The Common Good

The year every child must be proficient has arrived

In 1948 George Orwell wrote 1984, his famous indictment of the totalitarian state that made 1984 a dreaded year for me.

Another dreaded year is 2014. This time the cause of the dread is the U.S. Congress and its 1,000-plus-page No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which became law in 2002.

NCLB required that, by 2014, every public school student be proficient in math and reading, or else. “The goal set by Congress of 100-percent proficiency by 2014 is an aspiration. It is akin to a declaration of belief. Yes, we do believe that all children can learn and should learn. But as a goal it is utterly out of reach,” observed Diane Ravitch in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. No one has ever achieved it.

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Volume 7, Issue 11, Posted 10:15 AM, 10.31.2014

Who should define our community?

Fifty years ago, the idea of housing integration was akin to a four-letter word. It was, as housing activist Kermit Lind explained to me, “a state of pathological transition.”

Segregation was the reality for nearly everyone living in Cuyahoga County. Single-race neighborhoods and a lack of choice for African Americans were the cumulative outcome of federal law, lending and real estate practices, and cultural norms. It appeared to be a locked system, with no options for change. Cleveland Heights was nearly all white. Only 251 African Americans were counted among 61,831 residents in the 1960 census. Then, everything changed.

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Volume 7, Issue 10, Posted 2:55 PM, 09.29.2014

Summer changes the starting line

How did you spend your summer vacation? It is a wonderful back-to-school conversation prompt. It turns out that the answer to that question has significant implications for children and the advantages that they bring to school in the fall.

My summer reading included Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 publication, Outliers, where he explores what makes some people more successful than others. He is adamant that our belief in superior ability and hard work as the only explanations for success is wrong. Over and over he shows how “outliers,” those people who appear to be exceptional, find success because of their own assets but also because of external opportunities and advantages.

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Volume 7, Issue 9, Posted 1:40 PM, 08.28.2014

Lilt and learning: playing music and teaching have a lot in common

Things can be wonderful.

Frequently, I am critical of the misdirection of our policy makers and the undermining effects of their narrative and policies on public confidence in public education, teachers and the education of the whole child. The blame, test and punish approach to “school reform” just doesn’t jibe with the magic that occurs daily when we pull together as a community and when teams of educators collaborate from a place of trust to help children grow.

This month I want to focus on wonderful.

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Volume 7, Issue 8, Posted 11:25 AM, 07.31.2014

Sharing leadership, finding solutions

Leadership is looming big in my thinking these days as the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district welcomes a new superintendent and as three other organizations near and dear to my heart change their executive directors. Leadership is hard to get right.

In education, where so many individuals play a role in the success of our children, it is crucial for our leaders to be able to motivate and engage the team that is needed to achieve our developmental goals for them. School leaders need to be visionary and decisive, but they also need to be inclusive, respectful, engaged, patient and trusting. They need to be collaborative! The typical hierarchical style of big bureaucracies just doesn’t work when your job is to motivate.

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Volume 7, Issue 7, Posted 2:22 PM, 06.30.2014

Career teachers strengthen education capacity

It’s June. Another school year comes to an end. Joy, regrets, successes, new friends, new skills, a broader world view, frustrations, fears, failures—it’s a complicated mix of emotions.

When I was young, this festive moment—the end of the daily grind, early to rise and early to bed, controlling my temper, paying attention, books, pencils, chalk—was accompanied by this joyous chant, “School's out, school's out, teacher let her bloomers out.”

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Volume 7, Issue 6, Posted 11:36 AM, 05.30.2014

Play is important to learning

When winter finally broke, I rounded up three neighbor kids and headed for a hike at Shaker Lakes. Decked out in their rubber rain boots, they collected and tossed stones, flirted with the mud, balanced on fallen trees, and waded in the rushing water. There is nothing more fun than watching curious children. They were uninhibited kids being kids. They were playing and learning.

Play is a wonderful way to learn. I am concerned that the emphasis on measuring children’s performance in school is not only undermining good education and teacher morale, but also robbing the younger generation of the exploration that is important to a healthy childhood. I am no expert in early childhood development, but I am a parent and classroom volunteer. I know fear and failure are not the way to get young minds to let loose and grow.

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Volume 7, Issue 5, Posted 2:07 PM, 05.05.2014

This fantasy is a nightmare!

Put on your rose-colored glasses and imagine this fantasy: 

When it comes to academic success, all children are immune to such factors as their parents' situation, access to food and health care, vision or hearing issues, early childhood education or enrichment experiences, stress, expectations for academic achievement, the number of times they move in a year, trauma affecting people they care about, the learning conditions in their schools, language barriers or their ability to concentrate.

In this dream world, every child—regardless of their economic status, educational setting or personal challenges—is expected to learn the same amount, at the same rate.

Using this fantasy as their basis, regulators have developed quick and inexpensive tools that can measure the depth and breadth of academic success.

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Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 3:08 PM, 03.31.2014

Can our voices change the world?

How do you change the world?  

In a recent conversation about the future of public education—the focus of my quest for a more just and inclusive society—a friend reminded me that change starts with each of us: “I only have control over what I do.”

Can a one-person-at-a-time approach make a difference when unfettered corporate influence, gerrymandered legislators, and both political parties embrace education policies that are undemocratic and harmful to children?

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Volume 7, Issue 3, Posted 4:45 PM, 02.27.2014

Veneration of private over public is a mistake

“A private school experience at a public school cost,” reads the headline on the Lake Erie Preparatory School’s home page. The school is one of six charter schools in the Cleveland area sponsored by the for-profit ICAN charter school company.

What exactly is a “private school experience”? This website message implies that it is something to aspire to, better and safer than a public school education, but out of reach because of cost. Remember that private schools exclude some people, and public schools don’t. By likening itself to a private school, this charter is saying, “You can have an elite education for free!” 

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Volume 7, Issue 2, Posted 4:25 PM, 01.30.2014

Ohio’s dual system of publicly funded schools

I prefer to ignore charter schools. I know good people who work in them and use them. Charters don’t appear to have much to do with my school district. How much good can they do? How much harm?   
 
Reports of fraud, profiteering and failure pushed me to learn more. Because charter schools are funded with public funds, I thought I would go to the heart of the matter and “follow the money.” I turned to Bill Phillis, a longtime advocate of reforming school funding in Ohio, for an explanation of the system that now uses state tax dollars to fund two different kinds of public schools. I am troubled by what I learned.

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Volume 7, Issue 1, Posted 10:40 AM, 12.17.2013

Public school supporters are more than fair-weather friends

The Saturday before the election was cold and rainy. Volunteers from my neighborhood dutifully filed into my kitchen to pick up their walk lists for the final lit drop, which would encourage voters to fund the renovation of three Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools. Our team included a retired graphic designer and medical engineer, a substitute teacher, a Montessori parent, the kids across the street and their mom, an innovations coach, and me.

Jokes about the Browns, the exercise opportunities associated with dropping literature and the need to fix the aging buildings for future generations were part of the friendly conversation that took place as I handed out street assignments. Despite the weather, we were ready to act on our commitment to our community and its children.

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Volume 6, Issue 12, Posted 11:49 AM, 12.02.2013

When it comes to learning, factor in the learner

When I walked into Belinda Farrow’s kindergarten classroom for a lunchtime meeting to plan this year’s tutoring program, she was huddled next to a child in tears. Her firm, reassuring voice comforted a young student recovering from a meltdown over tangled shoelaces.    

This brief encounter brought me back to the reality of education. It is messy—intellectual growth pursued within the cauldron of physical and emotional development. All of it counts, and yet none of it can be measured with much accuracy.

As a kindergarten volunteer I help students master letter sounds, a foundational literacy skill that is crucial for achievement. But the emotional needs and coping skills of our young charges, like the thermostats in our houses, govern them and their encounters with the education agenda. You can’t teach a subject without factoring in the child! There are no shortcuts and no formulas.

 

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Volume 6, Issue 11, Posted 12:20 PM, 10.31.2013

You can't dispose of public schools at a garage sale

The school building boom in Cleveland Heights took root in 1904 when the newly incorporated village of about 1,000 residents built Lee Road School on the site of the current Boulevard Elementary School.

As the orchards and farmland of this new village started to sprout streets full of apartment buildings and one- and two-family houses, the need for more schools grew. In 1914 a high school was built next to Lee Road School. By 1960, when the population of Cleveland Heights peaked at 61,813, the school district, which by then included University Heights and a strip of South Euclid, operated 10 elementary schools, four junior high schools, the current high school at Cedar and Lee Roads and an administration building. 

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Volume 6, Issue 10, Posted 3:29 PM, 10.01.2013

A 50th anniversary: a time to celebrate, reflect and recommit

I grew up reading the Green Sheet, the section of my daily newspaper that reported on what had happened on that date 10, 20 and 50 years ago. It helped me connect my reality to history. On a good day, that connection helped me understand the present and respect those who went before. It inspired both caution and hope.

This year, Taylor Branch, the author of an exhaustive history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement—more than 2,300 pages written over 24 years—condensed that history into 180 pages, hoping people would use the 50th anniversary of the movement to pay attention, understand our history, honor the courageous fight and become prepared to continue the unfinished work of democracy.

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Volume 6, Issue 9, Posted 12:51 PM, 08.30.2013

We don't want to go back

John Lewis is my hero.  

His unwavering belief in the dignity of every human being has driven his life—a life focused on making our democracy more authentic, more inclusive. As a longtime civil rights activist, and a 27-year veteran of Congress, he exemplifies moral certainty and perseverance. At times he has put his life on the line to dismantle a violent, racist culture and to confront a frequently complicit government, in order to guarantee all citizens full citizenship, including full access to the vote.  

For Lewis, civil rights is about all of us. In his 1998 memoir, he recalled screening white college students volunteering to participate in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. He reminded them: “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro. Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.”

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Volume 6, Issue 8, Posted 12:16 PM, 07.30.2013

We are the owners of our public places

If you live in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district as I do, we have something in common: We are co-owners of a lot of real estate—13 school buildings (11 currently in use), a stable and an office building, which together occupy more than 135 acres. School-district property is found in every corner of our community.  

This portfolio was amassed over the last 110 years to meet our high expectations for serving the educational needs of the children of our ever-evolving community. These buildings, as small-town Texas superintendent John Kuhn so eloquently put it, “are not just schools, they’re touchstones. They’re testaments to our local values—monuments to community.” They belong to us and we are responsible for their maintenance and quality.

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Volume 6, Issue 7, Posted 4:00 PM, 07.01.2013

Summer music camp: a time for enriched learning

In this era of test-driven accountability, school can feel like a pressure cooker. The demand for measurable results can dominate every second of the day—often at the expense of young learners exploring their interests, discovering their gifts, and enjoying the pure pleasure of learning.

Summer vacation is more important than ever as a time to recover and relax—and as a time for joyful learning. I’m happy to say that 90 local 10- to 15-year-olds will spend a week this month at the Heights Summer Music Camp, a community-run enrichment opportunity sponsored by Reaching Heights. I direct the camp and helped found it. It’s something I want to brag about because it is a unique music experience and an example of how our community nurtures our youth.

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Volume 6, Issue 6, Posted 1:54 PM, 05.30.2013

Guatemalan women know what matters

The party invitation read, “How can you help send a child to school? It’s simple. Empower her Mom.”

Of course this caught my attention. The party was a benefit for Mercado Global, a nonprofit organization founded by Heights High graduate Ruth DeGolia, who has built a successful business that gives indigenous Guatemalan women financial stability. Mercado Global fosters women entrepreneurs and develops sales opportunities for the fashion accessories the women produce in their home-based workshops. It’s been a big success. Revive, on Lee Road, was an early outlet for these crafts, which are now also sold by national retailers including Nordstrom and Anthropologie.  

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Volume 6, Issue 5, Posted 1:38 PM, 04.30.2013

Why I lose sleep at night

Recently I interviewed nominees for the board of Parents for Public Schools, a national education organization. The final interview question was “What makes you lose sleep at night?”

My own answer to this seemingly odd question is this: I lose sleep worrying about the future of our public schools! The growing influence on state and federal education policy—and on the overall education narrative—of the advocates of testing, privatization, union-busting and budget-cutting scares me to death.

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Volume 6, Issue 4, Posted 11:04 AM, 03.28.2013

Motivation theory and school reform

When teachers do their best, it is easier for their students to do the same. School reform that maximizes teacher engagement is a crucial ingredient of effective schools. 

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Volume 6, Issue 3, Posted 1:36 PM, 02.28.2013

Parent involvement starts with trust

One of the lessons of my career as a community activist is that when people trust each other they can accomplish amazing things. Because of this, it is a wise use of organizational resources to invest in building trust with the people who need to be on your team.

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Volume 6, Issue 2, Posted 12:09 PM, 01.31.2013

MLK’s precise words inspire action for the common good

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King, April 16, 1963, Birmingham, Ala.

Public spaces, especially those that honor the ideas and accomplishments of exceptional contributors to our democracy, have a big effect on me. So I wasn’t surprised to find myself almost vibrating with renewed determination and commitment to the common good after my first visit to the Martin Luther King Memorial.

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Volume 6, Issue 1, Posted 4:19 PM, 01.03.2013

Should we just say no?

It is report card season for Ohio’s public schools—not its children, but its schools. If Ohio Department of Education personnel can clear up faulty attendance reports from some school districts, public school parents will soon receive the official state report card for their school.

Last month, I reported on the preliminary report card for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools. As I wrote the sidebar explaining the four measurements that are combined to create a school district’s rating—a shorthand way to judge their effectiveness—I was struck by how convoluted the system really is. It looks thoughtful; but it is mathematical magic.

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Volume 5, Issue 12, Posted 3:35 PM, 11.30.2012

Campaign trail affirmations

I got started on the campaign trail in Cleveland Heights in early October. While knocking on doors is not my favorite activity, it is my civic duty. Despite my hesitation, something sweet kept happening, which made those moments of discomfort worthwhile. I encountered parents of children who went to school with my kids back in the 1980s and 90s at Boulevard, Monticello and Heights.

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Volume 5, Issue 11, Posted 2:45 PM, 10.30.2012

Apathy is the enemy

It’s election season and we need to pay attention.

Apathy is the enemy of democracy. It can allow unacceptable conditions to become accepted facts of life. By expressing our concerns through our actions as citizens and as voters, we decide which issues receive attention and if solutions serve the public’s interests. It’s our responsibility. It’s the central feature of a democratic government and society. It makes democracy work.

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Volume 5, Issue 10, Posted 1:40 PM, 10.03.2012

Teacher-driven assessment means authentic accountability

As an unapologetic reader of education reform literature, it’s a relief to find a book that is jargon-free, makes sense, and offers a feasible approach to making sure students learn. This summer I hit the jackpot with British educator Dylan Wiliam’s 2011 book, Embedded Formative Assessment. Doesn’t sound like much of a page-turner, but I couldn’t put it down!

Despite my allergic reaction to anything that has to do with testing students as a lever for school improvement, I found myself drawn to Wiliam’s emphasis on student assessment as a valuable tool for change. This author is all about good teaching and, if you ask me, his ideas give teachers an approach that works. I’m excited because these ideas are taking shape in classrooms in our school district and they have tremendous promise.

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Volume 5, Issue 9, Posted 9:57 AM, 09.03.2012

Music education creates determined learners: reflections on eight years of music camp

I have the privilege of organizing the Heights Summer Music Camp, a project of Reaching Heights. For each of the last eight years, it has given an average of 85 elementary and middle school music students from the CH-UH school district a week of intensive music exploration, instruction, and growth. We attract kids who have had years of private instruction, and those who have had just a year of group instruction in their elementary schools. About a third of the campers attend with scholarship support.

Each year, I have witnessed campers push themselves hard, have fun, and rise to high expectations. It is magical.

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Volume 5, Issue 8, Posted 5:32 PM, 08.06.2012

It's time to speak up about testing

Last month, after I walked the third graders from across the street to school for another day of testing, I came home to a welcomed invitation to sign a petition, modeled after a resolution supported by more than 360 Texas school boards, calling for the end of high stakes testing.

I’ve been waiting 10 years for the chance to speak up in an organized way on this issue. It finally came.

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Volume 5, Issue 6, Posted 11:26 AM, 05.30.2012

Citizen action is something to celebrate

In 1966, Painesville residents Diana and Ted Woodbridge started their search for a home closer to the city. As they looked for housing in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, the white couple was steered away from a neighborhood that had recently started to integrate—a distressing artifact of the days of legally sanctioned racial segregation. The experience began a life-changing journey that, five years later, produced a powerful resource for justice that endures today: Home Repair Resource Center (HRRC).

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Volume 5, Issue 5, Posted 10:38 AM, 05.02.2012

New budget threatens progress

Last year the Ohio Legislature adopted a budget that slashed public education funding and mandated an expensive, unfair and potentially damaging system for evaluating teachers. The legislature is not fulfilling its responsibility to ensure that all children achieve, yet it is ready to punish teachers if they don’t produce high test scores.  

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Volume 5, Issue 4, Posted 10:51 AM, 04.04.2012

What a surprise!

A familiar argument in the teacher blame game goes like this: Public schools have bad teachers because of unions. The implication of this statement is that unions don’t care about teacher quality, and school districts lack the tools and authority to effectively evaluate teachers and dismiss those who fall short.

A familiar complaint from teachers goes like this: Evaluation is superficial at best, and subjective or vindictive at worst.

Where is the truth? This question drove me to learn more about how the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District approaches teacher evaluation—something that is really important if you care about teacher quality.

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Volume 5, Issue 3, Posted 3:39 PM, 02.28.2012

No Child Left Behind disaster: when aspirations and reality collide

"All children will be proficient in reading and math by 2014."

This is the inspiring goal that drives No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2002 federal law designed to ignite success in public education by making teachers accountable for student learning. The law mandates yearly tests to measure whether schools are meeting their obligation to reach this goal, and expects that each year a larger share of students will prove their proficiency. Failure to meet the yearly improvement in test scores prompts punitive consequences for educators and schools.

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Volume 4, Issue 10, Posted 3:35 PM, 10.07.2011

Garrett Morgan returns to enrich learning at Boulevard Elementary School

I’m a regular at Lake View Cemetery. It’s a grand place to walk, view nature and enjoy the seasons while experiencing Cleveland history. The headstones tell so much.

My route frequently passes by the grave of Garrett A. Morgan, the African-American inventor, philanthropist and publisher who is credited with more than 40 inventions, including the gas mask and traffic lights.  This spot is special. It’s a reminder of how empowering a great school project can be.

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Volume 4, Issue 8, Posted 12:03 PM, 08.02.2011

Blame is no substitute for constructive public policy

The blame game rarely works when it comes to finding good solutions to complex issues. One such issueis how to ensure that every child has access to an effective teacher.

There is little disagreement that effective teachers are the most important resource a school has for educating its children. The literature is full of evidence that the quality of the classroom teacher makes a huge difference to student learning, especially for children who have limited support at home. Creating a supply of effective teachers is a great way to improve student outcomes.

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Volume 4, Issue 7, Posted 10:39 AM, 07.05.2011

Support excellence, thank a teacher

Individuals can have a powerful effect on the quality of teaching in our public schools.

We can’t give educators the skills they need to be effective, but we can help motivate them to be their best. When we pay attention to their work, and let them know how valuable they are, it makes a difference. When they do well, tell them! It’s as easy as that.

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Volume 4, Issue 6, Posted 2:53 PM, 06.01.2011

How I woke up in Columbus

Before Senate Bill 5, I didn’t give much thought to collective bargaining, and preferred to ignore the Ohio Legislature. What a mistake!

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Volume 4, Issue 5, Posted 1:19 PM, 05.03.2011

Dashboard gives quick view of school district direction

School districts are awash in data!

Data is part of the everyday life of the classroom teacher. It is guiding evidence for policy makers, and the primary lever for state and federal accountability. These days, data has become the coin of the realm for almost any discussion of how well schools are doing—an issue of paramount interest to the public, too.

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Volume 4, Issue 4, Posted 2:29 PM, 03.14.2011

Leveraging federal dollars for local impact

Federal programs are not far away abstractions; they affect people we know and places we care about, like Cleveland Heights. They empower people, alleviate problems, generate jobs and strengthen communities. These benefits could disappear way too soon as Congress, in the name of deficit reduction, prepares to decimate domestic spending.

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Volume 4, Issue 3, Posted 9:59 AM, 03.01.2011

Smart boards accelerate technology use in the classroom

“I’ve been a teacher for a long time, and I am comfortable with chalk. When I found the whiteboard in my room this fall, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it,” recalls Boulevard kindergarten teacher Belinda Farrow.

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Volume 4, Issue 3, Posted 10:31 AM, 03.01.2011

Why I'll be a school volunteer forever

Yesterday on my walk home from Boulevard Elementary School I ran into Hope (this is not her real name but it is what she represents to me), a first grader who I tutored last year as a Many Villages volunteer.

She was late for school, but when she spotted me, her worried face lit up and she opened her arms for a hug. As quickly as we met, we departed on our separate ways. Here was the reward for my work as a volunteer: the smile and affection of a lovely young girl who is facing many hardships in her daily life, and challenges in her search for academic success.

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Volume 4, Issue 2, Posted 4:53 PM, 01.19.2011