2017 Greatest Hits #4: Fighting a Monster of our Own Creation

(During December we will be reprising some of  “2017’s greatest hits” from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: 2017 Greatest Hits.  Merry Christmas! — ABT) 

By Andre’ Watkins

Growing up in Waco, Texas, gives you a certain kind of insight.  Waco is a mid-sized community that allows its citizens the distinct opportunity to experience all of the levels of socioeconomic strata with ease.  Just take a ride down Colcord Ave.  You will see the homes of the very affluent and the homes of the desolately hopeless on the same block.  This is my Waco.

This Waco has a long history. During the 60’s and 70’s, Waco participated in a federal program called “Urban Renewal” meant to improve blighted areas of town.  Under this program (called “Urban Removal” by those who questioned its value) entire family units were removed from neighborhoods where they had built and maintained homes and raised families.  Those who remained were expected to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, which proved to be a difficult task.

Around the mid-eighties, crack cocaine ripped through my beloved city on a euphoric rampage.  Crack took from the rich and poor alike.  This gruesome drug fueled demon was never a black or white problem.  It was a drug addiction problem.

Crack cocaine changed the landscape of Waco.  Middle-class families fled to the suburbs. Neighborhood stores closed.  Restaurants and grocery retailers were boarded up.  This left a power vacuum in the inner city of Waco that attracted crime and despair.

A chasm opened up between the people who left and the often impoverished people who remained.  Waco ISD finds itself in the position of needing to bridge this chasm.  To bridge this chasm we have to be honest with ourselves: very often there is a serious disconnect between the community we serve as a school district and the service providers that work in our schools.

To address this situation we have to deal with some hard questions: How do we expect people to model their behavior after the behavior of those who left them to languish in lack?  Why should I as an impoverished person seek to exemplify a lifestyle of a person or people who won’t even come to my neighborhood?  Do you really care about me?  Or am I a charity case or pet project?

Realizing this disconnect, we knew that we had to switch up the flow.  To combat this monster of our own creation, we began to search for methods that other school districts were utilizing successfully.

Restorative Discipline just seemed to jump off of the pages of training manuals and speak directly to the heart of our issues here in Waco ISD.

To quote from the website of Life Anew, a non-profit in Austin that brings restorative practices into local community schools, “Restorative processes create a space where students and adults can develop empathy, respect and common values by listening and learning from one another. This process helps to increase the effectiveness of instruction time, build community and develop students socially and emotionally.”

At the heart of Restorative Discipline Practices, we find a tradition as ancient as the campfire circles of old, the Intentional Conversation.  Intentional Conversations are simply focused discussions that seek to determine the root cause of an exhibited behavior.

We acknowledge the truth in the statement made by Sherwynn Patton, Executive Director of Life Anew, “Adverse behavior is just the smoke; when we find the reasons for the behavior, we locate the source, the fire.”  We had been spending too much time putting the waters of our logic and education on the smoke.  We never dug deep enough with our conversation skills and listening hearts to determine the location of the fires in our precious students’ souls.

As we began to have Intentional Conversations together as staff at Waco High, we began to seek and find our similarities as PEOPLE and to break down our cultural bias.  We then began to spread this infection of emotional affection for the staff through the students into our community.  Waco High dropped its rate of suspension by 46% in two years of Restorative Practices implementation.  I don’t care who you are or where you are from – That is impressive!  We celebrate and invite our community at large to join us in repairing harm and establishing community unity.

Andre’ E. Watkins is a Restorative Discipline Facilitator at Waco High School. He has 16 years of experience working with at risk youth and their families including serving as Detention Supervisor at Bill Logue Juvenile Justice Center and a Training Officer at McLennan County Challenge Academy. He was a Dorm Supervisor at TYC Mart, and is the only person in the State of Texas to be promoted from JCO 1 to JCO 5 in 30 days. He volunteers at the Doris Miller YMCA, as a Prosper Waco Community Engagement Committee Member and as a Football and Basketball Coach for the Waco Eagles.  He is also a Park Ranger for the City of Waco.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.


2017 Greatest hits #7: What the research tells us about how to help your kids do well at school

(During December we will be reprising some of  “2017’s greatest hits” from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: 2017 Greatest Hits.  Merry Christmas! — ABT) 

By Jon M. Engelhardt, Ph.D.

Most parents want desperately to see that their children do well in school — and in life.  And we know from research, and general observation, that one key to realizing the “American dream” is a good education.  But a good education depends upon more than what schools and teachers do — much more. It starts with what parents, families and perhaps others in a child’s life do to help prepare that child for school. It includes both having faith in the child as well as trust in their teachers and school. Children are always learning, but what they are learning and how that learning is shaped can be critical for school success.

For a number of years I had the honor of serving as a School of Education Dean at four universities, most recently at Baylor University.  A few years ago, I asked the Education faculty at Baylor what research-supported suggestions we might share with parents/grandparents to help them “promote positive school outcomes” for their children.

Based upon that input, listed here are nine things (in no particular order except the first one) that research unquestionably tells us parents can and should do to help their children be prepared for success in school. While there is much that can be said about each of these, the kernel of each idea is presented here for consideration.

1. Read! Read! Read! – The single most powerful thing parents can do to help their children (especially ages 3 to 8) get a strong education is to have plenty of reading materials in the home. Books, magazines, newspapers…read all these kinds of things yourself regularly while your child is watching.  Read to your child and discuss what you are reading with him/her. Reading to your child and showing your child that you read can have a tremendously  positive effect on your child’s language and vocabulary development, reading achievement and school outcomes generally (grades and graduation). This kind of exposure to reading even seems to predict eventual college completion.

Other important things we know from research that parents should consider are:

2. Pre-school matters. – Children who participate in quality early (pre-school) education are more likely in later life to be consistently employed and are 4 times more likely to earn a college degree.

3. Get out the blocks and build with your child. – Playing with blocks at an early age promotes language and social-emotional development and has a positive impact on a child’s math learning. You can use blocks to practice basic kindergarten-entry math skills, like meaning for numbers (one, two, three. etc.) and order (first, second, etc.). Simple projects can pack in a lot of learning. For example, build a tower with blocks of different colors, sizes and shapes and then have your child build a tower that looks just like yours. This helps little ones learn how to analyze things visually and notice differences and similarities. Learning these concepts and skills at an early age is a powerful predictor of later math learning in school. Blocks are a great way to help your child grasp crucial early math concepts.  The seeds you are planting during those hours spent on the floor playing with blocks take a while to grow. The benefits of this early learning with blocks sometimes becomes most noticeable in high school.

4. Educate yourself about parenting. – Parents of 3 to 6-year-olds, who read about parenting, are better able to cope with child behavior problems and feel greater confidence and satisfaction with their parenting efforts.

5. Out of school programs make a difference IN school. – Afterschool and summer programs, clubs, and enrichment activities that encourage reading and writing activities make a difference.  Children who participate in these kinds of activities 3-4 times a week experience broad and positive impact on their reading (drawing conclusions, spelling, identifying main ideas) as well as on their writing and speaking skills.  This is especially true for younger children who are behind academically.  Children participating in afterschool/summer programs that focus on math, science or robotics demonstrate positive attitudes about math and science (especially during intermediate school and above) and have higher high school graduation rates. Furthermore, out-of-school programs and experiences that involve similar content to what the child is learning in school make it more likely that the student will participate in the classroom.  This enhances the student’s achievement and outcomes

6. Talk to your child.  Use lots of words. –Very young children (ages 1-3) who get to talk regularly with adults who have good language skills and who use a wide variety of words have a profound advantage when it comes to success in school. This is especially important for their reading achievement.  Vocabulary level when a child starts school is a powerful predictor of school success.  The more words a child can use and understand in conversation when she starts school, they more likely she is to be a success in school.

7. Learn things together as a family. – For children at all ages, their involvement with family and community in learning activities of most any sort makes a difference in student success in school (and beyond).

8. Get out and explore the world together. – Spending at least 15 minutes per day outdoors examining their world (at least sometimes with a parent/adult caregiver) promotes children’s curiosity and creative thinking as well as positively impacts their science education.

9. Teach your child that being good at school takes work not luck. – Praising children for their schoolwork outcomes in ways that focus on effort, rather than on “in-born” traits like intelligence has long-term positive impact on their future school success.  For example, comments like “You are so smart, you always make good grades” or “You are just bad at math, that’s OK, I was bad at math too,” teach children that their chance of being successful in school is out of their hands. Praise like “You really stuck with that and you figured it out.  Good for you!”  when a child tackles a difficult problem or “You studied and it paid off!”  when a child has worked hard, help the child understand that their learning is in their hands and that if they work at something they can usually master it.   Children who understand the learning takes work and that by working hard at something they can usually learn it, are more likely to succeed in school in the long run.

Jon Engelhardt is a retired Dean of Education at Baylor University. He served as co-chair of the Prosper Waco Education Steering Committee and continues to work with the various education related working groups associated with that initiative. Before coming to Baylor he served as Dean are UT El Paso, Wichita State, Northern AZ University.  Before that he was department chair and associate dean at Arizona State.


One Summer, Three Takeaways

By Stephen Kuipers

This summer I had the honor of interning with the Texas Hunger Initiative as a Share Our Strength Youth Ambassador. Essentially, my job was to help increase awareness and attendance at free summer meal sites across the Waco/Bellmead area. As expected, I got the hang of things the longer I was in the position. But what I didn’t expect was how much this job was going to have an impact on me and how it would change my perspective on work, Waco, and community involvement. As I reflect on my time this summer, I would like to share three major takeaways that I draw from this experience and why they are important to me.

1.) This was a great freshman job!

My initial takeaway was that this job turned out to be such a great way to begin my real-world work career. During our time here, my coworker Keyanna and I gained our first exposure to working in an office environment. We got to explore professional activities like working with Microsoft Suite, creating spreadsheets, doing research, and attending meetings. Amidst this more professional setting, we were  given the ability to make our own decisions and take initiative to accomplish our goals. Interning at the Texas Hunger Initiative has been the perfect balance of working in a professional atmosphere while still having realistic expectations about what we were doing. Getting to have all that my freshman summer has been such a blessing.

2.) The work I did is incredibly important.

According to the U.S Department of agriculture, 1 out of every 6 Texan households live in food insecurity. This means that throughout an entire year, that family is uncertain where their food will be coming from. Children living in food insecure homes obviously cannot provide the food for themselves and are at serious risk of malnourishment. Knowing that I get to work at alleviating this risk by increasing meal site attendance has been very gratifying. I understand that all my effort directly helps kids stay fed so they can stay happy. Additionally, child hunger is connected to many other aspects of child development like personal health, energy levels, and the ability to do well academically. My work addressing hunger improves these other areas of growth, thereby giving the children the ability to live better, fuller lives.

3.) This summer showed me that I can address poverty no matter where I am in life.

Working at multiple meal sites allowed me to travel to many different neighborhoods and organizations. One thing I noticed in almost all the places I visited were people from those specific communities stepping up and helping out at the meal sites. I saw parents standing as chaperones, full-time employees working in non-profits, even Baylor football players helping pass out information cards. At one point we worked with a Baylor Economics professor to run a book club that started solely out of her own initiative. All of this encouraged me that no matter what I am doing with my life, I can always find an avenue to give back to the community.

And this is my encouragement to whoever may be reading this: there is always a way to help address poverty in our community. For me, it was helping address hunger. But there might other branches of poverty that you are better equipped to tackle. It could mean using you finances, using your time, or using your knowledge; any of these are useful fighting poverty. For if we all decide to step in and help those around us, who knows what we can accomplish.

Stephen Kuipers is a Sophomore at Baylor from Reading, Pennsylvania. He, along with Keyanna Taylor, a sophomore from San Antonio, spent this summer involved in the Waco Community through the Summer Food Service Program.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.


Waco is my home and I am here to stay

By Gwendolyn McKnuckles

When I was a child my brothers and I would visit Waco and Valley Mills for the summer.  We did this for many years until we reached the age we no longer needed babysitting in the summer time.

I was one of 9 cousins, 8 of which were boys.  We stayed on the farm with my grandfather and grandmother, Robert and Sadie Slaughter.  We were collectively taken care of by my aunt Marilyn Slaughter Thomas and my sister Joyce Vance Gregory.  We ate, slept, played, fought, and disrupted the normal flow of life for them during that time.

On certain days, my two brothers and I would visit my uncle and aunt, A.J. and Jean Montgomery, and their son Alfred in Waco.  During these summers, I fell in love with Waco.  From a child’s eye view, there was something about Waco that drew me in. I would like to think it was because everyone seemed to know each other and have history.  I was surrounded by people who grew up together to the third and fourth generation.  It felt good to walk into a place and everyone knew your people and you knew theirs.

When my wanderlust brought me to Waco in 2011 at the age of 57, I felt it was a dream come true.  In a sense, I felt I had come home. Perhaps surprisingly though, since coming here to live, I have often felt at a loss for connections to my community, for ways to be an active part of its growth and prosperity.  I am often questioned, “Where you from?”, “Who are your people,” “What church do you attend?”  My responses have often elicited, “Oh, you are not from around here.”  At those points, I have felt left out and disconnected.

Sunday, I felt particularly disenfranchised and wanted to feel a part of something without being questioned.  My childhood memories of going to church in Waco include Toliver’s Chapel on Elm Avenue.   On this particular Sunday they celebrated their 122 year anniversary.  I remember going to church with my Aunt Jean Montgomery and seeing my Uncle A.J. sing in the choir.  My Uncle Gerald and Aunt Dorothy taught in the Sunday school and my Aunt Sadie worked in the church.  My cousins were junior ushers and filled in other capacities.  But, because we were only visiting for the summer, we were relegated to sit on a bench and watch quietly.  I have great memories but still felt adrift and apart.

Sunday, I sought a place to feel a part and solidify my time and transition to Waco as home.  I sat in the back of the church and visited the caverns of my mind remembering the days when Toliver’s Chapel seemed bigger, taller, and grander.  I experienced the pride of remembering how my family worked in their various capacities and I felt at home.   I was very grateful no one asked me who were my people or where I was from, or called out, “Oh, you are not from around here” (as if it explained why I didn’t fit.)   I left rested and renewed in my quest to become an active positive influence in my community.  I felt once again Waco is my home and I am here to stay.

Gwendolyn McNuckles moved to Waco, Texas in 2011.  She is a proud to call Waco her home.  Gwendolyn’s background is in human resources.  She enjoys public speaking, teaching and community service.  Gwendolyn is the proud owner of Connections and Reflections, an event planning company that works with individuals and organizations to plan any size event.