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Imagine if we, above all else, prioritized creating a more connected world. If we blend and integrate our passions, what innovations will we discover? What challenges would we overcome?

To celebrate National Nutrition Month, this article explores how local agriculture can help foster social connectedness.

To do this, I spoke with youth and adults representing urban and rural communities, non-profits, business and government and education agencies. Each brings a perspective that explores linkages to the built environment, education, youth engagement, workforce and inclusion.
I hope you find this exploration inspiring and enlightening. Perhaps you will identify a new partner or a new connection for your work.

BUILT ENVIRONMENT

My first two questions were for Lindsey Piant-Perez, Senior Architect and Southeast Sustainability Leader at DLR Group. Lindsey has been with DLR Group for 12 years and recently received a DLR Group Professional Development Grant to implement a garden-to-table project at Trinity Lutheran School in Orlando.

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As both a parent of a young child and an accomplished architect, why do you think designing experiences that bring people together in nature is essential?

Lindsey: It always amazes me how much children naturally want to explore their environment. They like touching dirt, bugs, they look up to the sky often and truly notice the world around them. Architects focus on "what can be" about the built environment and how spaces can foster personalized learning. When we integrate indoor and outdoor environments and allow educators to bring learning concepts to life, there is a profound impact on performance.

How can the built environment create stronger families and communities?

Lindsey: A personal goal I have for my garden-to-table project is to explore how the school garden finds its way home. Will the garden influence kids in their eating habits? Will kids ask their parents to start a windowsill or backyard garden? I would love to see parents get involved with our garden; imagine if parents tended the garden with their child prior to heading home. Would that that experience reduce stress for the caregiver? Would it bring the parent and child closer?

EDUCATION
My next two questions were for Erica Walther, Farm to School Specialist with the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

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Tell me more about Farm to School efforts in DC and what excites you about your work.

Erica: Farm field trips are a big push for us right now and we provide grant funding to schools and community organizations to take students on trips to farms in DC, Maryland and Virginia. The DC Farm to School Network is working to create opportunities to convene champions and promote dialogue. We also actively celebrate our achievements in getting local food into school meals. We are in our fourth year of collecting data from schools on the local foods they are purchasing and serving. This allows us to track trends in local food procurement and expands our network of farmers and distributors that grow and sell locally sourced items to schools.

What role do you think connecting children with local agriculture plays in educating them about global issues like health, safety and food insecurity?

A huge one and it's one of the reasons I love coming to work every day! Children are the future of our country; we cannot wait to help them build healthy habits and play a role in our community. I see local agriculture as a way to get children excited about eating healthy because they can connect directly with where their food comes from. They can pull a carrot from their school garden, harvest kale at a DC-based farm and meet a herd of cattle in Maryland. We see students react positively when they taste those items on-site, get to ask questions and learn about different agriculture practices.

To learn more about both farm to school as well as farm to afterschool, I turned to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). According to Clarissa Hayes, Child Nutrition Policy Analyst at FRAC, using local foods in summer and afterschool programming not only improves the quality of meals served but also strengthens connections to the farming community.

FRAC's Fresh from the Farm Guide explains that locally based agriculture marketing not only helps local economies by providing jobs and keeping farm sales within communities, but keeps working agricultural land open and gives local farmers an opportunity to play a role in nutrition enrichment.

YOUTH ENGAGEMENT

To explore the linkage to youth leadership and service-learning, I had the opportunity to speak with two student officers for Minnesota Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and their advisor.

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FCCLA Advisor Tammy Borman has been involved with FCCLA for 15 years. Tammy states she "highly encourages teachers to look for opportunities to engage students in service-learning based on community needs children themselves have identified."

Mya Christensen, State President Elect has been involved for six years. She shared how being part of FCCLA has given her an opportunity to learn advocacy skills, make new friends and get out of her comfort zone by speaking in public.

When I asked Mya why she and other students should be involved in service-learning, she shared, "I think that it is important for students to be actively involved in service-learning projects because it helps them learn skills that are important to not only provide a positive impact on themselves, but also provide a positive impact on their communities."

Mya also shared two programs of FCCLA focused on health, wellness and food insecurity. Student Body, a program that helps members develop healthy living skills and Lead2Feed, FCCLA's national outreach program that teaches students how to help with hunger locally and globally.

I also spoke with the Minnesota FCCLA State Secretary, Johannah Nielsen for advice on involving students. Johannah shared, "Be persistent and patient because it can sometimes be a challenge to get students involved, but it all pays off greatly in the end... Every student has different interests, so planning diverse service projects that are fun and engaging is always a good idea."

LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT

Creating opportunities to link children to local agriculture takes political champions, including local government. My next two questions went to Nancy Thellman, who works for Douglas County, Kansas as a County Commissioner.

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Workforce development is a critical issue in our country. In your experience, how can connecting children with nature and local agriculture encourage them to pursue careers in farming and food production?

Nancy: Meeting farmers, especially young farmers, opens kids' eyes to a variety of careers that most have never thought of. There is a whole world of food-related work that doesn't necessarily require owning land or planting a single seed, including marketing, processing and distributing, culinary arts, food system planning and policy work. Food and agriculture offer a remarkable job sector that can be low-tech or high-tech, rural or urban, part-time or full-time, first career or second, third or fourth!

Do you think this linkage helps foster greater understanding of global issues like food insecurity, safety and health?

Nancy: Kids have a natural sense of what's fair and what's not fair. They know people shouldn't go hungry. Kids know people would rather be well than sick. Helping them understand how access to healthy food is part of the equation for solving hunger and improving health. Wouldn't it be great if our local farmers could be heroes in kids' eyes?

Providing a more urban perspective, I asked Sean Madden, Transition Coordinator for St. Louis YouthBuild: Workforce development is a critical issue in our country. In your experience, how can connecting children with nature and local agriculture encourage them to pursue trade school or higher education?

Sean: Connecting children with nature and local agriculture goes a long way towards reinforcing energy conservation, a need for a greener economy and nurturing a greater understanding of global issues. Teaching young people how to be urban farmers has been one of the many focuses of two local St. Louis organizations called Gateway Greening and Earth Dance Farms in Ferguson, Missouri. Introducing more students to aspects of a green economy allows them to see a different career pipeline after high school.

INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY

Ultimately, outdoor experiences and linkages to nature are only as impactful as they are inclusive. To round out the conversation with tips on inclusion, I spoke with Lori Watkins, Coordinator of Recreation for the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama who regularly coordinates hunting camps for individuals with disabilities.

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Acknowledging that making outdoor activities inclusive can be intimidating, Lori offered the following recommendations:

  1. Don't assume that just because something is labelled "accessible" that it really is.
  2. Take a field trip to the area before an event to make sure it fits the needs of all individuals.
  3. Seek out others who have been before and ask for their feedback.
  4. Change your perspective. Disability doesn't mean limited fun. Find ways to adapt so everyone benefits.
  5. Relax, have fun and get support from Lakeshore and the National Center on Physical Activity, Health and Disability.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion. It is my hope that these diverse perspectives help you identify additional partnerships and resources through which you can leverage local agriculture to create a more connected world.

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To read extended interviews and join the conversation, visit the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's Healthy Out-of-School Time blog.

For breakfast I had coffee, yogurt, berries and granola.

Published in Breakfast Club

The third issue of the Journal of Expanded Learning Opportunities (JELO) has arrived! This spring issue launched at the 2016 BOOST conference and features a conversation about quality programming in afterschool, an article on the role that social emotional learning can play to close the achievement and learning gaps, and an article focusing on the links between professional development and quality STEM learning experiences. You can visit last week's installment about social emotional learning and today, we invite you into a researcher and practitioner conversation.

The expanded learning field continues to bring multiple stakeholders together to advance program quality and research. In this issue of the JELO, we talk to Carol McElvain, J.D. from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Michael Funk from the California Department of Education (CDE) about their ideas on program quality in the expanded learning field. Ms. McElvain is the Managing Technical Assistance Consultant at AIR. She directs AIR's expanded learning work, focusing on providing research-based, high-quality training, and professional development, and disseminating research results and policy reports to diverse audiences in the public education sector throughout the country. Mr. Funk is Director of the After School Division (ASD) at CDE. He led the development of a strategic plan for the ASD, building upon expanded learning to create programs that maximize outcomes for youth, families, school, and communities. This work led to the development and implementation of California's Quality Standards for Expanded Learning Programs in 2014. Prior to his current work at CDE, Mr. Funk was the founder and executive director of the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center in San Francisco for two decades. He also started Experience Corps and Aspiranet Oakland Afterschool.

Ms. McElvain is representing the researcher perspective and Mr. Funk is representing the practitioner perspective. Following their responses below, both Ms. McElvain and Mr. Funk share their reflections on each other's perspectives, revealing a common vision to move the great work of this field forward.

 

Many states have developed and adopted quality standards for expanded learning programs. What value do these standards bring to the expanded learning field?

Michael: California's quality standards are the North Star for program quality. They give us a common vision and common language. This is critical if we are to maximize the unique scale of our state's expanded learning ecosystem. The standards make it possible to align the state's system of support, policy decisions, funding process and statewide evaluation. Of course, that alignment requires disciplined intentionality at all levels and is very hard work. That hard work is taking place in California right now. The implementation of the Expanded Learning Strategic Plan is underway, and the first and most critical step was the development of the Quality Standards for Expanded Learning.

California's quality standards go one step further and include the "standards in action" which describe what the standard looks like at the program, student, and staff levels. This makes the standards incredibly accessible and relevant. Since the California standards have been released I have heard countless people state that, "The Quality Standards affirm what we value. The California Department of Education is endorsing what we have always believed quality programs look like."

The context and guidance for how the standards should be used is just as important as what the standards articulate. In California, we have specified that the standards be used for site level continuous quality improvement. They are not to be used as a compliance tool for outsiders to judge the quality of a program, for ranking of programs, or for assessment to determine future funding.

Finally, the Quality Standards tell a story. They are the base of a very important narrative that needs to shift. Since the early 1990's the Expanded Learning (afterschool) "brand" was primarily public safety. "Keep kids safe and off the streets." Gradually, the importance of childcare for low-income families and homework completion became part of the narrative. What we now know is that high-quality expanded learning opportunities are an engaging place of learning that is an integral part of a young person's education, preparing them for college, career and life. We need to position expanded learning programs as a place of learning. To that end, my office has just launched the Expanding Student Success campaign. At the heart of the effort is a direct line of communication between K-12 education leaders in order to tell the story of the power of high-quality expanded learning opportunities. We would not be able to tell that story if we did not have the Expanded Learning Quality Standards in place.

Carol: Only a small handful (less than 10) of states are not in the process of either developing or adopting quality standards. In some cases, states that are not actively working on their own standards have provided a variety of options for programs to assess themselves, such as the NAA core competencies, or the Weikert Center's Youth Program Quality Assessment, just to name a couple, so programs can begin to look actively at their own quality and plan for improvement. While most of the states who have participated in standards adoption have built their own state coalitions to build their programs' values into their standards, a recent crosswalk of existing state standards showed us that there is enough critical overlap in the main areas addressed to state that there is essential agreement on what quality is. These areas include safety, staffing, human relationships and youth development, activities and activity structure, as well as program administration and family engagement. Several states have already undergone revisions or expansions to their standards to include more specific guidance to programs on areas such as social and emotional learning, diversity and equity, sustainability, and program quality standards for older youth.

The value of adopting, promoting, and training to quality standards is first and foremost that high quality standards in action provide the best possible afterschool and summer learning programs for youth of all ages. There are many other elements, as well. In training, I often ask whether anyone was given the job of running an afterschool program as part of several other responsibilities they had at the time, without much more guidance than that. I am surprised each time at the number of hands raised in answer to that question. Program quality standards help any afterschool or summer learning program (regardless of funding source) provide the baseline for understanding what a good program should look like. They help build common understanding, a language for staff and other programs to talk with and help each other, and provide a pathway for improvement and professional development.

Standards bring other benefits such as informing key decision makers like policy makers and families of the elements they should be either funding or looking for when looking at available programs.

What does a quality after school or summer program look like to you?

Michael: Notwithstanding my listing all of the standards in action to answer this question, what I look for first is youth and staff who are engaged. When you walk into a room you can feel it. It is palpable. What creates engagement? I'll take this moment to plug the Learning In Afterschool and Summer's five elements. Learning that is active, collaborative, has meaning, supports mastery, and expands horizons. These five elements constitute the foundation on which the California Quality Standards for Expanded Learning were designed. They are also easily understandable and relatively easy to observe. I also look for passion. Does the leader of the program have a passion for helping staff and students find their life's calling? Is it just a j-o-b or is it an opportunity to impact other humans in a way that is almost sacred?

Carol: I could go through a litany of elements of high quality programs but let's talk the essentials. When it comes to the critical part of a quality afterschool or summer school program, I look for programs that engage and respect youth and provide them with opportunities to develop their skills, interests, confidence, and provides encouragement for their growth and development. It's not a matter of the type of program or even the focus—it could involve recreation, STEM, arts, language or career development or really anything--it almost doesn't matter what focus the program has, as long as the basics of providing children and youth with the building blocks they need for success in life is present, the program is focusing on quality.

What do you think it costs to run a quality program?

Michael: The cost of quality is impacted by so many variables including the program's emphasis, the area's cost of living, staff to participant ratio and many others. The Wallace Foundation has developed a cost calculator that accounts for all these variables. 

I plugged the following variables into the calculator. The program had 100 slots, run by a community-based organization, located at a school, and operating five days per week for three hours during the school year. The staff ratio was 15:1 because that is the lowest ratio that they have data for. Then, selecting a city for cost of living the calculator gave me the following information on the cost per participating student per day to run a quality program.

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There are more studies looking at the true cost of quality. One thing we know for sure is that the current California rate of $7.50 per day per student is well below what is necessary and, sadly, has not increased since 2006.

Carol: I wish I could give you a straight dollar amount, but it's going to vary based on local factors such as the goals, services, and structure of the program, average area salaries, what kind of staffing structure is involved in the program (volunteers, aides, certified teaching staff, youth development staff, etc.), the number of children participating and the ages, and whether transportation is a large factor in the budget, among other factors. Depending on the location and safety, for example, the budget line item for transportation might be the smallest or largest part of the budget with perfect justification.

A couple of things I think are highly important in developing a quality program are attention to who is responsible for running the program and whether time is built in adequately for program preparation and staff development. Over and over we have seen the value of a full-time program director focused on the development of and attention to quality in the program. While that's not to say that programs that do not have a full-time leader can't be of high quality, it certainly makes the job harder, because quality takes observation, planning, and development. Providing opportunities for staff to reflect on how the program is doing and get guidance on improving practices helps build a path toward quality, wherever your program is.

Think of the programs you visit. Do you feel the programs you see are quality programs? Why or why not?

Michael: If I am invited to a site visit, it is usually going to be a program that a school district or community-based organization considers high quality. It is probably the case that quality will vary from program to program in the same district or city and that quality can vary at different times of the year (or even the day) in the same program. The principle of continuous quality improvement means that regardless of how high quality the program appears, the work of improving things for our students and staff is never over. If I walk into a program that is obviously high quality, or into a program that is struggling, I am always going to ask the same questions: "How are you being intentional about improving the quality of your program?" "What influenced you to choose the area of focus you did?" and "What is your plan for improving the quality in that area of focus?" I am always more impressed by depth rather than breadth; therefore, any program choosing more than three standards to improve is not necessarily working harder at quality improvement.

Carol: I would say that for the most part, we see programs that offer a safe place and are run with good intentions by people who care about the youth and families in their programs. I know that sounds like I'm damning programs with faint praise, but I'm not. When I look at bullying, violence, and safety statistics for youth—particularly in the out of school time hours, keeping our children safe should be our number one priority. There are still too many children in this country who face going home alone every day.

That said, I also think rigid academic requirements or improved test scores that many schools and programs look for as markers of success have a tendency to make programs too uncreative and boring for too large a number of kids, particularly in higher poverty areas or in struggling schools. Adherence to program funding requirements without enough resources to adequately meet children's needs generally tends to lead to a rote program. Programs in that mode tend to be overly directive and rule-driven, and may not take families' needs into account. I really think this is because this is the best a lot of programs can do with the resources they are provided.

However, that is not to say that any community or program regardless of the level of poverty—urban, rural, sub- or exurban can't pull together to provide high quality programs for youth and their families. Some of the best programs we see are ones that honestly assess their resources and assets and provide support through youth and adult programming, job training, professional development time for staff, and a strong link to the school day. Focusing on the critical element of paying attention to youth and supporting them as they develop their interests, confidence, and skills goes a long way toward helping youth come to (and stay in) school, and where they can get more support to develop their academic skills.

What do we need to do to ensure programs run at that quality level? 

a. What do practitioners need to do?

Michael: Practitioners need to implement the continuous quality improvement process as outlined in the California Department of Education web page.

Then, practitioners need to seek resources to help them with quality improvement. California has a robust system of support for quality. Don't go at it alone! Bring in a fresh set of eyes to help you see what you might overlook.

Carol: Practitioners need to study quality standards and really make a concerted effort to look honestly at their programs to determine where their strengths and weaknesses are, then look at paths they can take to work on improving their program. Looking to each other as peers to support each other (either through peer assessment or regular professional development) creates a stronger understanding of what quality in afterschool is and how programs can get there.

In trainings, I often tell practitioners that if they are going to pay attention to one thing, it should be attendance from day to day. This is not primarily because I think programs should be keeping track of this statistic for its own sake, but because I think daily attendance and its fluctuations can tell a program so much about how it is doing. The highest quality programs I've seen have a system in place where they follow up with youth and/or their families if attendance is off for more than two days. Often, these programs find out the real reason for not attending the program is something they can help with or help get the right people to assist. For example, a family may have lost its housing, or a local employer has changed its scheduling so that the program hours may need to be adjusted. Looking at attendance trends over time, a program might find that there is unchecked behavior or bullying issues in an activity, or just maybe that they need to shake up staffing or the activities that are offered to keep children engaged.

b. What do researchers need to do?

Michael: We need more researchers to tailor their work to inform quality improvement. We also need research for publishing and documenting the impact of the programs. Research should inform quality improvement.

Carol: We are thrilled with the recent focus on developing closer interim measures of youth success other than test scores in both school- and out-of-school time. Providing a research base for more effective models of this success would give policymakers and practitioners more options for how they structure their programs to be more engaging and creative, not just an extension of the school day.

As someone who works to apply research to the practice of running a high quality program, I would also welcome further dialogue about how to put research into practice in programs. For example, researchers could ask, "Where have we seen programs improve significantly from the process of going through quality assessment and continuous improvement planning?"

c. What do policy makers need to do?

Michael: In some cases, get out of the way! Policy makers and government agencies are starting to focus more on performance management than simple compliance. This shift is taking root across the country. We must help programs successfully meet the compliance requirements. If programs feel supported around compliance the leadership can more easily focus on other aspects of quality.

Carol: Policy makers at all levels need to take a much more holistic approach to what children need to be successful and provide funding for programs with those goals. Although saying "more money" tends to make policymakers roll their eyes, we also need to be frank that most mid- to upper-income range families who can afford to do so participate in the type of afterschool and summer activities that lower income communities need to "prove" increased achievement. Asking afterschool and related programs to directly affect test scores is too long term and depends on too many other factors to be the measure of success for programs. Are the children happy? Healthy? Made to feel like they (and their voice) matter? Are children provided with a variety of engaging activities to better develop their interests? Do they have access to activities in which their family's circumstances might not allow them to participate? These are important elements that funded programs can address that I think are an investment well made in our youth that our policy makers can encourage (and fund).

d. What does the community need to do?

Michael: Our communities need to come together to build partnerships that bring supports and opportunities to kids. The power of partnerships is often lost because people confuse attending meetings or community input with true engagement and collaboration. We need communities to build true partnerships and for each institution in the community to also commit to a cycle of quality improvement.

Carol: The best thing a community can do is come together and leverage all of its resources together and work toward a common goal—it can be as simple as raising healthy and happy children or as lofty as everyone in the community has access to a path to higher education. This is not to dismiss that bringing everyone together is easy: it's not. It is often difficult to get people to put aside their own interests toward that larger goal. It is possible, however. Whether it's a commitment to providing safe transportation to students so they can actually attend programs, or training a cadre of volunteers in mentoring or tutoring skills so regular program staff can pursue improvement and development activities, or providing language classes to parents who are new to the country to help them feel welcome—every effort a community makes demonstrates commitment to the children of that community.

Researcher and Practitioner Reflections

Michael: I really didn't know what to expect when sharing my responses and then viewing Carol's. How near or how far apart would our perspectives be? I knew how closely Carol has worked with the Afterschool Networks across the country so it does not surprise me that her comments are informed by wisdom and a clear passion for what is good for kids. I discovered so many similarities in our perspectives.

I loved that when describing quality Carol emphasized the importance of engagement and respectful opportunities for youth to develop their skills, interests, and confidence. We are so on the same page. She went on to state that the design and focus of the program are in fact less important than these kinds of opportunities.

Carol also emphasized that program staff must have the capacity to reflect on their program and get guidance on improving practice to build a path towards quality. This is certainly in alignment with California's Senate Bill 1221 that dropped a lot of old accountability language and now requires programs to engage in a data driven cycle of continuous improvement.

Here is one of my favorite quotes. "... I also think rigid academic requirements or improved test scores that many schools and programs look for as markers of success have a tendency to make programs too uncreative and boring for too large a number of kids." Amen.

Carol: When I responded to a series of questions thinking deeply about the afterschool and expanded learning field and quality programs, I had a moment of panic the moment when I shared my responses. Although I am very passionate about the field and our work, was I too critical? Too far removed from day-to-day work? What would a practitioner think about these responses? However, I felt instantly calm once I read Michael Funk's responses to the same questions.

I feel as though we are strongly reiterating one another from different angles. We both value quality and believe it is possible, with appropriate development and planning. Being intentional in that planning—that is, knowing your ultimate goals and aligning your decisions toward meeting them—is essential. It was great to learn more about how California emphasizes "standards in action," to provide additional guidance to move toward quality, and to reiterate how quality improvement is a process that is never done.

It was good to see the calculations of costs for a program based on location, and the reference to Wallace's excellent cost calculator. Even more potent is the recognition that current funding levels are not adequate for our children. I hope that can build a call to action for the field to bring to policymakers to invest in our children's participation in expanded learning activities because they know it contributes to a child's successful development.

What most impressed me, though, is that the respected leader of the largest state-funded afterschool and expanded learning programs in the country clearly stated, essentially, that engagement is key for students. He didn't say "finishing their homework" or "increasing their test scores on phonemic awareness:" Instead, he said he looks for whether a leader has passion for helping their staff and students "find their life's calling" and a path toward it in engaging and meaningful ways. That is extraordinarily powerful and it makes me glad to be part of a field that emphasizes students' pursuit of happiness.

 

For breakfast, Carol usually swaps between a big protein fruit smoothie to last me all morning, and Noosa yogurt with granola and fruit. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

For Michael, every morning it is a Peanut Crunch Cliff Bar. Boring eh? But on a special day it is eggs over easy, shredded hash browns and Tabasco.  Plenty of strong coffee and some crisp bacon.

 

In 2107, The JELO will publish two issues: a special issue in Spring and a regular issue in the Fall. At this time, they welcome the submission of papers for both the Spring 2017 special and Fall 2017 regular issue. Please visit the blog post from yesterday to learn about the call for papers for more details. The deadline to submit is August 29, 2016. You can also visit Central Valley Afterschool Foundation for more information. 

Published in Breakfast Club

I live in a small town.

Our county has about 3600 residents in the town proper, with another 7000 scattered throughout the County (a County which includes two First Nations reserves and two Metis settlements). We have two grocery stores, a few gas stations, four schools, a post office, some shops, plenty of industry and farming operations, and a pretty nice community centre for our size. If you're looking for small-town Canadiana, look no further. We've got it all.

Only... we don't.

Like any other isolated community, we have a health centre but not a full-fledged hospital; we have a free mental health clinic, but its resources are limited; and we have one or two private counsellors who run a fee-for-service practice, but the standard rate is $180/hour. For a town battling a slumping economy, those are big bucks to shell out when rent has to be paid for and food put on the table.

candleLike any other isolated community, our people struggle with similar issues that larger centres do: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addictions, family breakdown, bullying, domestic violence, human trafficking, grief and loss, and loneliness. While it's certainly true that we can be lonely in the midst of thousands, geographic isolation has its own peculiar form of loneliness. When a crisis hits, there is no help for hundreds of miles. The closest hospital with a mental health ward is an hour and a half away; and the capital city is at least two hours away. If our local resources struggle, we all struggle.

More and more private counsellors are offering services via Skype or Google Hangout. Not everyone can afford fuel costs associated with driving to a needed support, but it's either that or keep quiet. The wait time for the free mental health clinic at present is about two months. Some triage work is done, so people deemed in severe crisis are bumped to the top of the list, but that just makes the list longer for others needing someone to talk to.

Not everyone owns their own personal device to connect online. Even if they do, not everyone can afford the data to maintain an online presence. Barrier upon Barrier upon barrier. How can after school programs assist families needing professional counselling?

Here are a few ideas that have seen some great success here:

• Churches or larger denominations creating funds to pay for private therapists in order to subsidize counselling fees for low-income families
• Creating private space for kids, parents and whole families to meet with accredited counsellors online at drop-in centres, hospitals or churches
• Developing training teams for after-school care workers to learn "Mental Health First Aid"—signs to look for, immediate assistance to offer, and an sound plan to connect a child and that child's family with a counsellor within a prompt space of time

Face-to-face counselling will always be the best. But rural and isolated communities experience extreme gaps in service on a long-term basis. Creative approaches need to be brought forward. Developing a fund within your after-school program to assist families with mental and emotional support using online communication is a good way to strengthen the web. Creating safer spaces for families to 'meet' with their counsellors assures them that their needs are being taken seriously. The more we can partner together to bring costs down for needed supports in remote locations, the stronger our communities will be. And, by extension, the stronger our children will be when they know there are supports out there to access.

For breakfast, I had Coconut Chia Seed Granola, a McIntosh apple, and a glass of water.

Published in Breakfast Club

By Tom Torlakson, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction and Jennifer Peck, Executive Director, Partnership for Children and Youth

In 2002, California made a historic investment that forever changed the landscape of our education system. With the passage of Proposition 49, an unprecedented half a billion dollars was devoted to after school programs -- more than all other states' investments combined. This money first went to work in 2007, at a time when we had no idea what was about to happen to our economy. But the six years since Proposition 49's implementation have been a powerful journey of collaboration and progress toward expanding learning opportunities for students in low-income communities across California.

Scaling up an initiative of this size -- nearly $700 million total in state and federal funds for after school and summer programs -- has been a challenge. It has taken time to build infrastructure, professional development opportunities and communication systems that are necessary to the success of any education initiative. But California has made great strides in maximizing this investment thanks to unique partnerships between policymakers, advocates and practitioners. Together we have:

Focused on ways schools and community partners can plan and implement together, teach collaboratively, share data in the interest of continuous improvement and bolster student success;

Built a team at the California Department of Education that is solely focused on administering our significant investments in expanded learning programs;

Engaged practitioners in the task of defining what quality looks like and in shaping the state's investments in training and technical assistance;

Placed greater focus on summer, in addition to after school, as a critical time to provide engaging learning opportunities to students;

Initiated important conversations about how our significant expanded learning investment can support California schools in other priority areas such as Common Core implementation, bringing science education to more students, and building college and career readiness.

There is a great deal of discussion nationally about the need to add learning time to the school day and the school year -- and varying points of view on the ways in which to tackle this challenge. Many of these discussions have focused on "time" as the operative factor. However, what we know from research and from experience bears out what Paul Tough recently wrote about how children succeed: time isn't enough.

Students need meaningful ways to engage with their learning experiences, to build trusting relationships that keep them present and motivated, and to be exposed to opportunities that broaden their horizons beyond the walls of their neighborhood or their school building. We firmly believe that high-quality expanded learning programs, whether they take place after school, in the summer, through school schedule redesign efforts or otherwise, are the way to provide this for all our students.

We are very proud of what we have collectively accomplished in our state. We have made serious investments in expanded learning programs, and we are serious about making these investments as effective as possible. We recognize that we are constantly learning about what works best, and we have much more to do to ensure all students receive a strong, well-rounded education. We believe the only way to move closer to that goal is through partnerships -- between policymakers and stakeholders; between school districts and community partners; within and across all kinds of public agencies; and between students, parents and their schools.

Click here to read the full article about the strategies California employed after the passage of Proposition 49.

Tom Torlakson is California's 27th State Superintendent of Public Instruction. As chief of California's public school system and leader of the California Department of Education, Superintendent Torlakson applies his experience as a science teacher, high school coach, and state policymaker to fight for our students and improve California's state's public education system.

Published in Breakfast Club

For five years I mentored a student in Alexandria, Virginia. He lived with his grandparents in the same "Berg" housing projects made famous in the Denzel Washington movie Remember the Titans. During my time with this young man I witnessed a series of personal tragedies beginning in fifth-grade. His two younger half-brothers were taken from his home and sent to foster care. His 15 year-old-sister gave birth to a baby boy and dropped out of school. His grandmother went blind and had her toes amputated from diabetes. He joined a gang. He was convicted of assault and sent to juvenile detention. He was expelled from school. His grandfather had a heart attack and died in his arms. I wish there was a happy ending, but I lost touch with him shortly after his grandfather passed away. That was about four years ago and still on quiet mornings while I drink my coffee, I can't help but think about this handsome young man, wondering if he is now dead or in prison? In our information age we have plenty of statistics, but not enough faces to look us in the eye and remind us how destructive our community systems can be when young people slip through the cracks.

In a new documentary, Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) helps people remember the faces that accompany the statistics. In Waiting for Superman he creates a dagger of a film that cuts to the heart. It vividly remind us that when schools fail it is the children that suffer. Currently about one in three students nationally fail to graduate high school, and that number is closer to 50 percent for minority students. Frankly, the time for panic was here back when the fabled Titans won their state championship. It is not too late, but we must act quickly and we must act boldly.

As a first step, I recommend that people see Waiting for Superman and host forums to discuss how afterschool programs, schools and communities can all work hand-in-hand to ensure that students are provided the supports they need to read at grade-level, attend school regularly and have access to the best and brightest role-models and teachers. America's Promise Alliance has a guide to help. And we cannot forget the data. There are many great companies that are helping many communities collect and use student data across schools, afterschool programs and community sites that may be helpful to you.

As the film hints in the title, there is no superman coming to rescue America's children, but we do have each other. Are you ready to fly?

Best regards and thank you,
Richard

Oh, and my breakfast today was honey-drizzled Cheerios and a handful of walnuts, washed down with coffee, the nectar of life.

Published in Breakfast Club

A couple of weeks ago, I received a copy of a Newsweek.com story on one of the multiple listservs I receive. I confess, I don't usually read everything that I receive through a listserv, and often, I will save an article or link "to read when I have time." This article, however, caught my eye, and I am really grateful I took a further look. Titled The Creativity Crisis: For the First Time, Research Shows that American Creativity is Declining. What Went Wrong—And How We Can Fix It (July 19, 2010), this article summarizes research that has been conducted on creativity and the fact that students in the United States are demonstrating a decline in creativity, particularly in grades kindergarten through sixth.

The authors define creativity as the "production of something original and useful" and "requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result)" p. 45. The article goes on to say that creativity can be taught, and that creativity requires practice, as much as any other well-honed skill.

Although out-of-school (OST) or extended learning time (ELT) activities are not specifically mentioned in the article, OST/ELT programs provide prime opportunities for students to learn not only how to be creative but provide students with opportunities to become creative. The environment in an OST/ELT program can lend itself to a creative environment easier than a daytime classroom, where the focus may be more on covering learning standards in an efficient manner rather than teaching students to learn in creative ways. An OST/ELT environment can be filled with creative activities and games. More importantly, the environment should be one where students can explore, question, and find answers to their questions. In other words, the environment should be resource rich so students have access to the tools that will help them find answers and reach conclusions. Adults may guide them in finding the answer, but students should primarily be left to their own devices in reaching a conclusion.

Of course, the OST/ELT staff members play a critical role in supporting this environment through guiding students in their quest for answers and by supporting positive relationships with the youth. The relationship between a child and an OST/ELT staff member is different than the relationship between a child and teacher or a child and parent. Often, the OST/ELT staff member serves as a coach or mentor. The relationship between the staff member and the youth involves trust and understanding. These types of relationships provide avenues for students to experiment with their creativity in a safe and trusting environment. They can take chances without fear of ridicule. Instead, positive relationships with afterschool staff in safe environments provide youth with limitless opportunities to create and experiment and to find out where their strengths and interests lie.

Rather than being told what to do or when to do it, students should have choice in OST/ELT activities. Options help students discover their passions. In fact, the article states that research shows students who focus on specific areas in which they show interest or passion tend to be more creative than students who receive brief exposures to a variety of activities. OST/ELT programs can provide students, especially those from high-poverty communities, with access to resources. This may involve having leading community members speak to the group or establishing mentoring programs so students can connect and learn from leaders. These experiences will expand students' horizons and potentially help them think creatively about their experiences and how they can use the lessons learned to help them with their lives.

It cannot be emphasized enough that OST/ELT programs provide students with the opportunity to complete project-based activities. In The Creativity Crisis, an example is given of an Ohio classroom where students had to come up with a way to reduce noise in the library. The students were tasked with developing proposals and action plans. The effects of this went beyond reducing the noise in the library. The school also saw increases in statewide assessment scores. The lesson learned here is that creativity can lead to higher test scores since creativity leads to higher analytical ability.

There are many examples of OST/ELT providing students with project-based learning experiences that teach creativity. Some of these involve working on projects that take them out into the community so they learn about the world outside their schools and their homes. When students are responsible for taking action and following through on a plan from the beginning to completion, they are able to take pride in their work and build confidence. With adult guidance, youth can come up with incredible ideas that have positive impacts on their lives and others.

Of course, the programs must take into consideration the students' developmental needs. Even young students can participate in multi-day project-based activities that allow them to explore and be creative. They may need more guidance from adults, but allowing them to explore their creativity early in life will help them gain critical analytical skills that will help them throughout their lives.

In an era of accountability and standardized testing, why is a decline in creativity so dangerous for American society? According to the article, our global competitors are beginning to emphasize creativity while we are downplaying it. Without creative thinking and the ability to adapt to hard situations, we will no longer be competitive in the global economy. We need the next generation of students to be able to think analytically in new and innovative ways.

Providing students with the opportunity to be creative is a critical component of any OST/ELT program, whether the program is school-based, community-based, or other institution. Providing students with a safe environment where they are free to experiment, explore new ideas, and become leaders will help them learn how to be leaders as they approach adulthood.

The full article is available at http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html. I highly encourage you to read it and share it with your staff, local schools, and interested community members. The Creativity Crisis will only be solved when we all come together to support our young people in exploring their creativity further. This will only happen when everyone understands how important it is for our society, in general. I'd love to hear your thoughts or how you are teaching your youth to be creative.

Unfortunately, my breakfast this morning demonstrates an utter lack of creativity. I had a couple of slices of toast and orange juice. I guess I need to work on that before I write the next blog!

Published in Breakfast Club

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