her head down on her desk at school and sleep. There were also mental health issues that both her mom and older sister dealt with.

I know of this story because I have a friend who acts as a mentor to the little girl. She takes her to places like the botanical gardens, the ice skating rink, and the park. Sometimes they just stay at home and play together. Often times the only consistency and engagement in her life comes from these regularly planned weekly visits.

My friend got involved in this mentorship through a social services organization called Compeer, (http://www.compeerbuffalo.org). Their mission is to pair volunteer “friends” to build relationships with people in need and improve their lives and mental health through engagement. Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, (http://www.bbbs.org),is another service that aims to build a system of support around kids in need.

My friend has been involved with the little girl through Compeer for 2 years now. What was happening in her life previous to this is anyone’s guess. The sad thing is that this child isn’t alone. In our district there are thousands of stories similar to this and even worse.

I will never forget the day last year when the nurse from my youngest daughter’s school called and said a terrible tragedy had occurred and one of my 6 year old’s classmates was no longer with them. His mother, suffering from mental illness, had killed him in the middle of the night as he lay sleeping. For anyone who knew this vivacious little boy, the only boy who could play Magic Faries on the playground with the girls because he was the King, it was impossible to conceive.

We were lucky that the school did an amazing job of making grief and guidance counselors available to parents and students for many days after this tragic event. The school also went above and beyond to provide the little boy with a consistent and safe environment, one that was missing in his life outside of school.What failed him was Child Protection Services, the organization that is supposed to help and protect children within our community who are in danger of neglect and abuse. They dropped the ball numerous times when concerned relatives called them and instead offered the excuse that they were overworked and understaffed.

It is inexcusable but it happens and in our community that very year, my daughter’s  classmate was but one of a handful of children who had been ignored by CPS. This example points to why it is so necessary to have a strong foundation of stakeholders to support the children of our communities. It should not fall solely on the shoulders of our educators to recognize issues with student behaviors and act upon them. Rather, we as a community of advocates, mentors, and business leaders, have a responsibility to our kids to make sure that there is funding for the proper resources in any school district so that our kids don’t continue to fall through the cracks.

Fixing What’s Broken in our Schools

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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/