By Arianne Corbett, RD 2013-08-06 15:05:46
Learn how one local SNA chapter demonstrated how their commitment to kids and their district’s goals go far beyond the school cafeteria. As an underperforming school district with schools consistently ranked lowest in the state and threatened with a takeover by the state agency, Ogden (Utah) School District desperately needed a change in course. Enter new Superintendent Brad Smith, who charged his entire staff to identify better, more effective ways to operate when he initiated a new standard of expectations for the education provided to Ogden’s 12,500 students. The district’s new statement of “Guaranties, Standards and Attitudes” asserts, “Every student can learn, succeed and excel in our schools” and “We will make no excuses for student performance.” This new district-level mantra inspired Ken Crawford, Ogden’s director of athletics and support services. “He told us we can do better,” Crawford recounts of his inspiration to seek out new ways that he and his seven different district teams, including foodservices, could to contribute to this goal, even though their job responsibilities did not directly involve academics. One day soon after returning home from SNA’s Anual National Conference (ANC) 2012 in Denver, after watching a local TV news piece promoting a reading program, he had a light bulb moment. “Why can’t my cooks help tutor kids in school?” All the “answers” to Crawford’s question supported the idea: “They want to help kids. It would be a good way to build relationships. They finish work before the school day ends.” In very short order, he was convinced that he’d hit on the perfect strategy for engaging his school nutrition team in this important district mission. Finding the Right Nook Crawford knew he couldn’t just direct his staff to make a project like this happen. He started by turning to his office staff and Foodservice Manager Bonnie Munson, who also serves as president of Ogden’s local SNA chapter, for some advice. Together, they decided that such a tutoring program could serve well as the chapter’s annual service project, and in quick order, devised a framework for how the program would work. When the staff convened a few weeks later for the next annual back-to-school training meeting in August, “We laid out the program as we had visualized it, and then we let the ladies decide how it could work for best for them,” Munson recounts, explaining that maximum flexibility was a key element of the proposal. Would enough staffers be willing to invest their personal time in this way to go forward? After an overwhelmingly positive response from the SNA chapter members, Ogden’s CooksBooks: A Recipe for Student Success initiative was born. “We felt it was a great way to show that we are all a part of the educational team, and we all want our kids to be successful,” declares Crawford. Looking back, Munson remains particularly jazzed about the way the school nutrition participants opted to personalize the project. “Some people came in early to work with [students] before their shift. Some participated in existing programs offered through AmeriCorps. Some just called teachers in their schools and asked if they could use a reading tutor,” she explains. “It was great to see how people made it work for them and fit it into their schedule.” Within three short weeks, at the beginning of SY 2012-13, Crawford, Munson and a baker’s dozen of school nutrition team members all were approved to begin working as tutors in Ogden’s elementary schools. Members of the CooksBooks team arranged to be at school before or after their regular shift and offer one to two hours of their time each week. The team worked in 10 different schools throughout the district, collectively volunteering more than 400 hours of their time by year’s end. Getting Thoroughly Hooked While the project itself had inherent benefits, Crawford and the Ogden SNA chapter provided additional incentives to keep participation and spirits high. Volunteers had the opportunity to earn prizes through monthly raffles. In fact, LeeAnn Waters, who volunteered the second-highest number of hours (54.5), won a trip to attend the School Nutrition Association of Utah (SNAU) annual conference, and Wathene Larsen, the top volunteer—with a whopping 78 hours!— was awarded a trip to last month’s SNA ANC in Kansas City. For Larsen, coming in an hour before her cafeteria shift quickly became second nature. She enjoyed starting off her day reading to students as they arrived at school. “My goal was to make kids understand that books can be fun,” Larsen explains. And when she began delivering breakfasts to the special education classroom, she wound up sticking around to read to them, as well. “They would come to the classroom and be so excited that I was sitting there waiting for them,” Larsen recounts. “Each child to me was special. The special education kids meant more to me, because I could read to them and help their imagination grow!” At press time, Larsen was understandably excited about the opportunity to attend her first ANC, but she insists this experience was its own reward, teaching her more than she could have ever imagined. “It brought me closer to my kids,” she says. Crawford and Munson chose to volunteer their time through an Ameri- Corps program, which is designed to allow mentors to work regularly, one-on-one, with students who need additional support to achieve their grade level standards and expectations. AmeriCorps “identified the kids that were below grade level for reading; they provided the lesson plan and curriculum. [The volunteer] reads with each kid for half an hour. We worked on fluency, phonics and definitions,” he explains. “We had a chance to watch them grow!” AmeriCorps representative Marisa Salazar works to recruit and train volunteers for the STAR reading/tutoring program in one of Ogden’s elementary schools. She considers the Ogden cooks an inspiration. “They send a message to our students and our community,” she credits, impressed at how the school nutrition volunteers are demonstrating that this profession is not just a job to them. “This takes it to the next level, showing how committed they are to our students.” Munson had the opportunity to work with two third-grade girls in the STAR program. “My favorite thing was seeing the light in their eyes, knowing they were going to have their special reading time,” she reflects. Throughout the course of the year, Munson found herself developing a strong bond with the girls, and the affection she still feels is well evident, as she reminisces about the experience: “Every day, when they would come down the lunch line, they would have to give us a hug.” And Munson remains genuinely overjoyed to have witnessed the children’s excitement and interest in reading grow over the course of the year. Crawford, too, formed close relationships with his mentees, even encouraging one, Caleb, to join the school wrestling club! Crawford helped Caleb in another important way: by identifying a vision problem. “Sometimes, when he was reading, his face would be so close, it would block the page!” he recalls. “It blows my mind how this could happen—a fifth-grader who needed glasses and no one had ever said anything!” By the final week of the tutoring program, Caleb, who began the year reading at a third-grade level, had caught up to his peers. “I was able to see the progress he made,” Crawford reports. The extra attention and effort “has made a big difference to kids like him. He is caught up; for the rest of his life, he will not be continually behind the other kids in his class.” Clearly, Crawford finds his mentoring experience to be rewarding and fulfilling. CooksBooks restored the “inner satisfaction” he has been searching for since being promoted from a teacher position to a district-level administrator. “It gave me the opportunity to do what I went into education for—to help kids!” he exclaims. Jane Fowers, a cook in the foodservices department, also volunteered for the AmeriCorps STAR program. She had begun working as a reading tutor a year before the start of the CooksBooks initiative and currently tutors children through her church, as well as at school! While she concedes it isn’t always easy to leave her long shifts in the kitchen and head into a classroom, she loves the young friends that she has made along the way. “Their growth doesn’t happen in one day,” she reflects. “It happens in little snippets throughout the year. I love to see their progress!” Take a Closer Look Student success in Ogden has been overwhelming. All students who received tutoring assistance improved their reading level significantly, and about half of the students who were tutored tested as “proficient” in the state’s end-of-level criterion test. Every single student who was tutored moved up at least half a grade level. There’s another happy consequence from this program, in combination with other efforts throughout the district: Those lowest-performing schools are now the sites making the greatest progress in the state! Ogden’s school nutrition staff insists that the morale boost alone was worth all of the time and energy that went into CooksBooks. They have benefited from improved relationships with the students, administration and staff. Plus, it has allowed them “to show to the public that we have a common goal when it comes to the education of our students,” reiterates Crawford. “We have received such positive feedback from the principals,” Munson echoes. “They are so excited to see that we are willing to give our own time… It just raised our level of respect.” Munson also recounts an encounter with a speechless, teary-eyed teacher. “She couldn’t believe that, on our own time, after work, we were reading tutors!” The CooksBooks Initiative is providing Ogden students with the opportunity to bond and build trusting relationships with adults that allow them to grow and thrive. In February, the students showed their appreciation to their favorite tutors by hosting a special Valentine’s Day pizza party, in which the students served the school nutrition volunteers! A crew from a local television news station—the one that ran the news item that inspired Crawford’s idea—attended the event, arriving via helicopter. A school meals vendor provided heart-shaped pizzas to mark the occasion. Looking ahead to SY 2013-14, Ogden’s SNA chapter is gearing up for an even bigger and better volunteer mentoring program, which will expand to include other support services staff. Crawford fairly bursts with pride whenever reflecting on what his school nutrition team has accomplished: “They help provide a valuable resource with their time and effort. We are here to help every child learn and be successful.” What does it mean to be a mentor? Mentoring is a structured and trusting relationship that brings young people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support and encouragement. This can take the form of an organized activity, such as reading together and tutoring, or it could be as simple as spending time together sharing an activity. Official mentoring programs have grown rapidly in recent years and now serve an estimated three million youth. Unfortunately, this is only about 15 to 20% of the young people who need the care and support of a mentor. Some 15 million more youngsters go without the valuable attention; many are from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds or do not have caring adults who are active in their lives. But the values of mentoring aren’t limited to at-risk children. Mentoring can be a critical element in every child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Along with parents, mentors can help young people realize their potential by providing them with support, advice, encouragement and friendship. Targeted mentoring programs can make positive differences in several areas of youth behavior and development, including improved self-esteem, stronger relationships with parents and peers, greater school connectedness, improved academic performance and reductions in substance abuse, violence and other high-risk behaviors. Mentors themselves also gain considerable rewards in the experience. This includes a boost to their personal health and self esteem, a sense of accomplishment, insight into the children in their own families and public recognition. Most formal mentoring programs are site-based, taking place in a wide array of settings. Schools are an obvious choice, but you can check for mentoring programs offered through workplaces, faith-based organizations, community agencies, juvenile corrections facilities and afterschool programs. Most of these ask volunteers to make a one-year commitment. Following are some examples of the wide variety of mentoring opportunities you might investigate. • Tutoring • Career exploration • Job shadowing • Life skills development • Game playing • Sports events • Parks and recreation activities • Arts and entertainment activities/events • Instilling spiritual values and moral strength; putting faith into practice If you are considering becoming a youth mentor, take a look at your own interests, hobbies, strengths and community connections. Identifying an organization that aligns with your current activities and networks is a key strategy in finding the right fit. To help you decide which type of mentoring program you want, ask yourself the following questions: • What time commitment can I make? • What age of youth would I like to work with? • Would I like to work with one child or with a group of children? • Would I like to team up with other adults to mentor one child or a group of children? • What types of activities interest me? Do I want to help a youngster learn a specific skill or pursue an interest? Do I want to assist with schoolwork or just be a caring adult friend? • What mentoring location would work best for me? While these questions are helpful if you have an abundance of options, don’t let your preferences handcuff you! Try to be open to the different models of mentoring programs in your community. Remember, all young people have the potential to succeed in life and contribute to society; however, not all youth get the support they need to thrive. Mentoring programs help give youth the confidence, resources and skills they need to reach their potential. These worthwhile volunteer opportunities are just looking for a few good men…and women. TIPS FROM A PROFESSIONAL VOLUNTEER Name a leadership position, and she has held it. If the organization has a board of leaders, she has probably been on it. Mary Hill, SNA past president and executive director of child nutrition services for Jackson (Miss.) Public Schools, continually finds volunteer activities that stir her soul— and then gives them her all. The Girl Scouts are particularly near and dear to her heart. “I was a Girl Scout, straight up through high school,” she recalls. After graduating from college, she returned to her hometown and one of the leaders in her church asked her to get involved. “I jumped right in!” Two years later, Hill became a troop leader and “the rest is history”—indeed, 30 years of history! Hill has volunteered in all aspects of the girl empowerment organization—as a troop leader, on various board positions at the state level, even on a search committee for the national organization’s executive director. Why? “Girl Scouting is a part of me. The experiences I have had as a Scout and [interacting] with the leaders made me the person I am today.” She still gives up every Saturday afternoon—and more—to the cause, because she feels so passionate about helping to raise the next generation of outstanding women. “The reason I do it is because of what the young ladies are facing and their need for the components Girl Scouting brings to them,” Hill explains. If you are contemplating an opportunity to mentor youth or other community service project, Hill suggests you “Find a cause you believe in. When you find that cause, you will make time for it.” Even a minimal volunteer commitment in an organization like the Girl Scouts adds up and makes a difference. Finally, find synergy with your other commitments and responsibilities. For example, Hill has found other creative ways to combine her disparate passions. For instance, when her sorority worked with Habitat for Humanity to build a house, she arranged for her Girl Scouts to serve lunch to the crew of volunteers. Many of the girls that Hill has mentored have come back into her orbit, sometimes serving as assistant troop leaders! Hill has reached multiple generations of girls, helping to mentor the children and grandchildren of her original troops. And even though she says she’s willing to pass on the torch one day, for the time being, she is “enjoying every minute and having a wonderful time—that girl time!” TO LEARN MORE There are many national organizations with local chapters throughout the country that focus on youth mentoring. • 4-H www.4-h.org/get-involved/volunteer/ • Afterschool Alliance www.afterschoolalliance.org/myCommunityFind.cfm • Big Brothers Big Sisters http://tinyurl.com/volunteerbbbs • Boy Scouts of America www.scouting.org/Volunteer.aspx • Boys and Girls Clubs of America http://bgca.org/Pages/index.aspx • Girl Scouts www.girlscouts.org/for_adults/volunteering/ • United Way http://tinyurl.com/volunteerunitedway • YMCA www.ymca.net/volunteer About the author: Arianne Corbett, RD, is managing director of Leading Health, LLC, in Arlington, Va., and a former manager of nutrition advocacy at SNA.
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