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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.

JELO Article 2

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'm only at the cusp of this thing, this elusive thing called "family communication." My kids are just 5 and 8, but already—already!—I can see the need for intentional and thoughtful strategies to encourage and maintain open lines of communication. I recognize how important it is to set up a safe and open line of communication with my children now so that they can rely on it later.

The following list is a mash up of things we've just organically tried and things that the "experts" have told us are good ideas. I offer this as a starter list and hope that you'll add on to it: especially those of you that are waist-deep in it with teenagers, or those of you that are on the other side of it with grown children. Help us navigate this winding path!

But, to start:

1. Listen. An obvious one, on surface, but here's the thing that I've realized: I might get impatient with my five-year-old who is taking ten minutes to tell me a story about a rock he and his friends were trying to dig up at school today, but if I don't listen fully and openly to that story, he'll grow less likely to tell me other stories in the future. Every story they choose to share with me now is a gift, and I need to remember to receive them all with love and appreciation, demonstrating how happy I am just to be talking.

2. Empathize. Does my daughter really have a stomach ache? Maybe. Maybe not. Is she feeling some version of "off" and needing to find a way to express that? Definitely. It's tempting to dismiss the minor complaints of our children, to brush them off in a "you're fine" kind of way. But jeez, when I am feeling "off" the last thing I want is for a co-worker or friend to tell me to just get over it. In those moments, on those days, what I long for is empathy. A simple: "hey, I'm sorry you're not feeling great." I need to empathize first, so my children know that whatever manner of "off" they are feeling, I will be there with a hug first, not a critique. Something tells me this is going to be really important later on.

mom and daughter talking

3. Eat Together. We try to have a proper sit-down dinner every night, and some weeks we do that better than others. But the expectation that dinner is a ritual is a good one. And while we've never been able to stick to a behavioral ritual—like roses and thorns every night—simply being together over a meal lends itself to chatting. Whether we're chatting about our days or chatting about something we've spotted in the yard or chatting about something that's coming up this weekend, we're chatting. And chatting feels like one of those things that bonds a family in ways much deeper than one might initially think.

4. Allow Kids to Have Their Opinions. My kids both feel comfortable disagreeing with my husband and me—my five-year-old especially has no problem diving right into a conflict. He'll challenge something I've asked him to do with a hearty set of "Why?"s: he'll put me in my place with a "Why are you acting mad at me?". If I'm being too snappy, he'll stand his ground with why he thinks something is a good idea, even if we don't. When kids are young like mine, I think it's easy for parents to nip that kind of "attitude" in the bud, but I actually think it's great. I think it's great that they feel safe enough to argue with us and know that he is loved no matter what. To nurture that, I need to remember to encourage them to share their feelings rather than just stomping off when they are mad—I need to ask my own hearty set of "Why"s, and I need to be prepared to change my mind and say I'm sorry.

5. Just Be Together. Time together, naturally, brings out conversation. I try to hang out with my kids at night, sit with them at their lemonade stands on the weekends, go to playgrounds and ice cream shops, and just generally find ways to be together. This is one that I know is going to be an increasing struggle as they get older, so I want to maximize the time now: time that says "Hey, I like you and I like hanging out with you." As a parent, what's more important than reinforcing this message? You Are Worth My Time. You Are Worth My Time. You Are Worth My Time.

family walking beach

6. Ask Questions. What did you do today? Who did you hang out with at recess? Who'd you sit with on the bus? What is one thing you learned today? Did anything make you feel sad or mad today? Did anything funny happen today? What is something that you remember that your teacher did/said? What are you excited about for this weekend? What's one thing you'd like to do this weekend? Etc. and on and on. As parents, it's our job to be relentlessly curious, even in the face of "no" or "I don't know" or "yeah" answers. We mustn't get discouraged by our mumbling ones! Because though they may not always answer, they always hear... they hear us wanting to know. They hear us caring.

7. Follow Their Lead. My daughter occasionally writes me notes to tell me how she's feeling. So I'll write her notes back. Sometimes she'll send me a text from the iPad—even if she is sitting right next to me—clearly wanting to share something with me that she doesn't feel comfortable saying out loud. If your child communicates with you in a way other than just talking, don't stop it—follow it.

8. Allow Them to Be in the Driver's Seat. Wherever possible. Kids have such little decision-making abilities, so where can you find areas for them to steer their own direction? Can they choose their own clothes? Decide what music we'll all listen to in the car? Decide what show we'll all watch on TV tonight? Decide what we should have for dinner tonight? Help us choose whether we should turn left or right? Showing them their opinion matters, not just to you but to the entire family, is important in building connectivity and confidence.

9. Create a Tribe. I think there is definitely power in families that feel like a "tribe"—like a cohesive unit that sticks together. So even if it is in just subtle things like saying "Hey, The Petrelli Wagon Is Leaving!" when it's time to go, identifying ways to declare yourselves a "pack" is an important way to show your children that you all need each other to be successful.

10. Love Them. This one shows up in all my lists because it's the simplest, hardest, most important, most core thing that we can do, in just about every situation. As a parent, am I relentlessly showing my children that I love them, no matter what? Do they know that I love them equally when they are perfect angels and when their choices are less-than-ideal? Am I vocalizing, every day, just how much I love them and how glad I am that they are here? Do they feel this running through their veins? Youarelovedyouarelovedyouarelovedyouareloved.

 

For breakfast today I had a cup of coffee and then a boot-camp workout session. And then, a banana.

Published in Breakfast Club

This past month, our iTHINKBIG.ORG school assembly team completed 50, thirty-minute interviews, with High School and Middle School students across San Diego. Participants crossed economic and racial backgrounds. The question was, "What's trending now?" This is what we found out. Hang on, the results are surprising:

Favorite Music

• R&B, Pop, Hip Hop, Rap - 40%
• Country - 16%
• Alternative Rock/Indie/Rock - 8%
• Other - 36% (They are listening to: One Direction, Fetty Wap, 21Pilots, Drake, 1975, Weekend, Bieber, Beyoncé, Sam Hunt, Taylor Swift)

Top Movies

• Notebook - 6%
• Longest Ride - 6%
• Other 88% (Almost no front runner, but everyone with different opinions.)

Top Movies in Theatres

• Deadpool - 40%
• Other - 60%

Read outside of school?

• Yes - 64%
• No - 36%

whats trending

Favorite Book?

• Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bible, Harry Potter, Hunger Games (All with 6%.)

Movies or Books?

• Movies - 70%
• Books - 20%
• None - 10%

Do you care about celebrities?

• No - 58%
• Yes - 42% (Mainly Kardashians, Jenners, Bieber, and One Direction.)

What do you do in your free time?

• Hang with friends - 40%
• Sports - 16%
• Watch TV/Netflix/Gaming - 38%
• Nothing - 6%
• "Watch Netflix and Chill" (This is actually intended to be funny - No one actually responded with this answer. This phrase means to "hook up" with a sexual partner. Keep reading and learning!)

What do you not have that you need?

• Money - 34%
• Nothing - 30%
• Car - 16%
• Boyfriend/Girlfriend - 12%
• Good Grades - 8%

Do you try hard at things?

• No - 48%
• Yes - 30%
• Depends/Sometimes - 16%

Are you sad a lot?

• Yes - 52%
• No - 48%

whats trending now

Do you use drugs?

• Yes - 34%
• No - 66%

Is weed good or bad?

• Bad - 68%
• Good - 32%

Do you smoke weed?

• Yes - 40%
• No - 60%

Goals?

• Yes - 86% (mostly to get married, have kids, make a lot of money)
• No - 14%

Who encourages you most?

• Parents - 40%
• Siblings - 32%
• Friends - 28%

Who are you closest to? Mom or Dad?

• Mom - 40%
• Dad - 36%
• Neither - 24%

Who discourages you most?

• People at school - 56%
• Friends - 24%
• Parents - 20%

5 Ways to Use "What's Trending Now?" To Your Advantage

First, know how to talk with your students. Know what they are "into." Second, regarding your events, this can help you choose the "feel," music you play, and help shape your giveaways. Third, teaching methods. Don't shy away from a quote from a song, reference to a movie, or anything like that when it drives home your point. Fourth, know the family and home dynamics. Most of your student's time is spent away from school. Where are they coming from practically and personally? Lastly, understand your influence as a leader. You got this! Do you remember your favorite teacher? Well, you carry that kind of influence with them. Don't forget it!

 

For breakfast I had an Almond Perfect Bar.

Image Credit: Flickr

Published in Breakfast Club

How many programs are built with the best of intentions but don't deliver what participants need? How many times do we offer opportunities for families that we think they need and are disappointed because turnout is low?

Family 1I'm sharing one of our works-in-progress at Techbridge. We know how important participation in summer opportunities can be and want to do more than address summer learning loss. We want the girls in Techbridge to develop talents and explore new interests in STEM over the summer, which is why we actively encourage every girl to participate in at least one summer program. We have tried a number of strategies to support families to reach this goal, including identifying summer programs and offering workshops to help parents complete applications. This year we offered support for transportation to our summer academy. We were surprised when families didn't take us up on this offer, which we thought would address the barrier to their daughters' participation. We hadn't considered that a ride service might not be an option or that transportation wasn't the reason holding girls back.

Our lesson learned is that we don't know what we don't know about supporting families. This year, we are working to engineer a new model of family engagement. We are bringing girls and their families to the table to learn what they want and understand what resources will be helpful (or not). We are grateful to the Clorox Foundation that is investing in the potential of this approach for working and learning with families.

Our ultimate goal is to empower families – knowing that every parent can make a difference. We have seen from our own experience that the encouragement girls get from their families deeply influences their participation in our after-school programs and their access to other opportunities. We have heard from some parents that they don't feel qualified to advise their children. One father expressed concern that he could not help his daughter because he hadn't gone to college and didn't have fluency in English. I knew that he was making a difference. He took time off from work and rearranged his schedule to drive his daughter, which made it possible for her to participate in Techbridge. We want to empower parents like this father, and help them understand how they are making an importance difference. We also want to partner with them to provide support that will be most helpful and accessible to their interests and needs.

As we build our programs, let's be mindful and invite kids and families to the table – not ours, theirs. We need to meet them where they are comfortable, and listen to what they want and need. I've learned that we can't assume that we have the answers. We can't even assume we know the right questions to ask. But together we can learn from and with the youth and families in our communities.

Stay tuned for what develops from our work. I invite you to check in with Techbridge next summer to see what we have learned. We look forward to sharing with you new ideas for family engagement that will be informed and shaped by parents and girls.

For breakfast I had a breakfast burrito at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline Park in Oakland, across the street from the Techbridge office. This is my last blog for the BOOST Breakfast Club. I am stepping down from my role as CEO and Executive Director at Techbridge in December. I am fortunate to have had a dream job that has been my life's calling. Over the past 15 years I have come to work each day eager to lead and learn with a team that is as passionate about equity and making a difference in the world as I am. As for what's next? I look forward to taking time off to relax with family and friends and explore options for what my "next chapter" will be.

Published in Breakfast Club

If you're reading this; that means you are involved with or care about the world of expanded learning time. I'm going to start this blog with a generalization. Ordinarily that's not the best idea, but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Your mission is not to give extra help to the kids who are doing fine. You're not involved with expanded learning because you want to provide more access and opportunity to those young people who are already clearly on track for success.

You're in this work because you recognize that in the context of our current society, the "school-day only" model of public education doesn't work for tens of millions of children, most of whom are from low-income families. Those children are why you're here. That's why I'm here too.

Right now there are an estimated 23.5 million kids living in poverty in the United States. There are millions more in families living slightly above the poverty line. All the research – and our common sense – tells us that expanded learning time can give these kids a boost.

But there are a lot of elephants in this room, and here's one.

It's not just about time. It's about environment.

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My organization, the Partnership for Children & Youth, is headquartered in Oakland, California. A district official once told me that around half of Oakland's truancies came from children living in affordable housing. Oakland's poverty rate sits at about 20%. (It's not the highest rate in the country, but we're in the top 100.) And only a fraction of those residents live in affordable housing.

This small percentage of kids make up half of the district's truancies.

The promise of affordable housing is to provide pathways out of poverty. And obviously this starts with putting a roof over the heads of families that need one, and providing them with some stability. But that alone doesn't work.

When we think about pathways out of poverty, the stories that immediately jump to mind are the one-in-a-million talents; the brilliant artists, the gifted athletes, the poetic or scientific or literary geniuses. Maybe throw in an occasional lottery winner, or a spunky orphan who gets taken in by an eccentric billionaire while telling us through song that the sun'll come out tomorrow.

These are not reliable pathways.

Statistics show us that right now, about one-in-ten kids from low-income families go on to graduate from college.

We say that education is the MOST reliable pathway out of poverty. It's still not terribly reliable (would you want a car that only started one out of every ten days?) but it's better than one-in-a-million. So how do we make that pathway more reliable? How do we bring it to the kids who – statistics show – need it the most?

In other words, how do we embed education into the environment of affordable housing?

That's the puzzle our network is working to solve.

HousEd (The California Network for Expanded Learning in Affordable Housing) is convening housing providers, educators, youth development experts, technical assistance providers, and a whole host of other stakeholders in order to figure out how to do this.

I invite you to take a few minutes and watch the story of one child, Anthony Rodriguez, living in one of the communities we work with closely – and see how his housing community's expanded learning program has given him the confidence he needed to be excited about learning and express himself in a positive way. Anthony's success doesn't just affect him. All of his friends and neighbors – and especially his own brother and sister – can now see, firsthand, how education can make a difference.

Education is part of their environment.

Educators and affordable housing providers have the same goals, share the same neighborhoods, and share the challenge of meeting the needs of often the exact same students. We can do it if we work together.

Before you head to the BOOST Conference, I invite you to consider where your kids live. If they're in affordable housing or public housing, what are the special situations and opportunities they encounter? There may be a partnership waiting to happen between your program and Resident Services Directors. They can connect you with families, siblings and other support services in the housing development, while you offer a much-needed link to their young residents' school experience. And all of these connections will give you more leverage to help your kids succeed in school and move along their pathway out of poverty.

 

For breakfast I had, southern style grits, biscuts, gravy, and scrambled eggs with cheese. 

 

Jenny Hicks serves as the Senior Program Manager for HousED at the Partnership for Children and Youth. 

Published in Breakfast Club

It's the middle of February and we're in The Zone. Winter has caught up with us, we're weary of the cold weather, we aren't getting enough natural sunlight, road conditions are often hardly mediocre, and... the kids are ornery.

That's right: ornery. Downright unpredictable. Bored. Whining. Frustrated.

We have plenty of activities for them to do, but they remain energetic one moment but restless and cagey the next. It's difficult to know how to respond to such unpredictability; it wears on our own nerves as parents, teachers, afterschool care providers, leaders and mentors. It also grates on us because we're going through our own mid-winter slump.

Just to give you readers a bit of background, I'm writing from northern Alberta, Canada, where we are used to long dark winters, where many people live with official diagnoses of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and oodles of kids of all ages suffer from cabin fever from October through to April (at least). I thought I'd offer some healthy suggestions to beat the winter blues since 'Snowmageddon' seems to have hit further south than normal, for longer, and with greater fury. Those of you living in sunnier climates, maybe you can chime in here too with some suggestions.

Let's get a few things clear:

1. It is perfectly normal to have the winter blues. The body needs sunlight to live! When days are shorter, cloudier and colder, it is natural for the body to experience lethargy, moodiness, increased carb appetite, irritation, and even depression.

2. Not every bout of the winter blues is 'Seasonal Affective Disorder'. If you or your child experience ongoing symptoms, or seasonal symptoms over a period of years, perhaps a visit to your doctor is in order. In the meantime, a few days to a week of overall blah is something families and communities can handle.

Take it from a Canadian who knows winter: there are ways to boost the spirit and the body without medication. Are there times when medication is required? Absolutely! However that is for a qualified physician to determine, and should always be used in tandem with other activities to help make it through darker times.

A Canadians' Top 10 Checklist for Beating the Winter Blues:

1. Wrangle your children and talk about how the body needs sunlight. It's a great science project to work on at home or in your afterschool program! Research some basic information and have everyone come back and talk about the skin, as an organ, processing sunlight; or how the Earth's axis changes with the seasons; or how spring will come and what signs to look for in your region. When we understand ourselves better, we can accept our seeming out-of-place emotions better as well.

2. Turn off the TV. I know that might sound counter-productive when it seems like there's nothing else to do (especially if it's too cold to play outside or too stormy). Screen time will drag emotions down – this includes computers and phones. Sometimes extended snowstorms can agitate people. Sure, some folks appreciate the silence but many find that drawn-out stormy times still need some sort of familiar sound. Turn off the TV (especially if you're obsessing over the weather channel), and play some uplifting or soothing music.

If you're really courageous, play the loudest craziest music you've got and have a dance party! Not only is the TV off, but your bodies are now moving!

3. Make it a point to get the kids outside every single day. Keep everyone moving! Yes it's a pain in the royal behind to saddle all those kids with snow-pants, parkas, toques (Canadian term for a really warm winter hat), mittens and boots; but we need the fresh air. Even if it's cold out, trot a path in the snow or find a place out of the wind and play a round of tag, build a snow-person, make snow angels or any other game that includes a lot of movement. Your muscles and immune systems will thank you for the fresh air. Even if the sun's not out, fresh air can lift dampened spirits. The body gets some good stretch time, and your kids might find they adapt to colder weather than they thought.

4. Try a new snow activity if you live in a region that rarely gets snow. Never been sledding? If you've suddenly got the snow base for it, try it out! Bundle up, sit on a piece of slippery plastic, park your rear on the top of a hill, and FLY! Trust me, I'm 35 and sledding is still one of my favorite winter activities. If possible, have a campfire ready for toasting S'mores and drinking hot chocolate. Have a camera on hand to capture the crazy memories.

Or, have all of your kids grab rulers or measuring tapes and see who can find the biggest deepest snowdrift. Again, have cameras available so judges have proof to decide the winner. The more 'bad weather' is seen as inventive and wondrous weather, the more spirits will be lifted.

5. Stock up on craft supplies, board games, indoor sports equipment (if you have a gym), and art stuff. Remember: the goal is to keep the television off for most of your indoor time. Keep heads and imaginations busy so that long hours without outdoor play are still effective and consistent.

6. Buy healthy snacks. I cannot stress this enough. It is so tempting, especially in cold or nasty weather, to run to the store, grab the first convenient thing on the shelf and run back. But when we're sunlight deficient, we need to assist our bodies in other ways to maintain balance. That means lots of fruits and veggies! High fat, sugary foods will spike body rhythms and our moods (which means inevitable crashes), so try to keep to foods that will sustain us rather than enable the winter blues.

7. Gage the temperature of your group, whether it's your kids or your afterschool club. Alone time is important, especially for introverts. The power of silence can help us process daily events, life circumstances and re-fuel powered-down energy cells. However during extended periods of cold and dark, even introverts need some group time. Call everyone together and tell Shadow Puppet Stories (or something similar). When kids are lethargic, physical activity is crucial but low-key action is helpful too. Getting stuck in our lethargy is dangerous, but playing to it by having a round of Sorry or Monopoly, or using modeling clay can also regulate our systems too.

8. Keep that TV off. Don't forget!

9. Keep mental notes of who's coming out of their winter slumps and who seems to be stuck. If the weather gets better and the sun more potent with the change in season, but one of your kids still isn't his or her normal self, do consider speaking with a professional. There might be something else going on for that child other than the weather.

10. Remember: this too shall pass. God created the seasons – some places with extreme seasons – for many reasons. The Earth isn't dead; she's sleeping. And our natural tendency sometimes is to go to sleep with her. We get weary, worn down and foggy. Sometimes it's hard to remember that the snow will melt and the days will grow longer; but the green grass does poke through and that first sense of warmer sunshine in February is some of the best sunshine a human could ever feel!

To sum up: TV off, keep you and your group moving, try new things, eat healthy, stay creative, make room for quiet reflection, fresh air, learn about the seasons (and our bodies' reactions to them), and... this too shall pass.

I had Red River Hot Cereal mixed with "Choo-It" Organic blend, with a Gala apple, a glass of water & cup of panic when I realized I was almost 10 minutes late for work. :)

Published in Breakfast Club

A holiday toy catalog arrived with Sunday's paper. I eagerly checked out the offerings for this season. I have three nieces, ages 3-9, and am looking for holiday gifts that will inspire them—toys that are educational and lots of fun. I was disappointed but not surprised by how gender stereotyped the toys are. Do all girls like pink, princesses and fairies, and dolls to accessorize? You might think so from the selection offered. While there were lots of construction toys for boys, the offerings for them were not all together positive. Many of the "boy toys" looked like weapons and were modeled by boys in combative stances.

I am going to pass on the holiday Barbie and the princess klip klop stable and get my nieces some cool science and tinkering toys. I've seen how toys like these can turn a kid on to a new interest and possibly a lifelong passion that leads to a career in science or engineering. My son suggests that he was "brainwashed" into becoming an engineer by the toys we got him. In fact, he is an engineer. I think he like what he does, although you'll have to ask him. I hope my son was kidding about the brainwashing; but I confess that we did provide many opportunities for him to explore engineering from an early age with buckets and buckets of LEGOs, visits to museums, and unconditional support for his tinkering endeavors.

Last week I visited one of our after-school programs at a middle school in Oakland. The girls were creating circuits and making lights flash and alarms sound. When it was time to put away the Snap Circuit kits one of the girls asked where she could get them. She had a learning disability, which did not get in the way of her enjoyment and success. The activity involved open-ended exploration with a partner and allowed time to work through challenges at one's own pace. While science during the school day may offer fewer of these opportunities, in after school she is encouraged to manage her own exploration. I hope that this girl gets her own set of Snap Circuits.

How can we increase the likelihood that our students will get the encouragement to continue to pursue the interests that get sparked after school? While some students continue the conversations about what they learn after school over the dinner table, many don't. We learned from our families that they are eager for updates on activities offered in after school programs and on what's to come. They want ideas that they can follow up on. When parents know more about the projects in which their kids are engaged in after school, they can talk about and follow up with activities that build upon their child's interest.

Do families wait outside your after-school program at pickup time? We can make families feel welcome and encourage them to come in. When there's a special activity planned, invite families to drop by early and participate. One afternoon when an alumna visited one of our after-school programs she brought a model of a motor she had built when she was in high school. While all our girls were interested in the project, the person in the room who was most fascinated was a mother! Check out the Harvard Family Research Project for more ideas to support family involvement.

With winter break coming up shortly, it's the perfect time to share ideas that families can engage in. Parents can make a difference in their child's future through the toys and activities they provide. Do you have a newsletter for families? We are sending home ideas for holiday gifts like Snap Circuits to support engagement in science and engineering.

Suggestions don't need to be only about toys but can also include experiences for families to engage in. There are lots of opportunities to explore science at science and tech museums. From interactive exhibits to hands-on projects, museums offer families a day to connect and share a common experience. Look in your community for events coming up and for opportunities that are free or low cost. Many museums offer special days where families can visit for free.

Here are additional ideas to help families jumpstart their engagement with science and engineering. They can generate fun at home and may help spark a child's interest in becoming a product engineer, computer scientist, or CEO of a tech startup.

  • Snap Circuits are a simple and safe introduction to how circuits work. This kit includes everything you need—speakers, snap wires, LEDs, lamp sockets, and motor—to make fun projects.
  • Building sets including traditional favorites like LEGOS and erector sets along with new offerings like Roominate and GoldieBlox promote imagination.
  • With so much technology in our lives, it's great to sit back and spend time reading books together as a family. Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty introduce girls and boys to the idea that engineering and architecture are fun pursuits.

My breakfast got a boost this morning because I shared it with a member of the Techbridge team. We enjoyed French toast, eggs, and hash browns. Our breakfast came with a fist bump from the owner—a unique welcome. It was nice to connect on a personal level away from the office and share thoughts and feelings beyond work. I am hoping to do this regularly with staff.

Published in Breakfast Club

A few weeks ago, Jan and I had a meeting with our son's preschool teacher to review Oliver's Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. I didn't even know there was such a thing. When I was a kid, being "Kindergarten-ready" meant you were five. Today, apparently, it's all about whether or not you can properly grip a pencil. I thought that was something you were supposed to learn in Kindergarten! Here, we think we're raising this prodigy because he uses phrases like "on the other hand" and "speaking of that," but it turns out he's the only kid in class who can't write his own name. After registering Oliver in school (which now entails a urine sample, by the way – for the child, not the parents), we attended a Kindergarten orientation that featured their "reading intervention" program – for the ones who enter the system unable to read. Because, you know, if they're not reading on day one, how can they possibly get through constitutional law by the second semester, right? I felt woefully negligent. My son hadn't attended his first day of public school and he was already on the remedial track.

All right, I'm exaggerating a bit, but my point in sharing this story is that I'm finally getting the opportunity to see the work we do from a parent's point of view. I have spent twenty-one years of my life providing programs to students and families. Now, suddenly, I'm standing on the other side of the counter, and it's given me a new perspective on customer service. We are engaged in what my good friend Bob Cabeza refers to as "the sacred work" of caring for other people's children. And I can tell you, the first day we dropped Oliver off at that preschool, entrusting him to people who, despite being highly qualified professionals, were not members of his immediate family, we understood exactly how sacred this work is. Parents, except in the most rare and unfortunate cases, love their children more than anything else in this world, and when you take responsibility for them, you become a part of their family.

There's a line from the movie Spanglish where the dad says, "Worrying about your kids is sanity. And being that sane...can drive you nuts." This quote offers some insight into why parents may not always react rationally where their children are concerned. As an after-school administrator, I've dealt with my fair share of unreasonable parents, but now that I am a father, I'm a bit more forgiving of those who may have advocated in a manner I considered inappropriate. I'm not excusing abusive behavior, but we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking it's possible to have a corrective conversation about a child that does not reflect poorly upon the parents.

I don't want to hear anything negative about my son. I take it personally when he is criticized. I will defend him to the death and make whatever excuses are necessary to fend off any and all perceived shortcomings. When Oliver's teacher, quite correctly, pointed out that he was behind his peers in writing mechanics, my first inclination was to say, "Hey, you're the teacher! What are we paying you for?" Of course, I didn't say that, but I'm sure the look on my face was not one of unfaltering teacher/parent solidarity.

It is not uncommon for young people in our field (or even those my age) who have not experienced parenthood themselves to be assigned the responsibility of dealing with parents. Now, I'm not inferring that having children imparts perfect enlightenment on this issue (nor that being childless makes it impossible), but I have experienced a revelation or two in the last year and would like to offer the following advice, if I were the parent in question.

1. Understand that when you're talking about my kid, you're talking about me. (This wouldn't have necessarily occurred to me before I became a dad.) Expect that I'll be on his side, not yours, and incapable of remaining entirely objective.

2. Say something nice, if you can, about my kid before telling me what he did wrong. If you can convince me that you know him by specifically describing one or more of his good qualities, then you'll have more credibility with me when suggesting he isn't perfect.

3. Don't get defensive if I challenge the validity of your account. My tendency will be to assume you are mistaken, given that my child is infallible, so even though I will be taking this conversation personally, you can't. Be armed with documented facts, stay focused on the specific "alleged" behavior that needs correcting, and you may be able to convince me that this isn't some fanatical witch hunt.

4. Express your faith in my kid's ability to do the right thing. I will always endeavor to exonerate my child from accusations of wrongdoing. I will offer you a myriad of excuses and even readily take the blame myself, before acknowledging that he is responsible for his own behavior. Don't let either one of us off the hook. Help me to understand that my child and I are two separate human beings.

5. Let me participate in the solution. Don't tell me what he did and then tell me what I should do about it. He's my kid. If you can get me to agree that my child does, in fact, have an issue that needs to be addressed (no easy feat), ask me if I have any thoughts on how it should be handled. Even if you know the answer, let me talk first. Then, when you implement the plan you had in mind all along, it will feel to me like we came to an agreement.

I know that my son is only at the beginning of his academic career and, as a small child, I am understandably protective. But I don't believe that will change when he's eight, or ten, or twelve, or twenty. In fact, I'll probably be crafting righteously indignant emails to any future supervisor who ever dares reprimand him. He is my boy, and I love him. When he is enrolled in your program, I will expect you to love him, too. And I know you will. Because, really, what's not to love?

For breakfast this morning I had a blueberry muffin. OK, two. But they are the healthy kind my wife makes, with low sugar, whole grains and loads of fiber.

Published in Breakfast Club

You might not be thinking about summer, but I think it's the perfect time to ask yourself what the youth in your programs will be doing this summer.

The summer experience that was most memorable for me was a sewing class I took in elementary school. My mom was an avid seamstress and made clothes for me and for my dolls. I thought I might design fashion-forward clothes for me and my Barbies if I learned to sew. So I signed up for an intro class at a fabric store with some friends. The instructor had a store to tend to and a group of girls who knew nothing about sewing to teach. I think we got the short stick. I didn't think the instruction was good enough, so I organized a walkout. While I never did get good at sewing, I did learn an important lesson--advocating for what I thought was right. Lucky for me, my parents respected my judgment and didn't make me go back. I spent the rest of the summer visiting my neighborhood library and reading through the selection for young readers. I also spent a lot of time outdoors playing with friends, and learning social skills until after dark.

For some kids, summer is a time to travel and learn new skills, visit the library and read what interests them, or get introduced to new technology at camp. What will the students in your after-school programs learn this summer? How will they spend their time from June until the start of school in the fall? That's a lot of time to go deep and pursue hobbies, explore new interests, or find a passion. Or, it can be a time to unlearn skills mastered through hard work over the school year. Unlike when I was little and could spend hours outdoors running around the neighborhood or exploring new territories many of the kids we serve don't have these options. Their neighborhoods aren't safe and their opportunities are more limited.

Summer learning can help close the achievement gap. Unfortunately, for many kids what they learn in summer only increases the gap. In fact, two-thirds of the ninth grade achievement gap in reading can be attributed to summer learning loss. We know about summer learning loss, and what it can mean for kids who aren't engaged. What can we do about it?

I encourage you to talk with the kids in your after-school program about their plans for summer starting now. In Techbridge, we spend time discussing programs available in parks and recreation centers, at science museums and zoos, and on college campuses. We invite others kids to share out on what they did last summer and recommend their favorite programs. There's nothing like peer-to-peer recommendations to help turn kids on to learning. We also encourage role models who visit our after-school programs to talk about the summer programs they participated in as youth and what they learned. For one role model, an engineering camp on a college campus introduced her to a lifelong love for engineering. For another, a summer internship led to a job at Google. We want every one of our students to find a summer program or class to inspire and expand their options.

Equally important, we communicate with parents. Not every parent knows just how important summer programs are for their child's success and how summer learning loss can hamper progress in school. We talk with parents about summer learning and share a list of summer programs. We especially look for those that introduce kids to science, technology, and engineering. While the fees for some programs may seem out of range, we let families know that there are scholarships and financial aid available for those in need. The National Summer Learning Association has an interesting infographic about summer learning. You can download it and share with the families of the youth in your after-school programs here. Find out if there is a list of summer programs in your community for your kids. Here in Oakland, the American Association of University Women sponsors an annual fair where families can learn about summer programs available in their community. If you can't find resources like these, partner with other after-school providers and create your own.

We've learned that it's not enough to just share information about summer programs. You may need to help kids and families with filling out applications. We devote time in our after-school programs to reading and completing applications.

I enjoyed a bowl of Total this morning while my dog, Buddy, looked on hoping for a treat or spill. I like Total because it provides 100% of the daily recommended vitamins. Wouldn't it be great if there was a magic potion that could provide 100% of what our youth need to be successful in school and in life? While there is no fortified cereal to just that, we can do something to keep the youth in our after-school programs safe and inspired 365 days—encourage their participation in summer programs.

ImaniVernonMom DSC 0386

Published in Breakfast Club

When I opened my Internet browser last Friday morning and saw the horrific act of violence that had occurred in Connecticut, my impulse was to ignore the report. "Don't look at it," I thought. "It's too horrible to think about." I had gleaned from first glance that small children were involved. I didn't want to let those images enter my psyche. Too scary. But the headline included the words "Sandy Hook" and that triggered a memory. David Wheeler, an old friend of mine from college with whom I had recently reconnected via Facebook, lived there. Suddenly, this was no longer just another tragic news story that I preferred to avoid. I wanted to know that my friend and his family were safe. I checked his Facebook page to see if he had posted anything, but all I saw were dozens of messages with a similar theme: "Hope all is well. Sending you our positive thoughts. Please check in when you can." I added my own message of hope for the well-being of his family and neighbors. But David had not yet posted anything.

I kept searching the Internet for any new information and checking David's page for an acknowledgment of his children's safety. Then, about 9:00pm west coast time, the messages on his page changed: "There are no words to express our sorrow. Our hearts are breaking for you." My own heart sank. An hour later, I was included in a group communication from another of our college friends that confirmed David's son, Benjamin, was among the victims. I was overwhelmed with sadness. I experienced only a small, peripheral fraction of what David and his wife must have endured, and it was more than I could bear. I couldn't stop crying. I stayed up late reading the messages from my old friends, many of whom I hadn't thought about for over 30 years, and shared in our collective mourning. Before I went to bed that night I went into Oliver's room and watched him sleep for a bit.

At 3:00pm on Saturday, David finally posted a message:

Benjamin Andrew Wheeler
September 9, 2006 – December 14, 2012

"Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night."

Your thoughts and love have sustained us.

The message included the time and location of the memorial service and ended with the words, "We love you, Benny." The picture of this beautiful, little boy, looking up with pure innocence in his eyes, was devastating. I know people find comfort in the phrase, "Everything happens for a reason," but that just doesn't apply in this case. This random act of destruction forces us to face the terrifying reality of our own vulnerability. It could happen to anybody, anywhere, anytime. As I dropped Oliver off at pre-school this morning, I couldn't help thinking of the families that had done the same thing just four days earlier, with no possible way of knowing how their lives would be shattered that day.

I don't read these stories because it's too frightening to consider something like this happening to our own kid. But the truth is that every kid is our kid. That hit home with me this weekend.

Published in Breakfast Club
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