Friday, May 11, 2012

The 2012 National Forum: Day 2

Jason Davis, a community school advocate based in Portland is keeping a blog journal about his time here at the 2012 National Forum.

Day two- we’re alive and kicking, unless it’s right after lunch and in front of a projector screen. This morning opened with an interesting presentation about executive function by Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute. She describes executive function as a set of cognitive abilities that control other behaviors, or as shown by the ability to concentrate when things are difficult or challenging. We watched the classic Stanford marshmallow experiment where kids are left alone in a room with a marshmallow and told that if, when someone returns, the marshmallow is still there they will receive another one, and so on. Laughter filled banquet hall. If you’ve never seen it, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the related TED talk.  

For the first mini-plenary session I attended Expanded and Engaging Learning Opportunities with Lucy Friedman, Jamie Lopez, Jennifer Peck, and Hillary Salmons. Expanded learning time is essentially extending the school day so that hands-on opportunities are offered after school in coordination with the pedagogical focus of the school day. Kids, families, and partners are all given ownership in the decision making process for designing the activities. Hillary Salmons of Providence After School Alliance had a great ‘from then to now’ story to tell. She follows the guide of “Do high-end design now, back into it, and you’ll be okay”.  Eight years ago Providence began the AfterZone summer program, has recently moved toward an extended learning day with a focus on middle schools because of the high 9th grade dropout rate. The schools tell the same story we all know: high poverty rate, low performance, and high need for English language learning. They followed the TASCS program, paired teachers and community organizers, poured in as much professional development as they could, and followed form of blending practice and learning. Though things did not easily fall into place, students seemed to really respond to applying the skills they learned during the school day to fun activities after school. STEM related activities tend to be popular across all the programs presented. Parents were finding that they had more to talk about with their kids. Teachers were even getting into the activities because they spend so much of their time on the lessons, but never get to enjoy the application. PASA has aligned the after school activities to state standards and now count them as elective credits toward graduation. They also found that because the TASCS program is so much smaller than a district, there is faster turnaround when someone wants to do something with the kids, so the schools started to lean on the organization to get things done.

At lunch I had the pleasure of catching up with Glen Biggs from Alignment Nashville. During my graduate work in Nashville it was impossible not to cross paths with this organization. They provide around 23 programs for any Metro Nashville Public School with corresponding needs, and now with the lead of Assistant Superintendent, Tony Biggs, they are expanding the community school model to twelve schools in the district. This organization does great work, and is worth keeping your eye on.  

After lunch I caught Building Community through Service-Learning with Susan A. Abravanel from Youth Service America. I’ve long seen service-learning as a win-win situation for everyone involved. Students are going out into the community, learning about local needs and addressing them, and then bringing the experiences back to the classroom to critically reflect on and learn from them; and it happens to be something colleges look for in an applicant. Teachers can fairly easily incorporate these lessons into their content. Partnering community building organizations receive support and exposure for their cause. And with the proper results, community partners build their reputation by lending resources to the program. Susan poignantly mentioned that the research shows that projects must be of significant duration for everyone to get something out of it. YSA puts this around at least one semester of 70 hours. In the end we’re improving student achievement, building stronger communities, and preparing kids for the workforce. Perhaps most importantly, kids are given a voice and the power to do something that has meaning.

The last session of the day I attended Bringing Health Services to Your Community School. I’ve long read and heard about the benefits of having a health center paired up with a community school program.  Samantha Blackburn and Susan Yee did a great job of addressing the surrounding issues. As with most community school initiatives, it all comes down to funding and community needs. And as one would imagine, you start with a needs assessment, engaging community members and partners, and thereby getting the word out that this center is on its way. By engaging students in walking through the process, the organizer better understands the needs of the primary recipient and students gain a valuable experience. The results of the assessment determine how far into the community the services will extend, what kind of facilities are needed, and most importantly, what the program is going to cost. Coincidentally, HERSA released a capital grants opportunity just yesterday with a $500k cap, so get your grant writing pens out.  There are, of course, many steps and issues along the way, but I have to be honest in saying that it seems much more feasible than I had expected.

As for Friday’s events, there are once again too many interesting talks to be able to attend all the ones I want to see. Portland’s SUN Community School initiative will be presenting on their successful multi-jurisdictional partnership setup. There look to be some interesting technology talks about community mapping and data dashboards. And in the late afternoon we’ll be getting together in role alike break out sessions to hear from others in the same position as ourselves.

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