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Brain food

A successful turnaround educator offers advice on how to bring out the best in your child.

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.

Anne Marie Feld is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times; on BabyCenter; and in the anthologies Mommy Wars, Because I Love Her, and Modern Love. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 5, though both seem to be teenagers.

Comments from readers

"Great article! Are you aware of any 'hands on' high schools in MA? I have two teenagers who were both A/B students in the past and have lost interest in school. My 18 yr. old did not graduate this year and my 15 yr. old just had his first day of school and went to the nurses office feeling sick. He missed so many day s of school last yr. that he had to go to summer school and will have to take two classes that he failed agin before he graduates. They are not challenged at all. I am a single parent and don't have the resources to send them to private school. I am at my wits end and don't want to see my 15 yr. old fall in his brother's footsteps...HELP! Any ideas or words of encoragement? "