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 program 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, offers students practical help — advocates assist with college applications and educate kids about what they’ll need to gain admission — but the real secret to the program’s success comes from working closely with students to help them discover their interests, which guides them a future they can get excited about. Leff shared her insights with GreatSchools about how parents can inspire and motivate kids and teens who may not be thriving in school.

Be here now

Getting kids motivated to pursue success, says Leff, 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, who stresses that relationships and connection are what speak loudest to kids.  Recent studies back this up: The single most important thing you can do to spark your child’s interest in learning is to create a nurturing, connected relationship. By talking with your child, listening, and doing activities together, you’ll observe what your child naturally gravitates toward.

Once you do, you can help him gain experience in those areas. Says Leff, “It’s really important to help kids identify the things that interest them and to help them find positive outlets for those interests.” Shared cultural experiences or volunteering together are good places to start, especially if you work and plan together. If you’ve got a TV addict on your hands, try taking her to the taping of a television show or a museum of broadcasting to spur conversations about how programs are produced and what makes for entertaining programming. Buy or borrow a video camera and put it in her hands. The idea is to expose your child to the notion that she can create as well as consume.

If your kid loves video games, see if you can get him interested in how animation is produced. Many tech museums have computers and cameras for kids to produce their own games and short animations. You can also take him to free gallery exhibitions of animation art. The key is to expose them to opportunities for learning and doing in the areas that spark their interest.

Supporting kids’ interests

You teach skills through projects,” says Leff. For one such project, she invited her students to research public transportation problems in their neighborhood. After the case was built, they took it to the next level and presented their arguments to the Chicago Transit Authority. “When you do things like that, kids feel really, really excited and there’s a sense of urgency,” says Leff.

Help your child research something she cares about in her community and present it at an open school board or community board meeting. Local public radio stations often have opportunities for listeners of all ages to talk on the air about issues that shape their communities. Making something together — something with a definite beginning, middle, and end — can also provide the focus for an educational project. This could be as elaborate as building a tree house or as modest as creating a family tree.

Sparking and supporting your child’s interests can be done at no cost around the kitchen table or walking in a park. Some of the work can be done in partnership with schools and community groups; some is done in libraries and museums. The good news is that none of it requires expensive toys or equipment. It’s about enjoying your time together; finding ways to expose your child to people, ideas, and experiences to help her grow.

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