Austin Coming Together hears education concerns at listening event

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Julia Flowers has some advice for educators: “The kids need therapy.”

“You can’t even imagine some of the stuff these kids live through,” said Flowers, an executive assistant at Westside Health Authority. “You can’t learn if you know you’re going to go home and get your butt kicked.”

Her suggestion: Offer a safe space in schools where kids can come together and talk openly about their problems.

Group therapy for students was one of hundreds ideas tossed out Tuesday evening at a community listening event for Austin Coming Together, a new coalition of nonprofit organizations, residents and others dedicated to improving life on the West Side. About 100 people gathered at Austin Town Hall to discuss one of the coalition’s two top priorities: education.

The event was the first in a series of public meetings during which ACT will develop strategic plans for its education and economic development initiatives. After priorities are established, Austin Coming Together will help the various groups doing this kind of work in Austin to find the money to fund them.

“We’re trying to develop a continuum of services from the cradle to the career,” said Simone Woods, a YMCA employee and head of ACT’s education committee.

Austin Coming Together Executive Director Rev. Reggie L. Bachus kicked off the evening’s small-group brainstorming sessions with a call to action.

“How many of you have heard of China?” Bachus began, evoking giggles and a few sheepishly raised hands. “How many of you know that China has a 100-year plan to become a top economic power? … They’ve been implementing it for a long time, and they’re well on their way to achieving it.”

“Why can’t we do that in Austin?” he continued, introducing visions of a 10-year plan to turn around the community. “We have the resources, we have the entrepreneurship … Everything we need is in this room.”

It is vital to reach students by the 9th grade, Bachus argued, pointing to research that students who are “on track” in their freshman year – that is, failing no more than one class –are four times more likely to graduate on time than those students who are failing two or more classes.

In order to achieve this, he suggested bringing a career focus into classrooms as early as elementary school – a tactic that could be achieved easily by pairing an elementary school with a high school that shares a focus.

For example, an elementary school that feeds into Austin Polytechnical Academy might offer its kids a pre-engineering curriculum, robotics after-school club and engineering career days, Bachus said.

Byron Stingily, principal of Banner North High School at 1625 W. Diversey Pkwy., broached the question later with his discussion group, where participants mulled the pros and cons of asking students to identify a career path at a young age.

Participants also suggested offering internships to high schoolers and cracking down on elementary schools who pass students lagging behind grade level. Integrating life skills – such as anger management, conflict resolution and etiquette – into the curriculum also topped their list of recommendations.

Stingily shared a tactic used at his school – “peace circles,” a moment when groups of students check in with one another at the beginning and end of each school day.

“At first I thought it was corny,” Stingily said, noting that his colleagues are shocked that there are no fights at his school. “But it works.”

Austin Coming Together will host another listening event focused on education 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15.

Today at ACT’s monthly business meeting, bylaws for the group were approved as was a 13-member board of directors. Here are the members:

Michele Milewski of ABC Bank

Sharif Walker of After School Matters

Ruth Kimble of Austin Childcare Providers’ Network

Mildred Wiley of Bethel New Life

Pastor Reginald E. Bachus of Friendship Baptist Church

Bill Gerstein of Chicago Public Schools

Mike Ivers of GoodCity

Beverly Meek of JPMorgan Chase Foundation

Laura Erving Bailey of Phalanx Family Services

Valerie Matthews of Tasteful Manners

Brad Cummings of The Voice

Lise McKean of University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education

Shnesa Wiggins of Youth on the Move Serving Others

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