Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Build a Better Dallas

This is why I'm proud to work at Central Dallas Ministries:

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Committed people make change possible

About a week ago, one of our Americorps members emailed me explaining her experience this summer:
When I was attending training for Americorps and I heard many of the speakers tell me my life would forever be changed after this summer, I had a time believing them. But, three weeks into my term, I know they are right. When I started three weeks ago, I was sure of my career path. But, it has quickly been changed.
I was sure I did not want to work with younger kids for several reasons. I felt as if young kids had too much energy. I also thought I wanted students who had a certain amount of knowledge about a particular subject before they entered my classroom. Lastly, I have always thought there needed to be more focus on secondary education because it appeared to me that older students were often left to fin for themselves if they were not at the top of their class by the time they entered high school.
But after this week, my mind has been completely changed. I was working with two boys on Tuesday who are entering sixth grade. It became apparent to me for the first time this week they could not read.  I was shocked that it took me three weeks to notice this. Not only have these boys been failed by the school system, I felt as if I had failed them too. I kept asking myself why did it take me so long to realize they could not read. How did I not pick up on the clues? I realized that every time they told me they did not like to read, it was really because they could not read.
Even after I got off of work, I could not stop thinking about the boys and how many more there must be like them in our community. I also thought about when I was their age and I did not like to read either. If it had not been for my parents sending me to tutoring and enhancing my reading skills, I never would have learned to enjoy reading as well.
I learned this week how important it is for young minds to be enriched with a solid foundation. So, when they do reach high school they will have the fundmental skills they need to futher their knowledge. I am positive that I want to be one of those people to help build their foundation.
Though this Americorps member will graduate in December with a major in Political Science and a minor in English, as she sat in my office she explained, "This program is amazing!" And went on to tell me her desire is now to enter the non-profit world and create the same type of learning opportunities in another after school program. She recounted commented on all of the learning opportunities the kids have on a daily basis.

Hearing her talk about kids who are upper elementary, middle, and high school who struggle tremendously in reading makes me very sad. However, it makes me proud to have a program that is so intentional and working so diligently on providing educational learning and growing opportunities for kids of all ages. It also makes me proud to have a staff that is so committed to move children forward who have, in the past, missed the foundational principles they need to be successful.

The Americorps members and social work interns we have been able to recruit (as well as the two staff members) have provided us with above-and-beyond commitment that is immeasurable...not for program, but for each individual child...and that's what matters.

Thank you to all of you who make it happen each day!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Becoming young entrepreneurs

Every day I find out a new cool thing going on in one of our Education Department programs. 

Our theme for our After-School Academy (ASA) this summer is Environment. The teachers have done absolutely amazing things with the kids. The last time I walked into the ASA, I wondered aloud why there were a series of about six 8 1/2" x 11" pieces of paper stuck to the low ceiling. I was quickly told that the papers were the kids' effort (guided by Mr. Chris) to Google map Dallas to China so they could begin to understand their ecological footprint.

Another one of our teachers, Ms. Danielle, is working on teaching the kids about nutrition, healthy eating, and gardening. She's done some cooking classes with the kids that are combined with literature, nutrition, and the different academic skills that go along with the cooking. The ASA has also started a walking club that involves families in the program. They are even working with our own Dr. Rhonda (pediatrician) to measure their BMI and such to start seeing improvement as the summer progresses.

So, when the farm stands started this week, it folded in wonderfully with our theme and the teachers' lessons. Danielle Evans (different from Ms. Danielle the teacher) has gotten community members involved to oversee the farm stand every Wednesday from 9:00-3:00. Plans are in the works for our Mid-Teen University boys to begin working with the police department on a service project that would take orders from the seniors in the Roseland Gardens high rise and then deliver their produce on Wednesdays. 

Since we are about education, learning, and knowledge...and since we have a theory that part of the reason people in low-income communities don't eat as many fruits and veggies because of lack of access and/or low-quality and high price in the stores, it was very exciting to me to hear that the kids and teens from our different education programs pulled their quarters together to go buy a bag of 4 apples for $1 so they could have a snack for later in the day. (knowing this is leading us to make plans to have the farm stand later in the day once the school year starts so kids can buy healthier snacks once school lets out).

Finally, it was very exciting to me to walk into the building after lunch on Thursday to see Mr. Chris's class with printouts of fruits and veggies on the tables. I love that Mr. Chris took the idea of the farm stand and created a simulation for the kids to learn how to operate the farm stands (which will lead us to our next project of getting the kids to run their own business and operate the farm stands themselves). You can hear them all discussing how the farm stands work, giving me the pitch to sell their fruit and veggies, and learning ways to make extra money.

Our ASA this summer absolutely amazes me every time I visit. Thanks, crew!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's about "WE"...

Lately I've heard a lot of "those people" statements. Maybe the people who make them really don't understand what they're saying or how divisive two little words like "those people" can be.

I was in a meeting not too long ago that was made up of business leaders, non-profit workers, and community members alike. As I listened to the speakers, several times I heard "they will improve by..." or "our goal is for them to..." Though I understood the comments, I couldn't help but think that some of "those people" were sitting right in the room with us and I wondered how they felt. I truly believe the comments are meant with all good intentions, but good intentions don't always prevent the harm or hurt of words that sometimes betray our true feelings.

I wonder what would happen if we saw ourselves and referred to ourselves as "we" in our communities. Instead of talking about what we will do to improve "their" community, what if we talked about what we need to do to improve "our" community? What if we thought about and talked about people in ways that assume that we are all responsible for the demise and improvement of a neighborhood? Because the reality is, it is not just the parent's fault or just the community's fault that a child doesn't succeed. We all play and have played a part in the demise of a neighborhood--sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.

The reality is, we do what's best for our own interests. We move our children out of failing schools...we vote to put/keep tax dollars in our own pockets...we commute so we don't have to live in poor neighborhoods...we work to keep homeless people hidden from view...we create businesses that help our own bottom line. It's what we're taught to do in our society.

We talk about how "those kids" (referring to urban neighborhoods) need to improve their skills...yet when people visit our education programs and are welcomed with a firm handshake, good eye contact, and an assertive, "Good afternoon! My name is ________. What's your name?" and then a, "How is your day today?" by an 8-year old, I get comments from people about how they wish their 18 year olds need to learn that skill.

Yes, there are many situations in *our* neighborhood that could be improved, but rather than thinking about how "they" need to change, it seems to me like we're all on a continuum...we all have things we could improve on. My learning should not be separated from your learning. If I look at it like that, then we can all be in the same boat and we can all work together to improve our neighborhoods and communities.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Call for Legos!

Thanks to the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA), we were provided space that allowed us to operate our Teen University, Library/Bookstore and Connect U technology lab in the Roseland community since September of last year. Conversations with residents (youth and adults) over the years had told me that our communities didn't have access to the educational opportunities people want and need in order to be successful. Though we had an After-School Academy, it only allowed us to reach kids up to 5th grade. So, I was very excited once we were provided with the space to expand our programs.

Despite our 300% increase in number of programs, we realized about halfway into the school year that we were still missing something. The middle schoolers weren't fitting in to our 6th-12th grade Teen University concept. They just weren't old enough for it to work for them. So, Terrence, one of our Americorps members, branched off on his own to create Mid-Teen U for the middle school (and sometimes younger) boys.

What he found was that the boys wanted to learn "how to." They wanted to figure out how to build structures. They were interested in knowing how things worked. So, the staff started researching and found some curriculum on aerodynamics. They started dropping things from the bannister to see how fast it would fall. They let the boys experiment. They looked into building wind turbines.

As a result, instead of the boys being on the outside of the building getting into trouble with their friends, several of them began going inside and using their brain power to think about educational concepts. You know that saying, "The idle mind is a devil's workshop"? Over the years, I have begun to understand that if we challenge our kids to think and work with them in our programs on things that cause them to leave for the day still thinking and wondering about how they can do something or what they can create next, their brain power is used up strategizing what they can do next. As a result, they know how to use their brain to create and construct instead of destroy.

Investing in these young men takes staffing, time, effort, and lots of emotional energy. However, not investing in them ends up taking much more staff, time, effort, and emotional energy in a much more negative way.

So, this summer, we have worked to try to continue the program two days a week. (We hope to have it 5 days a week this fall). We invested in Lego Smart kits for each kid with the goal of entering Lego competitions in the fall. The boys have begun to take an interest and now want to create a community with Legos. The only problem is, the Lego kits only have about 15 pieces each. So, we need more Legos!

If you or anyone you know can donate retired Legos (tubs, kits, etc.), we would love to take them off your hands...and maybe when the young guys get their city or other structure built, you can come see it....or at least see them in process.

Fewer Low-Income Students Going to College

A recent report shows a decline in college enrollment and graduation of low-income students.

I know what a lot of people say..."Not everyone is college material." and "We need all kinds of workers...not just those who work at jobs with college degrees." and "People can make a better salary working some of the 'trade school' type jobs." And I agree with all of those statements.

However, I feel that every person deserves information and a choice. So, I feel a personal obligation to provide that information to the people in my network of friends and in the community where I live and work. If, equipped with the information, people choose something different than college, I'll completely support that decision.

So, the latest information out is that there are fewer low-income students going to college. Of course, when you add to that the graph I've attached at the top that shows income is directly related to education, this new report causes me great concern. I don't get the feeling that the drop in numbers of low-income people attending and graduating from college is leading to higher paying jobs for those who don't attend.

The other disturbing factor to me is my many conversations with young people who explain to me, "I can't go to college. My mom is a single mom and she can't afford it," or other misnomers that have led to low-income individuals moving on a path that doesn't involve college and usually ends them in dead-end jobs.

I understand that this report was based on 2004 numbers and that things may look different now--six years later with an economic downturn that has led even high-degreed college graduates to sit at home drawing unemployment. However, I would think an over-qualified, out-of-work executive would be much more likely to land any job (if they would be willing to take such a pay cut) over someone who was much less qualified and less skilled. Personally, I would rather be the one with the resume that demonstrates my education and experience.

To counter the myths out there about college, our Teen University at Roseland has begun doing College 101 classes. You can see the topics here...and feel free to let anyone in the Dallas area know about it. If they are willing to get there, we are willing to include them.