community partnership

Opportunities Toward Empowerment

In the last two months as Michigan’s Children’s new intern, opportunities toward empowerment have surfaced as a main theme that permeates the work I have witnessed here.

One of Michigan’s Children’s key advocacy strategies is to participate in the education of constituents and community leaders all over Michigan. On our webpage we offer budget breakdowns, arrange overviews on gaps in educational and racial equity, and provide resources for contacting legislators.  We create opportunities for empowerment of youth voice such as our annual KidSpeak© event, which brings youth to the Capital and provides a space for their perspective and opinion to be heard by legislators.

We also meet with community groups or organizations and present on a variety of topics concerning children’s issues.  In a recent meeting with The Coordinating Council of Calhoun County (TCC), a community group centered on promoting optimum well-being of all people in their county, the dynamics of cooperation, knowledge and collaboration give way to an impressive response.

During a presentation by Mina Hong, our senior policy associate, TCC was encouraged to gather into groups and create an advocacy strategy.  From a knowledge that only comes with an eagerness to be involved in the multiple issues facing their community, TCC members identified key issues, they came together and brainstormed multiple people in power that they could influence, and they identified community members with strengths that could be effective at communicating. What I saw that morning was a group of community leaders come together, cooperate, communicate and build on one another.

After a couple of weeks of observing policy being created and interviewing mothers of disadvantaged children (stay tuned for a publication based on those interviews in the following weeks), it can be easy to feel a little weighed down by the inherent complexity of advocacy work and the stories of struggle of some of our most vulnerable children. But of course, as we often find out, these are not the only stories being told in Michigan.  TCC demonstrated that and I learned a valuable lesson, that there is a wealth of strength and power in our communities and in our people.

This brings me back to my reflection on our work, that through the encouragement and provision of information to constituents, we have the opportunity to build upon what was already there: strong people doing hard things for the benefit of their neighbors. 

-Ben Kaiser

Ben is a BSW student at Cornerstone University completing his practicum with Michigan’s Children

Building a Bridge to Success

At a Youth Voice event held Friday, April 13th, decision makers from Calhoun County heard Marshall Alternative High School (MAHS) students discuss their changing educational experiences because of an innovative partnership that began this school year. For more information about the program, check out our Focus on Michigan’s Communities –Building a Bridge to Success: The Opportunity School.

At the event, each student was asked to talk about 1) what circumstances brought them to MAHS, 2) how their experience at the school is different from their former schools, 3) what barriers they still face that affect their educational success, and 4) what they want to be doing in 2-5 years.

The student’s stories were honest, funny, and compelling.  They each discussed barriers that still exist for their own situation like health and family issues, learning disabilities, the perceptions of their family and the public value of alternative education, and access to transportation – one student drives 70 miles round trip daily to attend school. The students identified common benefits and concerns about working toward a diploma through an alternative school rather than through a traditional high school setting.

School Rules vs. Teachers Caring.  All eight students said the main difference between their former school(s) and MAHS is that “the teachers really care.” When our moderator, Becky Rocho from Calhoun ISD, asked students to explain how they know the teachers care, they said, “I know what the rules are, they all keep me in line,” “We’re not allowed to have cell phones in class- you don’t get to talk on your phone while you’re at work, why do you need to have one in class,” and “We can only miss 7 days a semester, no job is going to let you miss 7 days without getting in trouble.”  Interestingly enough, the students all saw teacher’s involvement, clear rules and stricter school policies as their teachers caring about their success – as opposed to these things being a burden on students.

Job Connections.  Each student expressed concerns about finding jobs – and the connection that has to their ability to continue to excel. Some students said they need a job so that they can pay people for gas to get to school, or buy a car – others said they need help getting employers to see that attendance at an Alternative School is worthwhile, particularly when they feel like they’ve chosen MAHS as a positive step towards maturity and independence.  Afterwards, attendees at the event discussed developing a program in partnership with area businesses to place students in job shadowing or internship opportunities connected to student’s various career goals.

Study/Learning Habits.  When asked if there was anything else they wanted to share, one student said that what has helped him the most attending MAHS is that teachers have time in class to help.  He talked about feeling like just a number in his old school and all the rest of the students nodded in agreement.  This started a discussion about small class size and students comments included, “They won’t let you fail,” “They don’t just tell you what to do- they help you learn it,” “They give us one on one help in class,” and “They take time to be sure I understand.”  This theme was overwhelmingly reflected in attendee evaluations – the need for better funding to ensure smaller class sizes that allow more individual attention and learning.

Something to note is that the students’ perceptions weren’t unique – we see the same issues, concerns and benefits of the flexibility offered through alternative education options in programs across Michigan.  What is unique is that this program was developed in partnership with the leaders within the local public schools, community college and the local chamber of commerce.  The community has made a commitment to address the needs of their students – and by leveraging these partnerships the community will continue to grow this program that is not yet a year old.

Michigan’s Children continues to highlight innovative options for high school completion and paths to successful post-secondary and career that combat the current inequity in Michigan graduation rates for low-income students and students of color.  We work hard to move decision makers at all levels to better align state and federal policy to better support community leadership on this issue around the state.

-Beth Berglin

The State of the Union

Last night, President Obama gave his fourth State of the Union address.  As his White House Senior Advisor, David Plouffe, alluded to prior to his address, President Obama focused on the U.S.’s economic recovery by “lay[ing] out … A very specific blueprint for how we build an America that’s durable and that works for as many people in this country as possible.”

While the bulk of President Obama’s speech focused on economic recovery, jobs, energy, and foreign policy; he did spend some time discussing his vision for education.  President Obama stated, “[Education] challenges remain. And we know how to solve them.”  But more importantly, we know how to solve them for all children – regardless of socioeconomic status or racial/ethnic background.  We know what public programs and policies can be improved so that disparities in outcomes for kids – including education – can be reduced.

We need a health care system that ensures access to quality health care for young women before they become pregnant so that when they do become pregnant, they can have healthy, full-term pregnancies and deliver healthy babies.  This is particularly important for African American women who, regardless of socioeconomic status, are more likely to deliver underweight, preterm babies – babies who face greater challenges from birth.

We need an early childhood system that encompasses health, mental health, and early education that begins at birth and supports families with young children through age three.  This means that parents need access to supports – such as high quality home visiting programs – that ensure they can be their children’s first and best teachers.

We need a high quality early childhood education system that supports the healthy development of children and prepares them for school.  A high quality early childhood education that includes parental support and involvement can turnaround the educational equity gap that emerges long before children reach kindergarten doors.

We need a K-12 education system that is strong enough to provide an academically challenging course of instruction, and also flexible enough to meet the ever-changing needs of students and the economy.  The K-12 system needs to provide multiple paths to graduation which lead to equitable outcomes and post-secondary success.

We need education, business and community leaders to form partnerships to build sustainable programs that meet the needs of children, families and communities. Businesses know what types of workers they need and they can work with schools and career training programs so youth can receive job training while gaining a school diploma or post-secondary credential.

We need politicians that will listen to youth and families about the challenges they face – and then stand up for those youth and families through action in their communities and elected roles.

In order to achieve President Obama’s idea of “winning the future” our children need a great start in life that prepares them to be ready to learn when they enter school and supported as they move toward post-secondary success. Turning the economy around certainly needs to include business incentives, adult workforce retraining and support for troops coming back to the U.S., but unless we recognize the importance of ensuring the success of the next generation of workers the economic turnaround won’t last.  Investing in children, particularly those most challenged by their circumstances, must be a key part of rebuilding and strengthening Michigan’s economy.

To learn more about how Michigan’s Children believes policies can support children from cradle to career, check out our website: www.michiganschildren.org.

– Beth Berglin and Mina Hong

Cut Off But Not Cut Out

Last week, Michigan’s Children along with the University of Michigan School of Social Work (UM-SSW) convened a gathering of social service and outreach agencies to gain a better understanding of the recent policy changes to the Family Independence Program – the state’s cash assistance program – and how social service providers can better outreach to families getting cut off cash assistance.  Friends of Michigan’s Children including the Center for Civil Justice, United Way, Alternatives for Girls, Southwest Solutions, and Starfish Family Services were in attendance at the extremely sobering meeting.  The bottom line – too many families in Southeast Michigan, particularly families of color, are losing their cash assistance as many begin to prepare for the cold holiday season.

The unclear and nontransparent process of notifying families of the changes to their cash assistance has left many families confused as to the appeal process; what services they can and cannot receive; and how to keep their children safe, fed and warm during these winter months.  And the loss of cash assistance is on top of numerous other cuts to benefits that assist low-income families including child care assistance, clothing assistance for children, and asset testing for food assistance benefits.  Luckily for Michigan, great social service agencies throughout our state are doing everything they can to help families during this difficult time.  But will this be enough?

Last week’s convening walked service providers through the MI-BRIDGES web portal where families can change their monthly income and check their DHS benefits as well as the United Way’s 2-1-1 website where individuals can search for other non-DHS resources available to families.

For Michigan’s Children, last week’s meeting was the first step among many steps in our efforts to build a case to strengthen public policies for Michigan’s low-income families.  Though policy change can be a slow and drawn-out process, convening front line workers and agencies, collaborating with partners and sharing information is critical to informing policymakers on the best policy solutions to support low-income families and children.

-Mina Hong

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