Word from Lowell: Proficiency testing fails to teach life skills

Word from Lowell: Proficiency testing fails to teach life skills

Lowell Perry Jr., director 

During this month’s Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood (CCPN)  advisory council meeting, discussion focused on activities available to CCPN kids during out-of-school-time hours. The group shared ideas for activities that are education but also contribute to helping children develop life skills. Things that help to improve academic performance and also stimulate the senses and curiosities of our young people. The robust group discussion yielded some very interesting information that confirmed a long held suspicion of mine – kids need more educational and fun things to do.

In our desperation to ensure kids are passing proficiency tests, have we unwittingly been making them less prepared for life, by taking away the things that can stimulate creativity and improve socialization and life skills?

A child can only absorb so much before the law of diminishing returns sets in and their brain shuts down. The things that stimulate creativity and may have been an incentive for some kids to want to be in school, things like music, art, and sports, are the very first things the “fun-suckers” cut when budgets are tight. I always thought the primary purpose of school, especially in K-12, is to stimulate critical thinking which is an important life skill when entering the workforce. Gaining solid social skills runs a very close second. School is more about learning how to learn than the actual stuff you get crammed into your head to get a grade. I have yet to use the pythagorean theorem throughout my life for instance. But the disciplines I learned from doing homework, working as part of a group, and how to get along with others who are different from me, have been invaluable.

I admit a bias when it comes to the subject of sports, being a life-long jock, but minimizing, and even eliminating sports in some cases, might well be one of the most misinformed actions far too many school systems have taken in the name of education. Is it any wonder that too many kids are overweight, emotionally distressed, and have a hard time getting along with others? Sports is not only a healthy outlet for kids, but is also one of the best ways to teach social skills around cooperating with others. Not to mention that the activity of sports contributes to better attendance in the form of mitigating some preventable health issues like asthma, as well as an incentive to not skip school. I know in my case, I rarely missed a school day when I knew gym class was on the docket for the day!

And let us not forget the fact that competitive sports in particular, contribute to the family doing something together as a unit in support of one another.  Music and art have similar merits in that regard. Let’s be honest, it is far more fun to go out and shoot hoops with your son than to labor over math problems!

So what am I saying here? We absolutely have to ensure our kids are learning what they need to in order to be proficient in their core academic subjects or they won’t graduate and have a chance to go onto college and/or career. But academic proficiency based on passing a test is far from an accurate indicator of success in college or life. Young people have to be allowed to be kids and have fun too, or I guarantee you, they will struggle at college and at life. To be fair, parents who focus too much on athletic prowess too early with their kids in the hopes of raising the next LeBron James, run the risk of ironically burning them out on the sport.  There must be balance.

So let’s cool the jets on making kids go to school on Saturdays, adding more hours in the school day to teach math, or enrolling them in homework boot camps. Get them involved in sports. Take them to the museum to learn about art and history. Go to the zoo or the aquarium to learn about wildlife and our environment. Encourage them to take up an instrument. Or get them bullish on STEM through coding or entering a robotics competition. All of the above is also a way for a family to share in knowledge together. The point is that learning doesn’t have to only be through boring repetition, but can also be fun!

Word from Lowell: Don’t just give residents a seat, give them the mic

Word from Lowell: Don’t just give residents a seat, give them the mic

Lowell Perry Jr., Executive Director 

We often overuse the term “community engagement” when those of us in the nonprofit sector talk about bringing people to the table to become involved in the work we do. This desire to “engage” folks in our missions includes volunteers, donors, board members, and yes, the people we serve. A big priority for Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood this year looking beyond just giving the people we serve a seat at the table. Instead, we are trying to be very intentional about ensuring that the people we serve are empowered with appropriate decision making authority in matters which directly affect them. It’s about recognizing the difference between engagement and integration.

Community engagement is more transactional in nature. Engagement alone rarely leads to a lasting outcome. To use a basketball analogy, it is similar to inviting someone new to your team, but never allowing them to get off the bench and into the game. In this scenario, they have no real chance to impact the outcome of the game, even when it is on their home court! They might as well be spectators.

Integration on the other hand, is a longer-term, transformational event. Not only is this new team member a part of the whole, they are also afforded an opportunity to get into the game and make plays.  Most importantly, their contribution is critical to winning the game.

Lowell Perry Jr., executive director, Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood
Lowell Perry Jr., executive director, Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood

One of the five overarching goals of the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood is that residents must lead the change in their community to achieve lasting impact. For this to happen in real terms, it means residents must be full-fledged team members in trying to win the game. That is why with every Promise Neighborhood activity or committee, we make a real effort to ensure that a resident leader is at the table and that their voice is being heard. Even with this well-intentioned approach of listening to the voice of our “customer”, we know that we still must do much more, or we risk falling into the age old trap of doing things to and for people, rather than with them.

In this new world, the voice of the community must be heard more than just from surveys, it must be heard at the decision making level, not after the so-called experts have made the decisions. The resident community must be afforded some authority to direct their own paths, or else transformational outcomes cannot happen.  It’s can no longer acceptable for our key public to be placed in the position of merely reacting to a set of “solutions” that they had no real role in helping to craft.

To create this cultural shift, Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood is working with Enlightenment Consulting to develop an intentional strategy to include residents in board rooms and committees of every single stakeholder of the Promise Neighborhood.

That means giving up a little power to those individuals us “experts” must admit we subconsciously believe aren’t as insightful as we are. This is the essence of patronization. To paraphrase an old saying “if we can teach someone how to fish, they can now fish for themselves” forever.  Stop handing out fish!  The inconvenient truth is that if we stop handing out fish, we won’t be able to take credit, right?  So we must ask ourselves – what is most important: taking credit, or positive outcomes for those we claim we are in the business to serve? If it is the latter, we must adopt a mindset of integration over that of just engagement.

I don’t know about you, but I want a real say on an ongoing basis on issues that directly affect me. That cannot be possible if I am not integrated into the decision making process from the onset of seeking solutions to challenges facing me personally. That is why Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood is placing a finer focus on what we achieve rather than what we do.  And residents are involved from start to finish in the process.

I conclude with another overworked term – empowerment.  How many times do you hear well-meaning organizations talk about empowering people? Webster describes the act of empowering to mean to give power to; authorize; to enable. If we are not handing over some decision making responsibility to the people being affected in the process, and therefore allowing for true self-determination, then we are only talking at them and not speaking with them. This change will obviously not happen overnight but we committed to passing the ball to our residents and giving them the power to make some plays.

Word from Lowell: 2017 Promises to be an excellent year

Word from Lowell: 2017 Promises to be an excellent year

Lowell Perry Jr., Executive Director

As 2016 came to a close there seemed to be a resounding feeling that it had been a trying and turbulent year for many. While every year has it’s challenges and obstacles, 2016 was a year of progress in the Promise Neighborhood. Last year, residents, community partners and the Promise team experienced success working together to support families and youth in the Central neighborhood in many ways.

Some highlights from 2016 include:

  • Our partnership with Starting Point continues to produce successes in early learning. The Promise Neighborhood is now home to 13 Step Up To Quality rated early learning programs, with six programs earning five star ratings.
  • Through collaboration with Cleveland Public Library, Family Connections and CMHA HIPPY, the Woodland Wonderland Stay and Play Room expanded hours and increased educational programming.
  • The Promise Ambassador team grew significantly, with nine new ambassadors completing training through Neighborhood Leadership Institute.
  • We expanded our internal team with the addition of an education performance manager and communications specialist.
  • The Promise community engagement team increased their work in supporting stable families and connected communities by engaging in a number of activities aimed at reducing the amount of violence in the community.

These accomplishments, along with the collaborative strategic planning we completed as part of the U. S. Department of Education grant proposal, give us a strong framework on which to further advance the mission this year. Our collective work will continue to focus on the Promise Neighborhood cradle to college/career pipeline: early learning, K-12, high school to college and/or career and family and community supports. This year, data collection and communications will be interwoven throughout the pipeline to further inform and connect our work.

In 2017, our focus includes some of the following:

  • Continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to develop an effective shared data system to better inform decision-making, enhance reporting structure and accountability, and better communicate our collective progress in a timely manner.
  • Increase awareness of early learning programs, grow the number of high-quality rated centers in the neighborhood, and increase enrollment in early learning programs.
  • Support families and schools by helping to reduce barriers to academic achievement, specifically focusing on:
    • Literacy at the third grade and eighth grade levels
    • Chronic absenteeism
    • Parent advocacy in the academic journey
  • Increase the number of Promise Ambassadors and deepen ambassador integration in Promise focus areas.
  • Serve as a connector of community resources and a conduit of information to resident and community partners.

We’ll continue to keep you abreast as these goals transition into specific actions and programs. I hope you will join us at the next Advisory Council and community meeting on March 15, 2017 from 4 – 6 p.m. at the Friendly Inn Settlement. The meeting will focus on the early learning sector and will continue January’s dynamic discussion on solutions to violence. In the meantime, keep fighting the good fight for our kids.