Story By Lyndsey Schley
The crowd listening to the presentations
The Akron Community Foundation (ACF) hosted a community issues session on how schools and non-profits work together to improve education Wednesday, January 25.
The foundation hosts a similar session each quarter to highlight organizations within their target areas, said Teresa LeGrair, director of Community Investment at the Akron Community Foundation. This quarter the focus is on education.
Carla Sibley, director of community relations at Akron Public School
Akron Public Schools Community Relations Director Carla Sibley moderated the event, which included panelists from four community organizations. She said these community partners help her large district educate its many students.
“It’s the work of community organizations like this that allow our students the opportunities to gain those 21st century skills we all want them to have: collaboration, communication, to be creative, to learn through their inspiration,” Sibley said. “So we know it’s important to keep our kids engaged during those non-academic hours. And partners like those sitting here before us fill that gap for us.”
Michael Gaffney , president of Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio
Helping students achieve financial and business skills
Michael Gaffney, president of Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio, discussed how his organization helps prepare students for the future of their finances and careers.
He said that while Junior Achievement started out as an afterschool entrepreneurship program, they have evolved since then to include career attainment and finance education.
“Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, Junior Achievement started thinking about ways they could reach more kids,” he said. “How they did that was creating curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12 and we go into the classrooms now and we bring a volunteer from the community and we go in and teach kids these same principals on a little bit different scale.”
Along with entrepreneurship and business skills, Gaffney said Junior Achievement also works on financial literacy and workforce readiness.
“So many people talk about ‘Kids don’t have these skills when they come out of school,’” he said. “Junior Achievement is there to help them get that.”
The office works with students in 12 counties in Ohio. Last year, they provided Junior Achievement to about 24,600 students with no charge for their curriculum.
“However many afterschool programs [Akron Public Schools] ends up with, JA is almost always a part of that because we can provide these curriculum at no charge,” he said.
Their free curriculum can help schools meet state-mandated financial education standards. They connect people with professionals in the community, another state requirement.
“The school is required to bring in a professional, somebody from the outside to teach kids what the real world is like, what their jobs could be when they get out there,” he said.
He said their program is made possible by philanthropy and they always need community volunteers and donations.
“It’s people like you who make the difference,” Gaffney said. “Take a couple hours in front of the kids. They’re wonderful. You’ll have a great time.”
Project GRAD prepares students for future success
Project GRAD Akron assists disadvantaged students in Akron Public Schools’ Buchtel cluster in going to college and achieving their career goals. Jacqueline Silas-Butler, executive director of Project GRAD Akron, said the organization was started in 2002 after visiting a similar program in Houston, Texas.
The first Project GRAD program a student will encounter is Bridges to Kindergarten. The organization works to help parents learn to meet the needs of their kids so students are prepared for kindergarten. It also has a two-week literary skill academy during the summer.
“This program came about because the principals we were working with at our schools felt that the children needed some more work before they got to kindergarten,” she said.
Project GRAD also holds a variety of programs for high schoolers. These include ACT preparation, college research and visits and volunteer opportunities.
Jacqueline Silas-Butlerr, executive director of Project GRAD Akron
Community members also mentor students for at least 6 hours each month. These services are available for juniors and seniors. Silas-Butler shared the story of a Syracuse graduate from Akron who has come back and is mentoring before he goes to grad school.
“Seeing our students come back and working with our kids, it makes it very nice,” she said.
Since 2006, Project GRAD has rewarded more than $1.5 million in scholarships. She said the project is possible because of partnerships with Akron Public Schools and the community.
“Everything we do is based on our partnerships with everyone in this community: individuals, foundations, businesses,” Silas Butler said.
Dawn Glenny, president of Greenleaf Family Center
Greenleaf Family Center works with the whole family to help students thrive
Dawn Glenny, president of Greenleaf Family Center, shared many of her organization’s over 20 programs. The Center has been around for more than 105 years, starting by helping provide coal for rubber workers.
Greenleaf provides deaf interpreting and case management services in five counties. Another service they offer is financial planning to various employers, including Akron Public Schools.
Their Lifelink program aims to reduce mortality rates in the black community, free of charge.
“Some of you may know that infant mortality in Akron has one or two zip codes that have the highest infant mortality rates in the country,” Glenny said. “That’s defined as a baby that does not live past their first birthday. In the black community, the infant mortality rate is twice that of a Caucasian baby.”
Supporting and strengthening an entire disadvantaged family can be an important part of supporting students, she said. They provide parenting classes, drug and alcohol services, counseling and various other programs that help parents be able to focus on their children.
“We talk about education and access to education and doing a good job receiving your education,” she said. “If your stomach is growling and you don’t have a safe place to sleep and there’s domestic violence in your home, it’s really hard for a student to achieve success.”
They also offer a program with Akron Public Schools called Strengthening Families to talk about and discourage drug abuse.
Supporting Partners to Assure Ready Kids, or SPARK, helps caretakers prepare children for kindergarten in their homes for free. Often the children cannot attend preschool because of difficulties such as transportation. Along with guidance, Greenleaf also provides learning materials.
“Many of our children have not one book,” Glenny said. “They don’t have any reading materials in the home when we do the assessment. When a child completes SPARK as a three-year-old and a four-year-old, they have over 35 books that they then own and they start their own library at home.”
Their PEERS program helps parents help their children. Parents teach other parents to advocate for their children in the legal or educational system.
“Maybe your child needs an IEP [Individual Education Plan] or maybe you’re not sure what your child needs,” she said. “You just know they’re not doing well in school. Maybe they’re court-involved and you don’t understand the court process and what to do.”
Greenleaf also offers a case manager and counselor that assist the various needs of students at Akron Alternative Academy. The will work with any family to help their children complete school.
“Many of them are homeless,” Glenny said. “Some are pregnant teens. Some of them just don’t fit in that traditional model. A lot of them are transitional age students, so they’re older than a traditional student would be.”
Michelle Wilson, executive director of Global Ties Akron
Connecting Akron to the international community and local diversity
Michelle Wilson, executive director of Global Ties Akron, talked about ways her organization had educated the community about different cultures. Global Ties Akron has been working with Akron Public Schools and other local school districts for more than 40 years.
The organization works with professional exchanges at the U.S. Department of State and other international exchanges to bring people into Akron to teach citizens about the international community and build mutual understanding of different cultures and faiths.
They arranged a visit for Kuwaiti doctors to Akron schools. The doctors had come to the United States to learn ways to combat obesity and visited Crouse Community Learning Center in Akron to see the garden where students were growing their own vegetables. They also got to work with doctors in planting a peace garden, all while getting a taste of how diplomacy works.
“[The doctors] were greeted as they arrived with signs on the door in Arabic welcoming them to their school,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to have intergenerational, international impact. As the doctors were leaving Crouse Elementary, they asked if they could take the signs that were prepared by the students as mementos for this occasion.”
The organization has created a website to make available in one place various educational resources about the international community for teachers. It includes PowerPoints from international students, professionals, refugees and more that have spoken in the Akron area.
“They put a lot of heart and a lot of time into creating these presentations and they may be able to go out to a class maybe once or twice,” Wilson said. “So what we really wanted to do was gather that knowledge and be able to adapt it with changing world facts and government change and statistics change.”
They also have projects with students involving the making of paper cranes. Origami cranes are an international peace symbol popularized by a girl who tried to make 1,000 paper cranes after being diagnosed with cancer caused by the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima.
Members of the Freshman Leadership Team at NIHF Stem High School learned to create these cranes and taught their friends. They then turned the cranes into items which they sold to raise money for international adoption and low-cost medical supplies for people in need around the world.
“They worked very hard,” Wilson said. “It was during one semester and it is just amazing how they inspired others by the work that they did.”
Another school group raised $1,000 for the I am Malala fund.
The crowd listening to the presentations
Akron is more diverse than we realize, according to Wilson. 58 languages are spoken in Akron and the international community is continuing to grow. Work is also becoming more internationally oriented and students need the skills to interact with other people.
“It’s so important for us to build mutual understanding, especially at a young age,” she said. “It’s so important, those 21st century business skills, to succeed in our global business place today.”
Panelists introduce themselves at the session
Working together for stronger students
The organizations also answered questions from community members. Many asked about challenges for new members of the community that are non-English speaking. Greenleaf has had training sessions for its employees on how to interact with different cultures, but language is still a problem.
“The barrier for us really is around translation services, which is probably what everyone would say because agencies who hire translators have to pay for that,” Glenny said. “We have not been able to secure funding to provide a translator.”
Sibley said this is also a challenge for Akron Public Schools, which has about 2,000 non-English speaking students. They are trying to get the students services and educate their employees and teachers on how to interact with people from different cultures.
“The one challenge we will have as a district for some time until our students began to graduate and go on to schools and come back as teachers is having staff who look like the students we’re serving,” she said. “That’s an ongoing challenge for us, to diversify our staff so they’re able to communicate to and relate to the students that come from many different countries around the world.”
They also discussed various state mandates and funding changes. Gaffney said he appreciated that they had taken feedback from professionals on recent changes such as the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Project GRAD Akron Board Member James Harris hopes his organization can come away from the session with new ideas about how to collaborate.
“I’m hoping to see what other organizations are doing, what other ideas are out there to promote education amongst the children,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll see how some of our programs can be better fashioned to address some of those issues, like with Project GRAD, maybe there’s something we can do differently to address some of these issues.”
The Akron Community Foundation will hold a similar event in late April for the Arts and Culture sector.
Community members can view the entire session on the Akron Community Foundation’s Facebook page.