So here I was, with a newborn, an amazing childcare situation (my friend Megan was watching Luke), and a new job that I knew virtually nothing about. The first several months were rocky: the grant was just getting off the ground, I didn’t work much, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
However, as I started to learn more about the program, I was hooked. It’s called Caring School Community, and it’s been around for well over 20 years. Our grant was studying the benefits: how making an elementary school feel more like a community can have a positive impact on attendance and test scores, and reduce bullying and other negative behaviors that cause kids to be referred to the office. The idea is that when kids feel like they belong to the school community, have the ability to make decisions when appropriate, and realize that they are competent as learners, the other things fall into place much more easily.
The way the grant worked was that local school districts were chosen at random, and then elementaries from within that district were chosen at random (superintendents agreed to let their schools participate). 40 total schools were selected, and they were diverse: socio-economically, racially, rural/suburban. And these schools were not targeted as “troubled” or anything…these were just 40 St. Louis-area neighborhood schools. Over the course of 4 years, the schools were gradually brought into the program, so that there were always control schools. I learned more about data than I ever cared to know.
It was my job as a coach to train and support the administrators and teachers about CSC, working primarily with a leadership team at each school, but also with the staff at large. Some schools were a dream to work with; others, well, were not. After all, they had been chosen to do this – very different from CHOOSING to do this. And to see results, the whole staff really has to buy into the aspects of the program. It takes a huge commitment to make this happen, but truly, the results are long-lasting and can palpably change a school.
In retrospect, the 4 years flew by. In real life, not quite so much…after all, I’d had another baby (who was perfectly timed so as not to miss much work) and I’d picked up a lot more hours of work along the way. My schedule was never predictable, so getting into a routine was impossible. And have you ever worked for the federal government? Just thinking about the documentation makes my head spin. All of which makes for a very tired mama.
However, I felt privileged, at the end of the grant, to have worked on something that felt meaningful. To have forged relationships with educators and administrators who were so completely dedicated to being better at teaching children. To see schools change for the better. And for all of the research to prove that the theory was correct: test scores improved, attendance went up, office referrals went down. To have gained confidence in the local public school system (remember, I was a Catholic-school girl, and as a non-Catholic now, I had concerns about sending my kids to public school, and private school was too expensive, so this was a major boost).
As the grant’s ending neared, Matt and I were frequently discussing that maybe it was a good time for me to be home with the boys. After all, we wanted another baby, we’d both always wanted me to be home full-time when it could happen financially, and there was not going to be as much work available when the grant ended (due to the success of the grant, other local schools decided to purchase the program so that they could reap the benefits, too!). So my next career, as a stay-at-home mom, began in October of 2006. And Jack Henry joined us in September of 2007.
Over the last almost-five years, I’ve stayed in touch with some of my colleagues. What I’ve discovered is that this kind of program is a lot like parenting: we saw some great results in the 4 years of the grant, but what’s happening now is really where the story lies…the payoff comes much later. Many of the schools from the grant have gone on to win state and national character education awards that are a really big deal. For me, it’s not about the award: it’s that these teachers and principals have committed themselves so completely to educating the whole child that they’ve transformed their schools. Seriously, it makes me tear up knowing where some of these schools came from to achieve what they have, and to know that schools that were already good are now great.
You can only imagine my joy when I discovered that my boys’ already-wonderful school was going to start CSC training this summer (the program is still available for schools to purchase through CHARACTERplus). I handed over my old materials to our principal, and I joined our school’s character education leadership team at training last week Monday-Wednesday. The 7-person team will go back to the school and train the rest of the staff on the program.
Do you know how surreal it is to sit in a training that you used to give? And have a completely new role? Just…bizarre. In a wonderful, worlds-are-colliding way. I can’t wait to see how things unfold at our school.