At the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to travel to the NCCEP/GEAR UP Capacity Building Workshop in Las Vegas, Nevada with the GEAR UP department from LibbyHigh School, my MTCC service site. As a VISTA, I saw the words capacity building and thought “I’M IN!”
Sunny Las Vegas was a beautiful reprieve from cold and cloudy Libby but I took home a lot more than a suntan and the tiny condiments they left out at breakfast. I took home a fresh outlook on bringing a college and career mindset to Libby students. We attended three days of sessions. The first day focused on excelling our ideas and programs, the second day on demonstrating effective capacity building strategies, and the third day we learned how to mobilize these ideas and programs and maximize results.
Because my service year is concentrating on professionalizing and promoting the high school internship program among students and families in Libby, I attended seminars and workshops with titles like “Putting the CAREER in College and CareerReadiness,” “Breaking Through to Disengaged Students”, and “Culturally-Responsive Communications in Family Engagement.” The focus in each session was to present classroom tested and ready information. Because we VISTAs primarily do indirect service, it took some creative thinking to reframe how these tools could be applied to my service. For example, in the “Breaking Through to Disengaged Students” workshop, we moved around a lot to keep from getting sleepy in the classroom. Even without a classroom, I can incorporate active tasks into the presentations I give to students and community members about our internship program.
I have a special place in my heart for family engagement. In Libby, we too struggle with getting parents involved in academic and career related functions. In many cases, the staff create an additional mentor-type relationship for students who need extra support. I find myself taking students under my wing to walk them through financial planning for college or even just asking how their day is going - providing safe daily check-in spaces.
There are also many families in Libby who want to be involved but they don't know how, or are afraid to be. They are the family engagement targets! As we learned on day 2, students whose parents are involved at school are more likely to have good grades, attend college, etc. Because Libby is a tight community that values hard work, I think more highly involved parents is a reachable goal. I am working on instigating bi-weekly parent/GEAR UP meetings to build trust in our community and form a group of parents that will spread the college and career readiness word.
I took home several great ideas from the Capacity Building conference, but like most great ideas, they are harder to instigate in reality than in concept. Both the administrative and budget barriers that come with working in a high-risk school can be frustrating. One of our keynote speakers, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, used to be the principal at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. Her students were affected by extreme poverty and violence everyday. She made two main points all education communities can all hold onto. The first: If you don't do it, who will? This encourages the social pioneers in all of us to serve with purpose and to the best of our abilities. The second was even more personal. She told us that she used to get on the announcements everyday telling her students “If no one told you they love you today, remember I do and I always will.” The best way to lead is with love and if no one told you they love you today, I do. I am proud to be a part of such a hardworking education focused community!