Well Deserved Recognition: Presidential Award winner CSU, Dominguez Hills

I was one of the people who reviewed applications for the Presidential Awards as part of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. I remember that California State University, Dominguez Hills had a strong application. So, when they were chosen in the General Community Service category I was pleased. But I had no idea how deserving they were until I joined John Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff at the Corporation for National and Community Service, to present the Presidential Award at their Community Engagement Symposium.

The President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll was established by President George W. Bush in 2006 to honor colleges and universities that have exemplary community service programs for their students. Each year institutions of higher education submit applications that highlight their programs to solve community problems and set students on paths of life-long commitment to civil engagement. Schools apply in the categories of General Community Service, Interfaith Community Service, Economic Opportunity, and Education. In each category schools are recognized as members of the Honor Roll, members with distinction, finalists, and one school in each category is given the Presidential Award.

Community engagement is the reason that CSU Dominguez Hills exists. They were founded in 1965 after the Watts Rebellion which was triggered by a white police officer pulling over a young African-American, Marquette Frye. A crowd gathered to protest. This was followed by six days of rioting that brought attention to issues of urban poverty. One response to the rebellion was that Governor Pat Brown immediately moved to establish a college that would serve the needs of people living in South Los Angeles including Watts. The college was founded to engage the community.

At a Community Engagement Symposium organized to celebrate all the community engagement and the honor of the Presidential Award, 41 community engagement projects were highlighted with booths, awards, and presentations. Dr. Vivian Price put community service into context with a slideshow and presentation that showed the potential of service learning. President Willie Hagan, Provost Ellen Junn, and Vice Provost Mitch Maki all showed their support for the students and staff. But the real energy behind community engagement at CSU Dominguez Hills is Cheryl McKnight, director of the Center for Service Learning.

McKnight clearly has support from faculty who integrate service learning into their courses. For example, in Anthropology 330, a Service-Learning and Community Engagement course, students not only learned about North American Indians, but they also helped organize a Pow Wow. She has support from President Hagan and the administrative staff. Students provide leadership and organize community engagement. An example is three design students who worked with a non-profit to support a project that responds to the needs of pets that are caught up in a domestic violence situation.

While it takes the commitment of a whole school to develop a high quality community engagement program like CSU Dominguez Hills has, clearly one key is to have a person like McKnight who pulls everything together and keeps the community service agenda on everyone’s mind.

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Ken is a Senior Adviser in the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Hickman Mills—Commitment to Preschool

Preschool aged children reading with teacher.

Young learners engage in reading.

Hickman Mills School District is the smaller of two school districts within the city limits of Kansas City, Missouri. It is typical of many urban school districts with students of color making up 97 percent of the student population and 65 percent of the teachers are white. However, there are a number of things that make the district atypical. For one thing, student achievement is increasing. In the 2013/14 school year student performance increased by 19% on the Missouri School Improvement Program evaluation. This was sufficient to move the school to fully accredited status.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter, the district approaches the goal of being accredited with distinction with community involvement, serious attention to research, and bold strategies. Research shows that understanding race and schooling is an essential component in school improvement, so the district engaged Glenn Singleton who specializes in helping school districts focus on heightening their awareness of institutional racism and implementing effective strategies for eliminating racial achievement disparities.

The importance of preparing students for kindergarten is supported by research that documents what happens to students who arrive unprepared for school: they usually do not catch up. The U.S. Department of Education has taken this research seriously and provided non-regulatory guidance for schools on how to use Title I to implement high-quality preschool programs. This means that schools can choose to use Title I federal funds that are distributed to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to provide preschool before they allocate Title I funds for other mandated programs.

At Hickman Mills, they decided to remodel an unused school building and dedicate it to a kindergarten and preschool. Because they are using a district-wide model, Title I funds are used to pay for a preschool program that is available to every family in the district regardless of income. The staff is working as a team to develop an end-of-kindergarten checklist so that all students who leave the building to go to first grade are on track for success.

Of course, using Title I funds for a quality preschool means the school has to give up some Title I programs in later grades such as tutoring and a reading specialist, but the expectation is that by focusing on this early intervention, students will not need as much remedial help in later grades. As Superintendent Carpenter says, “We know what is needed to disrupt the cycle of poverty and assure a path to the middle class: quality preschool. So, why wait.”

On a recent visit to the school I experienced the excitement and energy that permeates the building. A preschool teacher explained to me, “We are all a team here.” While Carpenter and the school board clearly have a plan, they are also flexible in meeting issues as they come up. Because of changes in the school schedule some families had difficulty shifting their work schedules. So, a short term solution was to arrange for the children to be cared for until families could pick them up. This is just one example of the cooperation between families and the school that supports the students. With community support Hickman Mills demonstrates school reform where leadership uses research based strategies and takes advantage of local flexibility in the use of federal funds.

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Ken Bedell is Senior Advisor in the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
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Kansas City, Missouri Early Learning Campaign

Like most cities the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, does not have any authority over the school districts, but that has not stopped Mayor Sly James from working aggressively to improve the quality of education for Kansas City children.  When Early Learning Deputy Assistant Secretary, Libby Doggett, arrive to give a keynote address at a National League of Cities sponsored event, Kansas City was ready.

The event was billed as “Talk, Read, Play: A Conference & Conversation.” Libby Doggett, Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Director of the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center at the Department of Education, and I witnessed what can happen when non-profit agencies, for-profit service providers, philanthropic organizations, faith-based and other community organizations work together.  One result in Kansas City is a campaign with the catchy title, “Talk, Read, Play with your Child Every Day.” It was developed by The Children’s Campus of Kansas City. Today The Family Conservancy, a nonprofit agency, serves as lead for the campaign.

The campaign is the result of years of research, planning, and community organizing. In 2011 Mayor James was alarmed to learn that only 33% of Kansas City third graders were reading at grade level.  He responded by creating Turn the Page KC. Over 50 partner organizations with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation produced a common agenda and four action areas: summer learning, school attendance, school readiness, and community/volunteer engagement.

The National League of Cities event demonstrated careful planning. Attendees were presented with a tool kit that included specific ideas about ways that the business community, advocacy organizations, faith-based groups, health care agencies, social service organizations, and philanthropy can support the campaign. Lead organizations had already been contacted and committed to take specific actions to support the campaign. For example, hospitals agreed to distribute information about Talk, Read, Play to parents of newborns. Mayor James made sure that the city was on board with commitments from the city manager to distribute promotion materials in water bills sent out from the city, bumper stickers on city owned vehicles, and brochures in city offices.