Speaking For Kids

Connecting My Brother’s Keeper to Policy

October 30, 2015 – Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the launch convening of the Washtenaw County’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative.   My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama to focus on specific solutions to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.  Washtenaw County joins a dozen or so other Michigan communities who are part of the MBK initiative, demonstrating that many communities across our state are committed to reversing the trend we see in decades of data  suggesting that  our attempts to reduce disparities by race continue to fall short for boys of color.

The goals of the MBK initiative are to ensure that all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready and read at grade level by 3rd grade; that all young people graduate from high school, complete post-secondary education or training and remain safe from violent crime; and that all youth out of school are employed.  Michigan is far from those outcomes now.

All of these areas are of great importance to Michigan’s Children, and as a Washtenaw County resident, I’d love to help connect the dots between these localized efforts in my community and public policy priorities.  I was very pleased to see a handful of policymakers in attendance, ranging from local city council to U.S. Congress and everyone in between.  However, the locally-focused conversation felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to connect the great ideas generated at the convening and the role of public policy to help implement or remove policy barriers to them.  As Michigan communities continue to roll out MBK action plans, a few thoughts.

First, the challenges of boys and men of color are important to everyone.  The prosperity of our state relies on the success of all of our future workers.  If data and evidence demonstrate that a significant portion of our child population is falling behind, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that programs and services are providing equitable opportunities for all children to succeed.  We can’t rely solely on localized efforts, but rather, statewide public will and policies must support these efforts to ensure that all children and youth – including children and youth of color – can succeed for the future prosperity of our state.

Second, the state department that was represented, and who represents the MBK initiative in Lansing, is the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).  While I am glad to see that there is state-level connection to these localized efforts, the role of the MCSC is to connect its programs like AmeriCorps, Mentor Michigan and other volunteerism initiatives to MBK efforts.  This is an essential piece, but to really impact outcomes, we need other state departments to be part of the conversation like the Education, Health and Human Services, Workforce Development, Civil Rights, Corrections, and others whose investment strategies and everyday decisions impact the lives of boys and men of color.  These departments can help design better investment, policies, rules and programs that can best support MBK efforts.

And finally, along those same lines, we know that public policies and investment strategies have contributed to the  “pipeline” that we see too often play out in the lives of boys of color, and that changes to those policies and investments can and should play a vital role to prevent and mitigate its continuation.  Public policy must support efforts to improve access to high quality early childhood education for the children who are most at-risk of starting kindergarten behind, expanding afterschool and summer learning programs for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these equity-promoting programs, connecting students and families to wraparound needs through integrated school services, or connecting the dots between community-based initiatives and state department efforts’ to expand trauma-informed practices across all sectors.  As MBK initiatives across our state continue to develop and implement plans, and local communities take responsibility for improved outcomes for boys of color, Michigan’s Children will stay connected to those efforts to help connect the dots between local innovation and the policy and investment required to support them.

-Mina Hong

Students, Living with Trauma, Struggle in School

October 12, 2015 — John Green, award winning young adult author, recently gave a TEDx Talk in Indianapolis entitled, “The nerd’s guide to learning everything online.” He explained how he was a terrible student and felt education was a series of hurdles he didn’t care to jump. He said teachers would threaten him by saying he couldn’t get a good job because his GPA was too low and it would go on his permanent record. “As far as I could tell at eleven or twelve years old, people with good jobs woke up early in the morning and the men with good jobs, one of the first things they did was tie a strangulation item of clothing around their necks,” he said. “That’s not a recipe for a happy life. Why would I want to jump over all of these hurdles and have that be the end? That’s a terrible end!”

John Green’s example may seem exaggerated but it is the perception of many students and as experts say in the world of sales and advertising, perception is reality. Students who struggle with trauma in their lives often see little to no importance in attending school. They see it as a hurdle, a hurdle that by law is required of them and a hurdle someone other than them cares more about. Why should a student who is burdened by the crushing weight of poverty, hunger, abuse, having to be the main source of income, living in a crime-infested neighborhood, loss of family and friends to violence, being a teen parent, being the parent to their parent(s), and having intermittent heat, electricity, or running water want to attend school? When life is about survival, school is an unnecessary hurdle.

School should not feel like a hurdle, should not feel like something one has to do for someone else. Students have mastered the basic economic principle of opportunity cost without realizing they have. Many students living with trauma see the cost of attending school as greater than the benefits. By being at school, they see the lost opportunity of getting a job, making money, parenting younger siblings, and having the freedom to make their own choices. They don’t see nor value the future benefits promised of an education because they are focused on trying to survive the present.

According to the 2009 New York Times article, “Large Urban-Suburban Gap Seen in Graduation Rates,” the urban-suburban school attendance and graduation gap is due to the inequality of teacher quality from classroom to classroom. We have to start at ground zero, in the classroom, with increasing the quality of teachers and teaching if we are to motivate students to attend school. The teacher ultimately holds the power to motivate students to attend school and the classroom is ground zero for inspiring students. If teachers create a safe and nurturing environment in the classroom, if they differentiate and individualize instruction based on the needs, wants, and learning styles of students, students will want to attend school. If teachers provide students extended learning opportunities such as guest speakers, field trips, contests, simulations, projects, character building workshops, and college and career fairs, students will attend school.

Steps are being taken to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in the alternative and urban schools; however progress is slow and infrequent. Hamtramck Public Schools is one of the few school districts in Michigan to have a person dedicated to teacher evaluation and instructional improvement, which is my current position with the district. The University of Michigan –Dearborn is one of the first and few universities to have a concentration area in Metropolitan Education for their Education Specialist and Doctoral degree programs. More secondary schools and institutions of higher learning should develop programs and plans specifically to improve the quality of instruction within urban and alternative education schools. By doing so, students living with trauma will receive the emotional, social, and academic support they need and will be motivated to attend and stay in school.

– Tim Constant, Director of Teacher Evaluation and Instructional Improvement, Hamtramck Public Schools

Michigan’s Children invited Constant to write a blog about the importance of trauma-informed practices in education and the need for integrated school services to help all students achieve greater academic success. Tim has been involved with Michigan’s Children for many years, ensuring that the young people he serves have a voice in the public policy process. We were glad for him to share his thoughts about recent work to include components of trauma informed practice into expected outcomes for the educators he supports.

Raising Voices for Change

October 6, 2015 – After spending the last 10 months interning for Michigan’s Children I have learned about the importance of raising community voices up to policymakers. Through this process we can all learn about the true needs of a community from the people who understand the situation best. It is this idea that inspired me to help organize and plan a FamilySpeak event where caregivers of many different forms (birth parents, foster parents, kinship parents and adoptive parents) would come to Lansing and share stories of struggle and triumph in their journey to raise the child(ren) in their care.

On September 22, 2015, 11 caregivers from across the state came to the State Capitol Building in Lansing to address a listening panel comprised of policymakers and community organizations. Watching the Speaker’s Library fill up with elected officials, representatives from DHHS, MDE, and the Governors Office I felt very excited about the policy and administrative changes that could come from this event.

Though the policymakers hold the power to make change, the real stars of this event were the families who made the extraordinary effort to travel from all across the state to share their stories at the Capitol. Few people enjoy public speaking, and even fewer enjoy public speaking about personal, and emotional struggle; but that didn’t stop the 11 caregivers from getting up and telling those in attendance about their experiences with the child welfare system – the good and the bad.

Already, only two weeks out from this event, Michigan’s Children has seen the affects of this event in the Legislature and the Departments. I recognize that policy change is usually slow and incremental, but I truly believe that positive policy change will come from this event.

From myself, and on behalf of Michigan’s Children, thank you to all who attended our FamilySpeak event. And to all the caregivers – Thank you, thank you! This event would not have been possible without your efforts.

– Cainnear Hogan

Cainnear is an intern for Michigan’s Children. She is currently completing her MSW at the University of Michigan – School of Social Work.

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