February was a very productive month in the life of the VISTA in RCSD Health and Wellness program-the school based assessment were completed, grant funds were won on behalf of 4 schools, over 80 organizations were recruited for the health fair, connections seem to be coming out of the woodwork.  If I were to guess, this is the part when I hit my peak productivity and it is exhilarating.   

However, in the last week or so, what has really been on my mind is the issue of sequestration. Just yesterday, all of us VISTAs received an email from the Corporation assuring us that while there were significant cuts looming in the near future, all of our contracts were going to continue to be upheld for the rest of our service year.  After the initial feeling of relief that I would not have to be coming up with a plan B immediately,  I began to think about the enormity of the financial crisis.  The $85 billion cut before the end of the fiscal year is a number beyond many of our comprehensions. It is when we think about the number of children who will be denied Headstart programs, and the number of air traffic control towers that will be closed, the impact on the Weather Service, FEMA, teachers, defense cuts- it is then we begin to realize the enormity and indiscriminate nature of the sequester. 

Yet, we at the CNCS are used to constantly being on the chopping block in a way to reduce the national budget. As early as PSO, we are trained to give an elevator speech about who we are as VISTAs, what we do, and why it is important enough to continue funding.    But in the upcoming days and months,  in the midst of the governmental financial turmoil, we must begin to think that our strategy that it needs adapting. We are no longer competing for funding from the handful of programs that are considered to be so far from “essential” that they are easily disposable.  We are now facing cuts along with almost all of the governmental programs in the country.  We are now on untrodden soil. 


East High School students to visit RACE: Are We So Different? over February break

 February break is coming up in the next week for East High School students; a prime time for which to engage them in college visits and field trips as these excursions will not interfere with instructional time. Over the week, I have helped to give students the opportunity to visit Nazareth College, The University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo. Yet, what promises to be perhaps the most enlightening and valuable trip of the week is to the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC). Through a scholarship I was able to secure from the RMSC as well as generous funding from the Center for Youth, eight East High School students have the opportunity to view the RACE exhibit for free and learn about the concept of race through social, historical and biological lenses. 

     So what exactly is race? It’s a word we throw around and think about from time to time, but do we really know what it signifies? An official definition will tell you that race essentially refers to the physical, biological traits that a group of people share. However, such a definition fails to mention a highly important aspect of race which is that, technically speaking, it does not even exist! Race is nothing more than a social construction; a phenomenon developed by society as a way to place people into specific categories as a method of identity. Think about it, the various meanings that have been historically attached to physical features did not just pop out of thin air! They were created and deemed “socially significant” or important by society over the years and have been perpetuated ever since. 

     Many portions of the RACE exhibit are centered around the very idea that race is nothing more than an abstract concept derived by society that has been perpetuated to dangerous proportions. Already having viewed the exhibit, my favorite part was the display outlining that different skin colors originally developed in humans as a evolutionary response to the differing amounts of vitamin D available in environments across various locations throughout the world. Those who lived in areas that receive a great deal of sunlight (such as Africa and near the Equator) and therefore an abundance of vitamin D developed darker skin tones in order to guard against absorbing too much. Additionally, those who lived in regions that did not see as much sun maintained light skin tones so as to be able to absorb as much valuable vitamin D as possible to remain healthy. The fact that over the years, society has taken a simple adaptation, labeled it and blown it up into the ridiculous proportions that it has reached over the years is not only shocking but very saddening.         

     Despite the fact that East High School is incredibly diverse and students have the opportunity to come in contact with others who represent a variety of cultural backgrounds, I truly feel that the RACE exhibit is very important for them (and anyone else for that matter) to take part in. Race is definitely one of those sticky subjects that we try to avoid conversing about for fear of possibly being interpreted as a “racist” or for fear that we may unknowingly offend someone. However, such supposedly “controversial” topics that we often ignore are perhaps the most important to engage in dialogue about regularly. If we simply ignore pressing issues because we find them uncomfortable to talk about, we are not only eliminating any hope for change in the future but also actively supporting the continued spread of such negativity. I am so excited to be able to give students at East the opportunity to be empowered by the material they see at the RACE exhibit to begin these important dialogues and subsequently enact powerful, positive change in their communities.

Alumni-Engagement Programs

Hurricanes and earthquakes have the advantage of being quickly devastating where everyone can see the damage. Child poverty and high school graduation rates have a gradual effect on the community therefore people are not focused on it. We have a reactive society as oppose to a proactive society.
We would need some type of natural disaster or Rosa Parks statement to create a movement. Childhood poverty and low high school graduation rates are nothing new but there has not been any light on the situation. The lack of education and understanding the average person knows about poverty is minimal. The average person does not understand how multi-faceted poverty really is. Then when people are educated about poverty the amount of help needed is overwhelming which leads to a sense of hopelessness. It is easier to push the situation away and say that it is “not my problem” or “they chose to be that way” when the reality is no one chooses to be homeless or hungry.
We can all agree that our educational system is failing. I am tired of hearing the “well it’s the teachers fault” or “it’s the student’s fault they don’t want to learn or they don’t care”. I wish more people would consider the entire picture and start fixing the problems and stop blaming a certain groups of people. Students are coming into school with pressing-emotional issues that most people would probably go to therapy for. This “they don’t care attitude” could be because they don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight or when their next meal is going to come from. I had a 10 year old girl tell me a story about how her friend was mugged yesterday. This girl is 10 years old! It is hard for teachers to teach when the majority of their students are more focused on getting their basic needs met. This leads to low literacy, low test scores and low graduation rates. The students need more support, the teachers need support but they receive pressure from the state to perform and pump out outcomes that are not attainable.
The school district is trying to address the more support issue by the expanded learning day. Expanded learning helps improve outcomes for children by providing expanded academic enrichment and engagement, leveraging community resources to offer instruction and experimental learning opportunities in core and other subjects. Expanded learning incorporated strategies such as hands-on learning, working in teams and problem solving to contribute to as well-rounded education. The Rochester community has a very strong sense of urgency which you can see by the many programs and resource they do use in the schools.

Re: “Follow the Money”

What if the crisis facing Rochester youth was treated with the same urgency as natural disaster response?  If childhood poverty and high school graduation rates were considered as damaging to our communal well being as a hurricane or an earthquake?  Maybe then we would put some money into it.

There is nothing we need more desperately than a paradigm shift when we talk, think, and strategize about improving the situation for our youth here in Rochester.  Without a doubt the dropout rates and literacy rates are abysmal in Rochester and the far-reaching effects are even more catastrophic, but the way that I see it, money is not the issue and it is certainly not the solution.  The proposed budget for the 2012-2013 for RCSD is over $700,000,000, with the average cost per student surpassing $21,000 for the year.  That number is nearly double the national average(~$11,000) and far above the NYS average (~$17,000). [Aside: New York State spends the most per child on public education in the nation.] Money is not the issue.  We spend a lot on our children. 

There is an argument that we need to spend more on our children in the city because our children have significantly higher needs than their suburban counterparts.  The idea is that because of this need the amount that they require so surpasses the average that the amounts should never be compared.  While I agree there is  some truth in that, I believe that at this point the financial investment we have made in our kids should be resulting in progress. 

But it hasn’t.

We need to start coming to terms with the fact that the situation we have with education, poverty, child development is a crisis as catastrophic as a natural disaster with even further reaching consequences. Yet, we cannot treat it like a natural disaster.  With a hurricane, the day begins with business as usual and then unexpectedly and with great force, the hurricane destroys our reality.  Within days of the storm’s completion (and the storm does pass), the destruction is done.  As heart-wrenching and destructive as a natural disaster can be, it always stops and allows us to start to rebuild.  The reconstruction is a powerful time where money and volunteers flood in.  While “normalcy” seems so far away from the first day of rebuilding, immediately you can see progress made: a shelter is constructed, food comes in, a foundation is poured, walls go up, streets are repaved. 

Yet our situation is not like that.  Poverty is a slow decline: the consequences entrenched in all elements of our community, education, health, employment, etc. Poverty does not stop to let us regroup and start to work our way up.  We do not know always where to start or what will help.  We cannot dump money into our community and expect to see immediate results. 

Here in lies the problem: the solution to our problem needs to be aggressive, yet nuanced at the same time.  We must change our course if we do not see progress, yet we will never see instant results so we must also know when to wait. 

Right now, we have a broken system.  Can we afford to continue to make changes without a clear course of action, to make change for change’s sake?  Can we afford not to?

Follow the Money

What if the crisis facing Rochester youth was treated with the same urgency as natural disaster response?  If childhood poverty and high school graduation rates were considered as damaging to our communal well being as a hurricane or an earthquake?  Maybe then we would put some money into it.

Youth empowerment through service learning

One of the things I have come to enjoy the most about being a Rochester Youth Year Fellow is  being able to engage in valuable professional development activities and attend exciting events that I would certainly not have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Over the past five months I have seen congresswoman Louise Slaughter speak at a Rochester City School District board meeting, met senator Kirsten Gillibrand, learned a great deal about youth empowerment and even improved my public speaking skills. Not only have these experiences helped to strengthen my professionalism but they have also served to further inspire me to do the best work I possibly can at East High School.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the RYY VISTA Leader about a professional development workshop that would be taking place at my alma mater, Nazareth College, called “Service-Learning: A Youth Development Strategy.” As one of the major projects I am working on during my year of service is working to engage students in East Takes Action, the school’s community service club, I figured that this opportunity would definitely be worthwhile.

The workshop was conducted by Dr. Marie Watkins who is the Director of the Center for Service Learning at Nazareth College. While the primary focus of the workshop was understanding the difference between a basic “community service” project and a “service learning” project, the piece that stuck with me the most was the importance of involving youth in both the planning as well as the execution of these endeavors. Even though this may seem like a “no brainer” as far as planning service activities with youth, the general consensus of the workshop participants was that youth were generally absent from the more logistical parts of these projects.

Far too often, it seems as though adults take the forceful approach when it comes to involving youth in community service projects; requiring them to complete a certain number of hours to fulfill a graduation requirement or even using it as a punishment. Unfortunately, while these certainly lead youth to becoming positively involved in their community, they do not necessarily lead to enjoyment or prolonged experiences in service. However, if youth are given more of a voice in their service experiences in terms of being able to plan and make decisions about exactly what they want to be involved in based on their own interests, the likelihood that they will enjoy what they are doing and will possibly continue to be engaged for years to come.

While East Takes Action is a student run club and therefore thrives on youth decision making and planning, there are a number of adults involved in many of the logistical areas of this organization, such as budgetary matters and general community outreach. This workshop definitely inspired me to take another look at the way this club operates and hopefully identify ways in which the students are able to collaborate more closely with the adults on the logistical matters to truly make the organization their own. With this new knowledge regarding youth empowerment and effective service learning project planning strategies, I am very excited to see what this club will be able to accomplish in the coming months!

RCSD Alumni-Engagement Updates

What has the Alumni-Engagement program been up too? Late November was a lot of preparing for the event that was going to be on December 5th2012 in collaboration with Bryant & Stratton College. The first project was updating the volunteer’s positions list and contacts. I wanted to make sure if I was selling information that it was correct and updated. Most of the organizations we work with had similar volunteer positions open but some peoples contact information had changed. I compiled these resources into a packet to hand out to interested volunteers. The majority of my preparation was researching how the alumni-engagement program aligned with the superintendent’s initiatives. The three content areas are graduation rates, school attendance and student behavior. There was a lot of research on mentoring programs and how the social – emotional affects youth positively in a wide variety of areas, including emotional and behavioral functioning, academic achievement, and career development. Students who regularly participate in high-quality afternoon programs reduce the risk of juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and have better school attendance. They have a decreased chance in dropping out, earn higher grades, and develop better socially.  I am proud to report that Rochester scored in the high 3 and 4s out of 4 on the After-School Assessment Annul report.  Unfortunately the program was canceled due to lack of interest.

The next step for the alumni-program is to get the career coaching piece off the ground and running. I have met with Randell Sirens who has a virtual career coaching organization and Ozzy Arroyo who has repurposed Rochester Pillars building.  Randell Sirens is the head of Inspire Our Youthwhich provides a free service on the organization’s that allows students to quickly and easily connect with working professional mentors who work in occupations / professions that they are interested in pursuing.  Students are able to ask mentors questions they have about an occupation / profession of interest.  The goal of operating this service is to help students understand the realities of the workplace environment and help inspire them to start developing a career plan as early as they can to meet their career goals.  We are hoping to be able to refer people to him when volunteers are interested in career coaching and have limited availability to become career coaches. Ozzy Arroyo is head of Rochester Pillars which is going to a networking site for youth and budding professionals.  Students that know the occupation they want have the opportunity to have coffee with a professional who knows the reality of that profession.  This leads to insights and hopefully an internship for the student. They will also be providing chef experience for students at east high school culinary project classes, technology and media projects and hosting community events. Both of these individuals are wonderful to work with and I am excited to launch this program soon! 


My last project is the MLK project at STEM High School. The idea behind the project is to have students who are seeking extra regents help be able to work with volunteers from the one of the local colleges. It is in progress! I filled out the paperwork to have the school open and the bus pick up the students. Beth is working on providing breakfast for the students and helping with the planning and implementation of that day. I spoke with the principal this morning and she is very excited about this opportunity! I am too!