When Will It End?

This morning at my school, we started  Monday morning staff meeting with a grave announcement: a former studegun20violence20preventionnt was shot and killed last night a little over a mile from school.  He attended our school as a freshmen and would be a member of the junior class.  At school today, we are asking students for their best work and effort, asking them to meet our high academic and behavior expectations and expecting mastery of concepts taught in class, just like any other day.  Most importantly, though, we are asking students to notify social workers if they are having trouble, we are asking them to love and support each other and we are teaching them that there is no “right way” to grieve.

The worst part is, he isn’t the first kid; we had a similar day last month when a former student was killed by police.  The worst part is, this isn’t the first lesson our social work team has put together for homerooms with a similar theme, it’s the third in as many months.  And the worst part of all, is that he won’t be the last kid.

Almost daily, I think back to the Friday afternoon that Spring Break started.

 The weather was warm and sunny and following the staff vs student basketball game, the excitement and joy in the air was infectious.  As I walked toward my car, I stopped to talk to two infamous freshmen boys.  I told one to pull up his pants and asked what they were going to do over break.  One responded “stay out in the streets all night…drinking….drinking Pepsi… til my lungs explode,” then burst out laughing.  I switched to mom role saying maybe they shouldn’t stay out at night.  I then got serious and told them they needed to be smart, and stay out of trouble because “I expect to see you back here next Monday morning.”  They swore they’d behave. 

As I walked across the street, there were two junior boys approaching two teacher friends I was also walking towards.  As they passed the three of us, I told them to enjoy their break.  They responded, “Make good choices, I need to see you back here on Monday morning.”  And they laughed.  

I almost cried on the spot.  The fact that they had taken the words out of my mouth meant that they had been told those exact words several times that afternoon.  I knew, and more importantly, they knew, that my fellow teachers had taken the time to remind them to be smart, to remind them just how much they are cared for and to remind them that there is danger around them at all times.

And yet, for all our warnings and our reminders to “be good and be safe” (quote credit to my Dad), to “make good choices, to “be smart,”  they are just that.  Warnings. Reminders. And reality is, they are nothing our kids don’t already know.  Nothing they don’t hear at home or think to themselves when they leave the house.  They are words, with no power to protect my students from gunshots fired into a crowd as they wait for the bus after school or stray bullets at 10pm when they are walking home after a long shift at their after-school job.

Chicago is a war-zone.  The average number of deaths by gunshot is in the double digits every weekend.  Right now, Chicago is on track to have more murders this year than last year, by a large margin, a particularly frightening stat since Chicago had more murders than any other city in the country last year.1035x642-chicagomurder-article_v3-12  The worst part is, as with any war, the battles are concentrated in pockets- in this case, a few neighborhoods-and those neighborhoods are where my kids live, work and go to school.

Just now as I was writing this during my lunch break, a student came up to my desk, asking for a calendar so he could count the days until he begins his pre-med summer program at Marquette.  He counted them and relayed the information to me-27 days.

He then said, “I won’t be here for Fourth of July.”

Thinking he was sad about missing the holiday at home, I said that was a bummer, but I was sure Milwaukee would have something fun going on.

He tilted his head at me, confused.  Then clarified, “No, it’s good, I don’t want to be here.  Fourth of July is dangerous-you don’t know if you have to run or not because you aren’t sure if it’s gunshots or just fireworks.”

How sad that while I think of BBQs and time at the lake or pool, he thinks of gunshots and fireworks being confused.

Over the weekend, I read a news story about how the old Post Office in the city was going to be renovated to hold shops and restaurants and how much this would mean for the city of Chicago.  A man from Englewood, another impoverished, violence-ridden neighborhood spoke out saying there is too much focus on helping the parts of Chicago that tourists see and no focus on helping the neighborhoods that need it.

I see plans for a new post office strip with shops and restaurants and my first subconscious thought is “That would be fun to check out on a nice day,” while many others see the line in the story about making Chicago better and immediately think, “What about my neighborhood? Where’s the plan and funding to make it better?”

This is a kind of privilege that most people don’t realize exists.

So, Chicago, I ask:  Where is the strategy for making neighborhood streets safe?  The plan for reducing or eliminating the thousands of illegal guns that are brought into Chicago from Indiana and killing dozens each week?  For preventing gangs from luring in children who are 10 and 11 years old with promises of money, fame and protection for their families from the violence they already know too much about?  Only to turn them into child soldiers and then take that same promise of protection, flip it and threaten to hurt or kill them and their families if they try to leave?

When will it all end?  When will there be a last kid?

It is not well with my soul. 

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100%

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About a month and a half ago, something amazing happened.  Something historic.
On March 9th, 2016, 100% of Seniors at my high school were official accepted to a college or university.

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(Above: Seniors sporting their “Gold Polos” they receive when they get their first college acceptance!)

I can say with an incredibly high level of confidence, that this is the first time this has happened (ever in history) for an open-enrollment* school in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago.

*For those of you not in the education world, open enrollment means that students do not have to meet any academic standards in order to enroll and be a student at my charter high school.  There are no admissions tests, no essays, nothing.  Parents walk in and register their student the same as they would at any public high school.  Our school is a charter school and in layman’s terms the big differences between public and charter schools are that we are (in-part) privately funded by donors and that as a result we have more flexibility in our discipline system and school policies, so for example, our students wear uniforms.

Four years ago, in the fall of 2012, I was a Junior in college about to begin what would be two of my favorite courses in all of college: Economics of Education and Economic of Social Issues. I would also complete my Poverty & Human Capability Minor capstone that year by doing a community research-based project focused on availability of and knowledge of resources  for low-income families living in a Section 8 housing development in Lexington, Virginia.  (Shoutout to my partner in crime, Tommy!)   Thinking back, it is crazy to me to look at my life now and see how the things I learned in those three classes are a smorgasbord of skills and education I needed to follow my passions and do the work I do now.

As a Junior in college (and far before that, even) I knew I wanted to be in non-profits, working (or trying to work) to make the world a better place.  I have always been a people-person and my dad and I have debated on numerous occasions the merits and drawbacks of the Tactical Approach vs the Boots on the Ground approach (give me a break on the terminology-we are a military family). For those of you wondering where exactly I am going with this and why today I am suddenly writing about something that happened a month and a half ago, it is because today I need a reminder of why I do the Boots on the ground, pedal to the metal, deep in the trenches work. And trust me, this week feels like the trenches!

The first two days back from spring break have been some of the most stressful of my job to date. To admit it has been a rough transition from the beaches of Florida, beverage in hand, imageto this week would be an understatement. The Hawks season ending last night is, of course, also a contributing factor.

Which brings me to this: every minute of stress so far this week is so incredibly worth it.

This week, our students are deciding which college they are going to attend in the fall and committing to that school. For the 151 crazy, fun, loving and lovable, drive you crazy Seniors who were ALL accepted to college, they deserve every minute of love, support and guidance in making the biggest decision of their lives. One that has the power to end poverty in their family lines forever and change the trajectory of their lives. One that breaks all molds for the North Lawndale community. One that smashes through the low expectations that many people hold for low-income students of color. One that sets the bar for our high school as the first graduating class. Hell, I’d be freaking out too if I was them- although if I am honest, I am freaking out.

So as I head to bed early tonight knowing tomorrow is going to be another long day, I feel better reminding myself of the amazing fact that 100% of our kids were accepted to college. It’s historic, it’s amazing, and it will drive me through the next few days of running up and down 7 flights of stairs, grabbing kids out of class, discussing college decisions in the hallways, calling mom from said hallway and finally, hitting the accept button on their college offers.

Being stressed about this is an amazing problem to deal with. Bring on May 1st!

It is well with my soul.

Part II: A New Kind of Poverty

I wrote many moons ago (September to be exact), about a new kind of poverty my students are facing.  One that prevents them from being successful in schools.  One that has nothing to do with money, income or jobs.  Low-income students suffer from a poverty of social and emotional well-being.  Poverty is defined as “a state of deprivation” and my students are often deprived of the ability to regulate emotion due to the traumatic experiences they have had.  Even worse, there is little to no access to mental health services and counseling for low-income students and their families.

In my school in Charlotte, I saw this all too often.  Students who were referred for a diagnostic evaluation were offered an appointment six weeks from the date they called–and that was if they were lucky.  In the meantime, they were expected to continue functioning at 100% and continue being successful at school, as if they weren’t fighting a a potentially insurmountable and debilitating disease every day.  I think you can agree this is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a child or teenager.

Mental health is the next crisis facing our country.  Mental illness does not discriminate based on gender, race or income.  It does not come quietly, and does not go easily.  Many times, the process of finding successful treatments for mental health illnesses is months long and requires many evaluation and follow-up appointments, as well as incredibly expensive medication.  How then, do we combat mental illness and build social-emotional strength for low-income students on a daily basis?

Although not a silver bullet, one of the things I love most about my school is the way we tackle this exact issue.  We have many students who have very high ACE scores from trauma they experienced during childhood.  There are five ACE trauma events that are personal to the child, including various types of neglect and abuse and five related to family members of that child.  This latter category includes things we see often in our students such as disappearance of a family member (whether due to divorce, death or abandonment), mental illness or abuse of a family member or incarceration of a family member.  Students who have an ACE score of 4 or more are at an increased risk of developing depression (over 450% more likely) and suicide (over 1200% more likely).  Many students at my school fall into this category.

To combat this, our school has two full time social workers and several interns that come in each day.  More importantly, these social workers run group therapy sessions during school to give students the support they need, with students they know and feel comfortable around, right during the school day.  Now that I am in a school where this social-emotional support exists, it it hard for me to fathom why every school doesn’t have a similar system.  (My guess would be funding, though–looking at you, state of Illinois government).

Nearly every day, our social workers are stretched to the max in supporting our students.  This past Tuesday, we received the heartbreaking news that a former student from our school had committed suicide the previous day.  We found out in an emergency meeting the next morning and there was already a plan in place to support our students emotionally that day.  There were extra social workers pulled in for the day and a lesson in homeroom focused on grief, recognizing depression and looking out for those around us.  It made a long, emotionally trying day more bearable knowing that there was a social worker on hand for the student who just fell apart during my second block.

While my students are incredibly lucky to have these supports, what will happen to my seniors when they graduate and go to college?  Will they have the resources they need on campus?  I worry even more for the millions of students sitting in classrooms across the country struggling with mental illness,  with no where to turn.  Trying to cope on one’s own and keep up with school work is exhausting and no child or adult should have to suffer in silence.

I told my students who were grieving this week that the best way to honor the memory of their friend was to speak out about mental illness and speak up to support those who are struggling.  I urged my seniors who can vote for the first time to step away from the media coverage of candidates and find out which candidate has a plan to tackle one of the biggest issues our country is not discussing nearly enough: mental illness.

It is my hope that one of the candidates will create a plan for social-emotional support for all students in schools, where they spend the majority of their time.

Whoever that candidate is, they have my vote.  And I hope they have yours, too.  The future of our country, and the happiness of ourselves, our friends, our family, and all those around us could depend on it.

It is not well with my soul.

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If you would like to learn more about ACE scores and their effects on children, visit this site.

 

Highs and Lows

On January 1st, I looked back at my blog and realized it had been months since I had written.  With a new job, a boss on maternity leave, adjusting to a new city and new priorities of fitness and a work-life balance, time had flown!  So I made a resolution: to write at least every two weeks.  And now, it is mid-March… so we see how that resolution went the way most do–right out the window!  Although I must admit, I am excited other people also fail at their resolutions since the gym is finally not packed with all the “this is my year to get fit” folks.

Things have been much more calm this week and I have spent some time reflecting on the last few months.  Below are a few quick snap shots- highlights and lowlights- to get you caught up on things.  (*name or initials of students have been changed)

HB in first period, end of February- “Ms. K, can you come here, it’s important.”  When I kneeled down next to her desk, she got teary and choked out “I got accepted to Central Michigan University- my dream school- and I just saw the email.  I feel like crying.”  To which I said, “Girl, cry all you want.” *insert me also getting teary here*

Earlier this week, 5:35pm, somewhere on Clark St– This week I brought three students from school to a dinner for a college they all love and have been accepted to.  For each of them, it is in their top 2-3 choices.  But at 5:35pm, I was still flipping U-turns in downtown traffic trying to figure out where this mysterious parking lot was.  All the kids and I could do was laugh and give demerits to all the bad drivers we encountered along the way… they also may have given me a few for my “poor following of directions,” but I certainly deserved it.  Sometimes I get so caught up in my day-to-day work that I forget moments like these are what I love most about teaching and young people.

Mid-January, after school–  One of my favorite young men came in to see me after school and show me his first college acceptance letter.  I live for these moments and I am lucky enough to be the one who often hands them their coveted “Gold Polo” that they get to wear once they are accepted instead of the standard gray that all Juniors and Seniors wear.  After giving this senior his polo and telling him how proud of him I was, he left.  And I sat at my desk and cried.  Although my students here have difficult home lives, there is so much support (an entire other post!) that enables them to be socially and emotionally cared for at my school.  As a result, I don’t necessarily have as intense of a counseling role in terms of life events as I had in Charlotte.  This student, had found himself in big trouble with the law just before senior year began.   The depth of the excitement on his face was paralleled by the depth of the sadness I felt knowing that there is a chance he would not be able to take advantage of this amazing opportunity.  And it couldn’t happen to a better, more amazing, respectful young man, who felt a level of desperation for himself and his family that I cannot possibly understand.  I would say that’s the hardest part of all, but the reality is, it’s all the hardest part.

Early March, downstairs staircase–  On this fine morning, a student came running in before homeroom showing me their letter and asking for their polo.  Seven minutes after telling TD I could not wait to see him rockin’ that gold polo, I walked downstairs to get my morning snack and passed TD on the stairs, already in his polo.   It made me teary (are we sensing a common theme here?) that he must have run out of my room and found the nearest bathroom to put on that shirt that he had been working towards for 4 years immediately.   I loved it and promptly told him so.

As background of why this meant so much to me:    This young man has an individualized education plan, self-contained Special Education classes for three years of high school and has academic challenges due to learning disabilities.  Before coming to our school, (and perhaps if he had gone to another high school) he may never have been told that college was even an option for him.  Let alone been told repeatedly by every adult in the building.  Here, him submitting college applications had been a given from Day 1 freshmen year.  A non-negotiable with the underlying message that we know he has what it takes and can find programs that will support him.  This consistent, no-matter-what belief that our school has our kids means the world to them and allows us to be successful as teachers.  It makes my school an amazing place to work, and I hope, to be a student.

For now, I will leave it there. As always, it’s Funk Friday and time to spark up the Whitney and teach some kids about budgeting money in college.

It is well with my soul. 

 

 

 

 

Part I: A New Kind of Poverty

suicide preventionOn Monday September 7th, most of us will be enjoying a day off, hopefully full of sunshine and BBQs.  What most of us won’t realize is that Monday begins Suicide Prevention Week.  It is this week and its importance to my family that has me writing this morning.

Following the death of my cousin Patrick, my family has become incredibly vocal about the importance of mental health.  Encouragingly, my family has not been the only place I have seen an in increase in conversation or calls for conversation.

My school year last year was a tough one, for both students and teachers.  Back in the spring, following an incident on campus that made local news, the zone superintendent came to a staff meeting.  He explained to us that our students were “different,” their home situations “extreme.”  We all stared back at him, willing him to tell us something we didn’t know.  He said we needed to “hold hands and just make it ‘til June 11th.”  The ideas of ‘just making it to summer’ and ‘next year is a new year’ have no place in education, particularly for students who are already behind in their education, sometimes by many years, but we’ll save the rest of that rant for another post.

The man running the meeting asked what the staff thought would most help our kids.  A brave colleague who is one of the best teachers I encountered in my school had a clear answer: access to mental health services and counseling.   The super began to rattle off some half-assed resources, focusing on one that the teacher countered had a six week wait list for an introductory evaluation appointment.  The teacher pressed on saying that she felt most (or at least a decent portion) of our students desperately need mental health support to be able to physically and emotionally endure the tough home lives and situations they live every day and be able to actively participate and learn in school. *Snaps to that*  She was ridiculed by the super and when she approached him after the meeting one-on-one, he walked away mid-conversation.  These are the people who are preventing the conversations that desperately need to happen.

Looking around the room, I could tell I was not the only staff member or teacher who agreed 100%.  I had spoken to various people (both colleagues and friends from outside of school) about this same issue, made apparent to me when I taught IW in my first semester.

A wildly intelligent young man who many had written off, IW was a good kid on a bad path.  What stood out to me most was not his intelligence but the anger he carried inside.  He has seen horrible things in his life, had lived in horrible situations and I even heard from a colleague that he may have witnessed his father’s murder.  ­­­­­I’d be angry, too.

Weeks after this meeting, I would listen to a students’ graduation presentation on divorce.  The project is meant for students to explore a topic of their interest, write a paper, create a product demonstrating what they learned and give a presentation judged by teachers about the topic.  For this young man, his parent’s divorce about 7 years ago was still beating him down.  He wrote a poem for his product and in it compared divorce to death.  To the student, this wasn’t a school assignment but a type of counseling.  The oral presentation was the only counseling available to him.  A time when he could say exactly what he was feeling and know adults were not doing anything but listening.  He was hurting and angry.

Even with students in less visibly extreme situations, if I put myself in their shoes, I would be angry.  Why was my family living in a hotel, making me late to school every day because I have to take the city bus to school?  Why did my mom have to work 3 jobs and miss my sports games just for our family to barely scrape by? Why did my friend feel he had no options but to turn to dealing drugs as a way to support his family?  Why do I attend a school with fights worthy of WorldStar? Why? Why? WHY?

Some may think the above questions may be ignorantly stereotypical, yet I can name one (if not multiple) student(s) in each of the above situations.  Being a teenager is hard enough, without the extreme situations they live through.  And when it all becomes too much, they have nowhere to turn, or worse, they turn to me and despite my best efforts and the emotional support and love I try to convey, I can’t actually do anything to help the situation.   We had a few counselors and a social worker at my school in Charlotte, and luckily for our kids they were extremely dedicated.  They could not provide what our students need most:  counseling to make them mentally healthy, enabling them to succeed.  How can you learn when you are not emotionally healthy, and how can you learn enough to grow multiple grade levels each year to get back on track?

They need accessible, efficient and affordable mental health services, and not ones that require insurance to be seen.   Mental health issues plague the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, the insured and the non-insured.  They are a plethora of diseases that do not discriminate.  Until the point in time where my students have access to these services, students like IW will continue to be suspended on days when his anger is just too much and he explodes, telling his teacher to just “fuck off” as he walks out the door.   He will continue to fall further behind his affluent counterparts who would have immediately been monitored and put in grief counseling had they witness the murder of a parent.

Mental illness is a quicksand, preventing the bright futures of my students.  They don’t need another type of poverty to fight.  It is not well with my soul.  Join the conversation.

For more information about National Suicide Prevention Week and easyways to get involved or raise awareness visit  http://www.suicidology.org/about-aas/national-suicide-prevention-week

It is Well with My Soul

This past spring, at a Teach for America event, the Alum leading our session handed me a single sheet of paper and I recognized it immediately.

In my TFA application essay, I wrote about my visit to a placement school in Charlotte.  Every question a student asked me was about college: Just how hard was it? Was it scary at first?  Did I miss home?  How did I decide my major? Did I get scholarships to help pay for it? And, of course, from the class clown: Are the parties as fun as in the movies?

The last sentences of my essay read something like this:  “I hope to be a mentor for the students who may not have anyone to ask questions about college to.  I hope to support them in high school and on to higher education to find their place in this world.”

As I read it that evening, I got goosebumps.  It seems that my next role as a College Counselor for low-income and minority students was the next stop on my path all along-even though it had taken me nearly two years to realize it.

As I transitioned to my new city and new role, I have been continually reminded of the fact that I am right where I should be.  I can’t wait to share the ups and downs of my new adventure and the stories of the inspiring young people I will work with.

 It is well with my soul.