A successful turnaround educator offers advice on how to bring out the best in your child.
Three ways to nourish your youngster’s mind
Follow his interests. Ask leading questions and explore alongside your child. This shows that learning can happen at all stages in life.
Move beyond the comfort zone. Find opportunities where your child can make a contribution to her community — volunteerism is a great way to learn how different political and cultural institutions operate. VolunteerMatch is a good place to start.
Seek out experiences that build skills. Find programs in your community that can help your child build skills he lacks. Think of your child’s educational weaknesses as muscles that can be developed instead of hurdles or deficits.
By Anne Marie Feld
When Lila Leff marched into the principal’s office at Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side in 1995, two things stood out immediately — the soft brown curls that trailed down her back and her take-no-prisoners attitude.
Leff, executive director of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, wanted to start a program to get some of the city’s most challenged kids into college, and Manley needed all the help it could get. Plagued by entrenched poverty, low test scores, and a college acceptance rate below 10 percent, the school was a dropout factory.
Manley’s principal took a chance on Leff’s brainchild and won. This year more than 60 percent of Manley’s students will go on to college, many of them on scholarship.
Umoja, which is Swahili for unity, varies its approach to reach students at different ages and stages. Help is available on a practical level — advocates assist with college applications and educate kids about what they’ll need to gain admission — but the real secret to its success comes from the staff working closely with students to foster curiosity, and how that curiosity will guide them to their futures.
Umoja facilitates hands-on learning in the broadest sense. Hundreds of Umoja students have climbed onto buses and planes and toured colleges, or completed community service projects such as home rehabilitations in their neighborhoods. They’ve competed in poetry slams and gone through leadership training, and they continue to lean on Umoja long after they’ve left for college, returning for help on writing term papers or adjusting to a setting that isn’t punctuated by the sound of gunfire (see "Umoja's Children" for examples of success stories).
Recently, I spoke to Leff about how Umoja works to help feed kids’ minds and how parents can do the same. She says it begins with listening.
“Adults talk at kids, and they tell them how the world is, and how to behave in it, and it’s not a very effective means of doing business,” says Leff. “Kids don’t show up for classes, and they don’t show up for programs. They show up for relationships, and that’s true of all critical conversations that anyone has, including a parent.”
Recent studies back this up — while clarinet lessons and rocket-building kits are all educational, the single most important thing you can do to feed your child’s brain is to create a nurturing, connected relationship. Doing things together, and having fun, is key. Observe what your child naturally gravitates toward, and then help him gain experience in those areas.