Creating a College / Community Synthesis

America is obsessed with sports. And nowhere is this more evident than with high school sports. Very often 16 and 17 year olds are the masthead of a community’s sense of pride. How goes the local high school football or basketball team … so goes the collective psyche of the community. This is especially the case in “Small Town U.S.A.” These students are revered not unlike that of the gladiators in ancient Rome. Stories of their exploits hold high priority in the morning newspaper and on the 10:00 pm local newscast. In some areas of the country, Texas for example, high school football games can draw over 20,000 rapid fans. In fact the successful television series, Friday Night Lights, was based entirely on this phenomenon.

An unfortunate circumstance of this is that other students, their peers, are for the most part looked at with either irrelevance or outright distrust. “They don’t have any experience, so how can they know anything. And since they don’t know anything, how can’t we trust them. They’re all lazy, spending all their time staring at their phones or playing video games.”

I’m not trying to demonize high school sports and their student participants though. On the contrary, I want to use them as a template for a more inclusive view of how a community should view all its young people. And hopefully we can use this evolved view as the foundation for building sustainable communities of future.

The recruiting efforts of most colleges and universities in America mirror that of the 10:00 pm local news. Their attention is focused on high school sports and specifically on these sports’ top performers. Colleges gear up (literally and figuratively), falling all over each other, to sign four and five-star athletic recruits. The four and five-star recruits in leadership and science, well … they don’t have anyone gearing up for them, waiting in any lines anywhere.

Colleges wait for the rest of the non-athlete prospective students to come to them. They look at grades, or standardized test scores and maybe a recommendation (which are useless) to fill out their student body. But seldom do anything proactive. Why aren’t the student leaders in a high school recruited like athletes. These are our future leaders – the ones who will in turn will be influential alumni and donors. If you don’t recruit them – they’ll go somewhere else and become influential alumni and donors there.

Community 3.0 and Student Civic Engagement

The purpose of my community empowerment project, Community 3.0, is to connect small businesses to their community through volunteer projects. These connections will organize to solve its community’s problems directly by through Front Porch civic gathering hub set up at the businesses. The Front Porch empowers us to reclaim the priorities of our neighborhoods and communities – and do something about them through hands-on volunteer projects. It enables us to organize and take action directly, not wait on the sidelines while traditional institutions and government may or may not act (most likely the latter).

Under this participatory societal model, each business or Front Porch will sponsor Solutions as part of their involvement in the Community 3.0 network. They are designed to help their community pick up the slack and mend the societal safety net. We all know we need as much help as we can get considering our current political situation. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring program. And by being a customer of a merchant on the Community 3.0 network, whether young or old, you can get involved with whatever Solution fits your strengths and your desires. 

High school and college student involvement in volunteer activities is integral to anchoring them to the civic functions of their hometowns. For them to stay, they must look at their hometowns as more than just placeholders for a future somewhere else. For a community to truly grow and create a sustainable future, it needs its young to not only stay in town – but become educated and put that knowledge they obtain in college to work helping design their community’s future.

 The collaborative goal of all schools, high school and college – should be to nurture the local communities by replenishing them with educated talent, specifically talent who has a participatory vested interest in them.

Repositioning the Role of Higher Education

How many colleges consider themselves truly part of the community. Or more so – how many consider their role preparing their students to direct the future of the communities they’ve been part of for the last four years while in school? And for that matter, how many care about creating leaders for the communities where these students come from? I’m guessing most don’t care where their students end up – geographically or professionally. It’s a sad state of American higher education … but I’m afraid it’s all too much the case.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. 

Community colleges, the outcast of the higher education system, create a lot more of a community connection than their four-year counterparts. Four-year colleges could learn a lot from them. They don’t have offer the same curriculum, and don’t even have to follow the current needs of the community (though that wouldn’t hurt). They just have to be cognizant of where they are. Why can’t the role of a four-year college or university be to mold future leaders that will create the future of nearby cities and towns. These colleges could be a major influence in these communities direction … rather than just being passive revenue generators and focal points for sports jingoism.

While this would involve a rework of the college’s mission statement – it may be less than you think. As much as anything, it’s making a conscious effort to care where the students end up after graduation. The student transition from college to the real world is haphazard at best – and more often terrifying. Far too many don’t even make use of the degrees they spent four years of their lives and thousands of dollars to obtain. The hope is they will be prepared brave the world – mentally, emotionally and financially. And for most, they’ll have to do alone (if they don’t move back home with their parents). Some manage … and some don’t, mired in school loan debt, prohibiting any chance of creatively finding themselves in the first real unstructured life experience they’ve ever had.

For some reason higher education has chosen to emulate the medical industry (the worst aspects of it). Since follow-up isn’t a paid for service – it seldom happens. In this world of short-term thinking and transition-be-damned, the idea of striving for log-term positive outcomes, even only a year down the road – isn’t even part of the student/college algorithm. Too often the only post-graduation communication an alma mater has with its alumni is a donation request. And some of these requests come even before graduation. Imagine how much more effective it would be reaching out first, no-strings-attached, with an offer of help … especially at one the most difficult times in the life of an alumnus.  Helping them make connection with older alumni who can act as mentors could initiate a life-altering experience … for all of them.

The reason I’m obsessing on this isn’t to just bash the state of high education in America – but to present the academic side with a viable marketing and recruiting solution by emulating the sports analogy I mentioned above.

If we decide to tackle this new mission (and “we” since I want to join you on this journey), we must recognize that the repositioned role of the college is community building by providing and training the talent that will be responsible for its future. The curriculum and education processes a college provides must be a means to an end – not the end in itself. The college is not a destination or end point … but rather a conduit or vehicle for something much larger and more significant – geographically and chronologically.

Central to a higher education focus built around the community is obliquity. Obliquity is defined as, “solutions to complex problems are often best found through indirect means.” While at the helm of General Electric, the iconic CEO Jack Welsh was once asked a question by a reporter what his plans were to increase profit and revenue above its already record-setting quarter. His response took the report aback, “I don’t concern myself with profits or even revenue. My focus at GE is to make sure we are the most innovative company in each of the sectors we operate in.” And for many of them, they were – resulting in these record profits and revenue. This indirect approach to corporate financial management proved highly successful for Welsh and General Electric.

Central to our higher education indirect approach are two tenets:

  • Create future leaders from the raw hometown talent their communities refer to us
  • Assist these same communities by returning educated and well-rounded graduates to lead them in mapping and implementing their civic and economic futures.

The achieve this there would have to be a modest rework of the curriculum. This would take time, and that’s fine. Big ships, especially higher education ones, take a while to turn. But that doesn’t mean milestones can’t be achieved in the short-term and these accomplishments should have community impact. Below are the five stages of transition essential to a college commitment to a student/community focus. While personally I would love to see most colleges commit to the full five … I’m a realist and have built out the program so there can be success with only partial commitment.

Acceptance: The first progression is a simple acknowledgement that college has a responsibility not just to its students, but also to the communities they come from. This interconnected view of the individual (student or other) can often permeate indirectly through the normal actions both of those in the community and the school.

Transition program support: A step up from acceptance is acting on it. This 2nd level recognizes that community programs that were started in the students’ hometowns have merit and should be continued even while being away from home. Ways to support this is nurturing the continuance of communication between the mentoring parties at home (even if home is in the same city as the college) and the student. Dialogue during college counseling should also include discussion of the students plans after college graduation and how they fit into any current work being done with parties “back home.”

Transition programs augmentation: The 3rd level takes the support a step further by integrating issues with Solutions to these issues into existing classwork. College resources should be opened up to non-credited community project work. Colleges can even sponsor entrepreneurial or cause-based contests to further develop opportunities focused on community engagement.

Authorized independent credit: Level 4 expounds upon “Transition program augmentation” by authorizing independent credit for community-based research and project development, both in the school’s community and back home. The goal here is to spur dedicated “credit-compensated” projects that can take hold when the student returns home or even stays in the town the college is located. This is the “taking root” level – connecting the student to the community aside from just attending classes. It’s also crucial to have professorial and staff support and participation during this level.

Community-oriented class creation: Level 5 is the actual creation of a community-oriented curriculum. Classes could focus on disciplines that revolve around developing community-based sustainability efforts, placemaking, civic planning, entrepreneurship, nonprofit organization or any other related study. A further development of this commitment level is structuring a concentration or even major that would feed into a similar set of goals.

While the focus of this piece has been on recruiting new students, that’s only one of the benefits. The college that has refocused its mission around the community will more likely retain the students they attract. Once a student enrolls in the college, they are in fact joining the community. And the stronger that bond is, and not just with the school, the higher the likelihood they will stay in school. A simple 10% gain in retention is the same as attracting 10% more students. And anyone with any business and marketing experience knows – it’s a lot easier to keep customers (and yes students are customers) than to get new ones. Studies often site statistics that say it’s seven times more expensive (money and resources) to get new customers than hang on to the old ones.

And if attracting new students and retaining current ones isn’t enough, a student/community focus can produce other financial benefits also. Probably the strongest indicator of alumni financial support is the depth of the integration a college has with its community. Now some support can come from out-of-town, the bulk of the donations will come from alumni who still lives in, or have moved back to their college hometown. Get involved with the community and the community will get involved with you.

Guerrilla Marketing and Building the Referral Network

Now once the commitment is made, however deep that commitment level may be, it’s time to structure marketing and recruitment efforts accordingly. The program and the communication around it, should revolve around two main questions:

  • How will your college help the students
  • How will it help the community (either the college hometown and/or the student’s)

In a Perfect World you want a situation where a community’s leaders pitch together to persuade and support a top student to go to your college with the goal to get them back to their town after graduation. There has to be strong commitment from the community here. It’s something that your college should take an active role in establishing. This is the holy grail.

Target communities of a population 2000 or more. Don’t get hung up on state boundaries. This is especially important if your area has a regional attraction, such as ski resort or national park. If a community has multiple high schools, target each as a separate community. These will be your adjunct communities – communities where the college has a vested interest in their success since it will be molding their future talent. Ideally the town and community leaders have identified as the students they want to become educated and return to insure their town’s prosperity. Don’t take this responsibility lightly. This is the thing that’s “much larger” I mentioned above.

The stronger the contacts you have in the communities you’re recruiting from (adjunct communities), the stronger the talent who will be referred to you. Not only will top talent be uncovered (often ones that haven’t excelled in traditional ways), the higher the likelihood your school will have in landing these future stars.

Your prime referral sources of course would be alumni, but that might not always be possible. Other excellent sources are civic leaders, not just politicians, but business owners that have long-standing ties to the community and a vested interest in making sure the community prospers. School contacts are also good sources, but don’t fall into the trap of only enlisting the help of administrators. They often only focus on high-achievers from a traditional academic sense. Outliers with great potential might be over-looked. Instead, ferret out a teacher who has shown an ability to excel and inspire in unconventional ways (i.e a science teachers who creates community-driven experiments).

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of building strong community networks in these small towns. Very often their students are overlooked, except for athletics. And even then, only in a very limited sense. When asked to help – most people will, especially if they see the benefit to them and their town. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a town setting up a dedicated scholarship fund if they know the student recipient will return after graduation. In fact that’s something that can even be suggested.

Personally, even though I was student body president of a large high school, had a 3.9 GPA and earned multiple athletic letters (wasn’t a star though) – no one came knocking at my door. If a college would have shown they wanted me … I probably would have gone there. Don’t underestimate the power of “feeling wanted” to a high school student. You combine that recognition and a referral from a city leader (probably one the student looked up to) as well as the college reaching out … you have a strong chance of getting whoever you want to enroll. This is the greatest recruiting tool a college has.

Making a True Impact

All this isn’t going to be easy and it’s labor incentive. It’s not really expensive, but there needs to be people doing the ground work. No magic television ad campaign is going to be a substitute the grassroots effort I describe above. But effort will not only work, it’ll sustain itself once the network is put together. Far-flung communities will keep feeding the pipeline and family legacies at your school will be established.

Ostrich

But even more than developing a successful network and recruiting more students, your school will make a true impact. And you’ll be able to see first hand how it’s working. The college will not be the end point – but the vehicle. Rather than just blindly continuing on, doing things the same way and teaching the same material, you’ll be able to get direct feedback and adjust accordingly. We live in an incredible world where change is constant and feedback is mandatory to survive, let alone excel. Too many colleges and universities are seeing declines in enrollment and retention rates. Most have no idea why or who to blame it on. Demographic shifts are an all too common scapegoat, correct or not. Few recognize the problem is them and their inability to stay relevant – especially after a student’s graduation. They want to keep their heads in the sand and continue to think their responsibility ends with the graduate walking off the commencement stage.

The question is whether you’re ready to evolve … of feel comfortable being an ostrich. 

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Plugging the Small Town “Brain Drain”

America is obsessed with sports. And nowhere is this more evident than with high school sports. Very often 16 and 17 year olds are the masthead of a community’s sense of pride. How goes the local high school football or basketball team … so goes the collective psyche of the community. This is especially the case in “Small Town U.S.A.” They are revered not unlike that of the gladiators ancient Rome. Stories of their exploits hold high priority in the morning newspaper and on the 10:00 local newscast. In some areas of the country, Texas for example, high school football games can draw over 20,000 rapid fans. In fact the successful television series, Friday Night Lights, was based entirely on this phenomenon.

An unfortunate circumstance of this is that other students of this same age group are for the most part looked at with either irrelevance or outright distrust. “They don’t have any experience, so how can they know anything. And since they don’t know anything, how can’t we trust them. They’re all lazy, spending all their time staring at the phones or playing video games.”

I’m not trying to demonize high school sports and their student participants though. On the contrary, I want to use them as a template for a more inclusive view of how a community should view all its young people. And hopefully we can use this evolved view as the foundation for building sustainable communities of future … especially in small towns and rural America.

I grew up in a relatively small city in North Dakota of 35,000. However, because of the neighboring Air Force Base and structure of my high school my graduating class was fairly large, 600+ students. Like other towns and cities, the students athletes were highly regarded and well-known. I participated in sports and was on the varsity on a couple of them, but was no means a star – far from it. My focus in school was more academics and government; I was the Student Body President my senior year. My tenure at this position was far from passive. Programs and events I initiated improved student participation to levels never seen (and probably not since then) at our high school. Yet when I walked down the down the street with my friends from the basketball or football team, adults (even community leaders) stopped to engage them – not me. This didn’t make any difference to me at the time. In fact I hadn’t even thought about until recently. But when I did – it became the genesis of this post.

Unfortunately, I think this dynamic is all too common on the streets of most American communities. As a society we celebrate our student gladiators – but our student leaders … not so much. But what would happen if both were celebrated – or at least acknowledged. And why limit it to just leaders and athletes, but also to any young person who had shown a drive to excel in their field of passion, say art or music or entrepreneurship? What effect would that have on the engagement level of students other than athletes? And what effect would this acknowledged engagement have on them after graduation (assuming that even happens)? Imagine the sense of community kinship that could be nurtured with these engaged young people early on. Recognition plays a critical role the in the positive psychological development of the young brain. Any parent with teenagers can attest to this.

And aside from the positive individual development – what other effects would this evolved way of how we look at our youth have. After all, those that excel early in life, whether it be in government, in leadership or creatively – will probably excel as adults somewhere when opportunities present themselves. And why shouldn’t they excel in the towns and cities they were raised in. After I left my home town to go college – I returned after I graduated. I tried to get something entrepreneurial off the ground, but after a year, I left and moved to Minneapolis never to return. Most college graduates in my position wouldn’t have even given it a year. Fortunately for me, there was a local entrepreneur who was a friend of my father who extended a hand to me. It was this hand, the recognition that someone in my hometown cared enough to want me to come back – that brought me back. Unfortunately the community infrastructure wasn’t set up or integrated enough to accommodate young entrepreneurs or provide me a creative platform that would keep me around.

Small town

Plugging the “Brain Drain” and Cheating the Grim Reaper of Small Town U.S.A.

The phenomenon of the defection of young talent, or “brain drain,” is very real in rural America – even if many civic leaders and politicians don’t want to admit it. Small town communities have pride when they graduate their kids off to big town universities. But really all they’ve done is provide the minor league system to ready their young people to star in the big leagues elsewhere.

Rather than provide their high achieving young people the platform to return to and excel, they practice the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. Or worse yet, many small towns are so seeped in tradition and “the good old days” there’s no room for the next generation and the new ideas of what they think their home town could look like. One of my most read and shared posts ever was “Cheating the Grim Reaper” of Small Town U.S.A. In this piece I discussed a strategy how small towns and rural communities could create a sustainable strategy for the future to counteract the inevitability of decline that would occur if they didn’t adapt. One common thread was prevalent throughout the piece: embrace change and specifically embrace young people. And if this holds true – then why not have the young people who you embrace be ones you already know and who know you and the traditions of you community. We dedicate entire industries to offering expertise on business and family succession planning. Why do we not have or do the same for the places we live?

Shouldn’t our goal be to create a platform designed to engage our younger generations in their home towns while they are still a captive audience in high school – in hopes they will return after college and succeed us in the roles of civic leadership.

The Community 3.0 Student Civic Engagement Model

The purpose of my community empowerment project, Community 3.0, is to connect small businesses to the members of the community in efforts to solve its community’s problems directly by bringing back the Front Porch civic gathering concept. The Front Porch empowers us to reclaim the priorities of our neighborhoods and communities – and do something about them through hands-on volunteer projects. It allows us to organize and take action directly, not wait on the sidelines while traditional institutions and government may or may not act.

Under this societal model each business or Front Porch will sponsor Solutions as part of their involvement in the Community 3.0 network. They are designed to help their community pick up the slack and mend the societal safety net. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program. And by being a customer of a merchant on the Community 3.0 network, whether young or old, you can get involved with whatever Solution fits your strengths and your desires.

The Student Anti-Congress is Community 3.o‘s vehicle for the younger generations to get their voices heard civically. Here they devise strategies on how they can build their community into a place where they would like stay or come back to after college. It’s way for them to actively engage and create a sense of civic ownership in their community, presently and for the future.

“The Bridge is a group of civic oriented teachers and other community members who wish to bridge the chasm to engaged adulthood for today’s students. They help transition young people (members of the Student Anti-Congress) and pave the way into their communities outside of school by offering direction to Front Porch based volunteer and apprenticeship opportunities. The members of “The Bridge” also act as coordinators connecting students to the community’s strategic master plan or “Well-Being Vision Map” that is tactically implemented by the community’s Front Porch network with direction from the community’s Vision Team.

Student engagement can take place on an individual basis through mentoring and internships with the community’s merchant Front Porch network. The liaison efforts of “The Bridge” will help coordinate these efforts. But also engagement can also be jump-started through larger school-sponsored programs designed.

The Center for Green Schools provides participating “green schools” the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of school facilities, both buildings and grounds, while having a positive effect on student and teacher health, and increasing environmental literacy among students and graduates. Working directly with teachers, students, administrators, and their communities, green schools create programs, resources and partnerships that transform schools into healthy environmentally conscious learning environments.

Green School learning environments show students how the connection to their environment both in school and in their community, is not only important … but imperative. Imagine high school students canvasing their city giving businesses complementary energy audits and then recommend and help implement solutions through internships. The intent is to take these experiences in school and turn into to a lifetime of environmental stewardship. And through the Green Apple Day of Service program The Center for Green Schools is taking this instruction to the streets through inclusive community service projects, often those organized by students. Any of the above mentioned Community 3.0 Solutions qualify here.

Another example of organized student involvement is my Farm-to-School-to-Market program. What if high schools and middle schools created programs where students could be the marketers for local farmers producing farmers market ready crops. Not only could the kids market the crops, they could handle the whole post-harvest process as fledging entrepreneurs. They could even help with the harvest if need be. And why stop there, they could even work out co-op deals with the farmers helping grow the crops in the first place. And who says the Farmers Market has to be their only outlet for sales? The students could negotiate deals with local independent grocers and restaurants for additional revenue streams for their products.

Many aspects of Farm-to-School-to-Market could be integrated directly into regular class activity, either as part of traditional instruction or as independent projects. Each student group would also have to keep an account of their experience with their entrepreneurial venture, probably through an online blog. Their ideas, tips and suggestions would also be included and shared as other Farm-to-School-to-Market groups spread geographically and became commonplace in the rural eduction curriculum.

Green School efforts and Farm-to-School-to-Market are excellent examples of how organized school-sponsored programs can plant the seeds of positive student/community engagement and the collaboration that can bear fruit long after high school graduation … often directly benefiting the communities the students grew up in.

But that’s only half the story …

But for a community to truly grow and create a sustainable future, it needs its young to not only stay in town – but become educated and put that knowledge they obtain in college to work for their home towns. Therefore it’s integral that the our local colleges assist in the continuation of the civic engagement planted while their students were still in high school. Think of their role as that of an incubator. Whether it be specific classes designed for students to learn the mechanics of being leaders in their respective home towns – or just endorsement and synthesis with the programs began during their students’ years before college. The collaborative goal of all schools, high school and college – should be to nurture the local communities by replenishing them with educated talent, specifically talent who has a participatory vested interest in them.

“Going Home” College/Community Initiative

The “Going Home” Initiative is designed around a progression of organized college participation levels. However wonderful it would be if all institutions of higher learning recognized they are tied inextricably to the communities from which their students come from and acted accordingly … we’ll take whatever effort we can get. Below are five levels of commitment – gradually increasing in participation.

Acceptance: The bar is pretty low if the first progression is a simple acknowledgement that college has a responsibility not just to its students, but also to the communities they come from – but it’s often not recognized. This interconnected view of the individual (student or other) as a part of the community ecosystem is a fundamental tenet of Community 3.0.

Transition program support: A step up from acceptance is acting on it. This 2nd level recognizes the programs that were started in the high schools of the communities that feed their student body have merit and should be continued even with the originating student being away from home. Ways to support this is nurturing the continuance of communication between the mentoring parties at home and the student. Dialogue during counseling should also include discussion of the students plans after college graduation and how they fit into any current work being done with parties “back home.”

Transition programs augmentation: The 3rd level takes the support a step further by integrating home town issues and Solutions into existing classwork. College resources should be opened up to non-credited home town project work. Colleges can even sponsor entrepreneurial or cause-based contests to further develop college relevant opportunities in the home town communities.

Authorized independent credit: Level 4 expounds upon “Transition program augmentation” by authorizing independent credit for community-based research and project development. The goal here is to spur dedicated “credit-compensated” projects that can take hold when the student returns home or even stays in the town the college is located. It’s also crucial to have professorial and staff support during this level since they will also be acting as informal mentors via their involvement.

Community-oriented class creation: Level 5 is the actual creation of a community-oriented curriculum. Classes could focus on disciplines that revolve around developing community-based sustainability efforts, placemaking, planning, entrepreneurship, nonprofit organization or any other related study. A further development of this commitment level is structuring a concentration or even major that would feed into a “Going Home” set of goals.

It is the intention of us at Community 3.0 to make the “Going Home” Initiative a major player in the battle to fight the rural “brain drain.” Institutions willing to join in and commit to active participation in this battle will be acknowledged so by Community 3.0. With this acknowledgement member institutions will have a potentially potent marketing tool in their recruitment efforts with small town talent and the civic leaders from those locales.

Student Engagement and the Big Picture

Imbalance in talent across geographies benefits nobody. And this is exactly what we’re seeing in the United States and many other western nations. A deficit of talent in a community, such as rural ones, starves it of a sustainable future. And an over-abundance of talent in an area drives wages down, while raising housing costs. We’re currently seeing this in many large urban areas that are witnessing high levels of inequality and social strife. Neither situation is sustainable … let alone preferred.

These unbalanced situations are remedied by creating opportunities in the towns where young people are raised … rather than having them “jump ship” to supposed greener pastures elsewhere. The most effective solution is to empower these young people by offering them opportunities to help design their communities while still high school and then having them gain further relevant knowledge in college so they’re prepared to implement their ideas when they return.

But the boon to small town talent retention does stop there. Imagine the cross-generational benefits and co-mentoring opportunities that can materialize when the elderly teach the young and young teach the elderly. Aside from alleviating underlying generational tensions, community talent retention accommodates the ‘carrying on’ of traditions and skills. These relationships will then form a cohesive sustainable community designed to last and prosper in the future while retaining its sense of historical identity.

Many generations ago a community had to look after itself – the young and the old. They had no choice. Their survival was at stake. They didn’t have the sophisticated market system of exchange spanning unseen geographies nor live in the relative luxury we do now. They just had themselves. And with age expectancy increasing and the Millennial generation being smaller than the retiring Boomer generation was at this time in their lives, we have a ticking time bomb. Cross-generational cooperation will not be an option it’ll be a necessity – and mainly one for the older generations.

Young people pursuing higher education attainment are trained to think. And hopefully their college experiences includes interactions and collaborations with those different from they are. From it let’s hope they will develop a diverse mindset, one that shuns polarizing ideologies often prevalent in small towns and rural areas. This resulting more diverse and accepting worldview will hopefully then rub off on their neighbors in their home town, both young and old. And better yet these expatriates will return with friends and significant others in tow ready to assist, socially and economically.

This “bridging of the gap” of ideologies and political views is especially vital today in America’s current toxic intolerable political climate. Existing residents will need to mix with those who are coming back. The young and old (with different views) working together to strengthen what they both call “home.” This is how we combat the “brain drain” eating away at our small towns.

All this won’t happen on its own though. Even with the release of the new long-waited Happy Potter book, there are no Hogwarts graduates ready to wave a magic wand.

First – as leaders in our communities and schools, we need to realize that there’s more to our young than football and basketball. All our students need to be acknowledged and be given the support to be what they can be. Their input and ideas must not to be shunned – but embraced. And we need to realize the “brain drain” is real, not just something that happens in other places. The rose-colored glasses of our home town fanaticism provides us little help when we need to focus on the stark reality of our town’s future.

Next – our youth organizations, both local and national, need to realize they have an important role in this initiative. It’s not enough to just lend developmental hand – but acknowledge our young people look to you for guidance. You need to tell them with the right planning and community support, their best opportunities for the future might very well be in the towns where they grew up.

And finally, last but definitely not least – our colleges, the storied institutions of high learning, you must realize it is your job to not just send our young people out to sea of “real life” untethered after graduation, but rather help them help the communities where they come from and where they choose to reside. For without these communities you’d have no students … and no institution.

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Jennifer Lawrence Poker House

In 2008, a teenage Jennifer Lawrence starred in her first movie, “Poker House.” Three sisters fought for life with their prostitute, drug addicted mother in a run-down Council Bluffs flop house. In the opening scene, Lawrence, fifteen, who had just got done kicking out her mother’s last ‘john’ at 6:00 AM, explained her life in a nutshell … a line we should all take to heart.

“The man in the white hat, the man on the white horse … he ain’t coming.”

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Such is the same situation in the small towns of America. No one in any hat or on any horse is going to save the day.

I challenge you all to help me create and implement an integrated solution that will solve this problem of talent loss that is decimating small towns and rural communities. It’s not going away … and it’s going to take all of us to fix it.

I can be reached below in the comments section below, email at clayforsberg@gmail.com or on Twitter @clayforsberg.

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Related Posts:

Building Community Through “Green” Student Engagement

“Creating communities for the future created by those of the future”

That seems like common sense. Shouldn’t those who will live in the future have a say in what is looks like? Pathetically so, seldom do they. On the contrary, the future normally is designed by those near or at retirement age often mirroring what the past was like seen through their rose-colored glasses. Young people, especially those not yet of voting age, seldom get a say in the matter. Minors are looked at more as pieces of property with few rights rather as than active civic participants with voices to be heard.

Everywhere communities systematically lose their “best and brightest” as they graduate and go off to college. This is especially problematic in rural areas. Communities can only hope they will return or they can recruit other communities’ “best and brightest” to fill their pipeline. Communities attempt to attract outsiders by mortgaging their towns with subsidies and promises to attract businesses from elsewhere – only to create unsustainable “houses of cards” supported by the fleeting benevolence of these corporate carpetbaggers concerned only for their own pocketbooks. This competition amongst neighboring towns for false hope of prosperity leads to nothing but broken relationships and broken dreams where there should be cooperation and collaboration.

From early ages our young people go to school, school they’re required to attend by law. Isolated in irrelevant silos seven hours a day, often behind locked doors – they are cut off from their community and its prospects of a future there. The connection between school and community is nonexistent. After over a decade behind these locked doors, the top students graduate (hopefully) leaving to go to college – probably never to return. They leave behind a community they never knew, not really knowing what it had to offer. They leave behind potential opportunities, opportunities often right outside the locked doors they couldn’t wait to escape from.

What if this didn’t have to happen? What if the brain drain was replaced with nurture and development? What if irrelevance was replaced engagement? What if the future of your community was built on those who were raised there? And while still young and accessible (mentally and physically), what if these future leaders had a say in what their community was going to look like? What if they had a vested interest, ownership, in their community from the start? Would they still leave? Would you have to try to attract others from elsewhere? Probably not.

Lake Mills cafeteria

The Center For Green Schools

Recently I was introduced to The Center for Green Schools via Mark Swiger. Participating “green schools” reduce the environmental impact of school facilities, both buildings and grounds, while having a positive effect on student and teacher health, and increasing environmental literacy among students and graduates. Working directly with teachers, students, administrators, and their communities, green schools create programs, resources and partnerships that transform schools into healthy environmentally conscious learning environments.

Green school learning environments show students how the connection to their environment both in school and in their community, is not only important … but imperative. And hopefully they take this awareness from their years in school and turn into to a lifetime of environmental stewardship. And through the Green Apple Day of Service program The Center for Green Schools is taking this instruction to the streets through inclusive community service projects, often those organized by students. 

Using School Sustainability as a Tool for Community

Up to this point in my discussion of Community 3.0 and my concept of community empowerment, I’ve focused on the core of civic engagement being small business. These Front Porch gathering spots are the focal point of Community 3.0‘s model for direct participation societal evolution. While I still stand by this – maybe my thinking has been too limited … stuck in one of those silos I so dread. While I’ve included schools and students, they’ve normally been limited to being recipients of the Solutions I’ve presented through the model. However one youth concept I’ve modeled is “Millennials Rising”.

“Millennials Rising” is an opportunity for a community to listen to and utilize the younger generational perspective. Under the model young people, often students, are given an organized to debate, formulate and present issues relevant to not only them as an age group but also the community as a whole. Through the Anti-Congress, younger generations are given a physical forum to strategize how they can be a positive part of their community, beyond the walls of their schools. These students will have the opportunity to beautify their community and make it more sustainable. As “foot soldiers of change,” the young participants of “Millennial Rising” will be empowered to create a community that fits their needs and desires, not just those of their parents and their parents’ friends. 

Our idea of civic infrastructure needs to be broadened. Think more of it as a Cerebral Infrastructure.” By this I mean accommodation for the physical and mental spaces self-employed and small business owners (young and old) need to congregate, collaborate and create – molding the future for themselves and those around them. They want coworking sites and makerspaces. The Millennial generation wants bike paths and sidewalks and trees. They want places. They want their towns, cities and neighborhoods designed for them and their fellow residents … not for cars. They don’t want to be an afterthought, a nuisance to the automobile culture of their parents and grandparents. We need to look beyond tradition and what worked in the past to “now and ahead.” What might have worked a decade ago, may be obsolete today, let alone tomorrow. Hell, maybe their parents and grandparents would even like these new places too given the opportunity.

It’s easy to envision the benefits a project like “Millennials Rising” would have for the young people and students involved. These benefits would also extend to their peers since their futures and needs coincide.

But we can’t understate the benefits that would be had by the community as a whole.

Not only would the community be best positioned to prosper in the future, increased community retention rates in the younger generations would fill employment pipelines. This is especially important in smaller towns and rural communities where much of the work force is reaching retirement. This fact is amplified by the demographic realities of the extraordinary large Baby Boomer generation and their average age being seventy years old. Combine the thinning of the labor pool and increasing health needs of this age group – the health industry in particular is in the middle of an employment shortage crisis. Darren Walker, St. Vincent Healthcare vice president for human resources, hears from job candidates that Billings (where I live) lacks the infrastructure they expect. St. Vincent is the second largest healthcare organization in the Montana and Billings has a population of 100,000. Imagine the problems smaller communities have retaining or attracting young talent.

At present in Billings, Montana, the lead city planner is composing a twenty year long-term plan for the community. While on face value this process may seem prudent, a closer look shows it to be very problematic. To begin with, the planner is retiring later this year. What accountability does she have in it if she’s not going to be around to see its execution? Shouldn’t the one doing the creating also be the one implementing it?

During the course of the plan’s creation, she’s held public input meetings. In a recent meeting she was surprised at the public’s insistence on the inclusion of sections on education and conservation, neither of which she included originally. This is alarming, especially in regards to young generations, where these two areas hold very high priority. In addition, there’s been no indication any efforts to include these younger people in the drafting of it. These are the people who will have to live with this plan (if they chose to stay).

The Billings’ head planner, and indirectly the rest of the city’s leadership, is taking an approach that is the antithesis of what I’m proposing here. And it’s not a stretch to imagine the adverse effects it will have on the retention of young talent in the future.

While “Millennials Rising” attempts to include young people in civic decision-making and placemaking by giving them an organized voice, there is still the process of reaching out to them – extending that welcoming hand from the community. This is easier said than done. But what if they came in unison – as leaders in their own right coming from a place that was an example of progressive sustainability and forward thinking. What if they came from the green schools they attend or have attended bringing with them their knowledge of “how to do it” in an environmentally positive manner. And what if they came as active participants willing to help the community for everyone. Two excellent examples of how this can work would be a collaborative between a Green Apple Day of Service program and the worldwide clean-up effort put together by Let’s Do It! World, of which I’m coordinating for the United States.

Building Community through Student Engagement

What if we took “progressive sustainability and forward thinking” to include all aspects of a community’s well-being. What if we created a systemic approach of integrating the future needs of the community with those of the students as well as the current adults. And what if we made it a priority to identify points of engagement that would connect each individual student with an aspect of their community where they feel they can involve themselves with and make a positive contribution. These “points of engagement” would represent ownership in their community, present and future. They would then want to see it through to the end while becoming a long-term fixture in the community … a community they helped design and build from the time they were young.

Suppose you were designing a school to help students find their own clear end — as clear as that one. Say you were designing a school to elevate and intensify longings. Wouldn’t you want to provide examples of people who have intense longings? Wouldn’t you want to encourage students to be obsessive about worthy things? Wouldn’t you discuss which loves are higher than others and practices that habituate them toward those desires? Wouldn’t you be all about providing students with new opportunities to love? (“Putting Grit In Its Place” David Brooks, New York Times)

Now imagine if these “opportunities to love” where connected if not embedded in the community where the students live. The concept of triadic closures stresses the importance of a three-way bond. Relationships that extended to three connections are much stronger and more resilient. The triadic relationship between students, small businesses and the adult residents in a community provides the foundation for a community – today and tomorrow. Building off the knowledge they learned in their sustainable green schools, students can cement their bond with the real pillars of the community, locally owned business through collaborate civic projects or Solutions. These relationships will also serve in a mentoring and apprenticeship capacity, to be taken advantage in the future as employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. This triad closure will create an integrated partnership that will form the basis of a community’s well-being efforts.

“Just as important as the actual accomplishment of creating a new asset for the community is the message sent to people living there: Good things can happen in this place. One of the biggest problems for poor communities, is that “we teach young people to measure success by how far they can get away from these neighborhoods.”

It’s absolutely crucial to let people know, “you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to have a better one.” (Majora Carter — a strategy consultant, entrepreneur and grassroots real estate developer who played a pivotal role in bringing back New York’s South Bronx)

Solo flower

The Roadmap to Your Community’s Future

Imagine your community not populated by silos and generational division. Imagine your community being designed and built for all its citizens, regardless of age or status. “Building Community Through Student Engagement” is a plan to do just that.

  • Increased school performance: Create an environment for students that seamlessly connects schools to the outside community resulting higher engagement and performance (i.e. graduation rates).
  • Higher talent retention levels: Create an integrated community building platform that breaks down silos and connects students with adults for collaborative activities that transform communities into future looking places students will build on after they graduate.
  • Enhanced elderly care resources: Create an integrated community perspective that transcends generations ultimately helping older residents as much as younger as more elderly health care is needed due to demographic changes.
  • Increased environmental resourcefulness: Play off Green Schools to create a community mindset of conservation and resource maximization regardless of generation.
  • Expanded worldwide contribution: Create a foundation for students to build a better world as a whole for themselves and others by introducing them to sustainable practices and connection to the community and beyond.

Not all communities look to the future. They want to remember the past, even though that past may not have been quite as rosy as they would like to think. Change is hard. Handing over the reigns to the next generation is not a science, but an art. But whether we know it or not there is an artist in each one of us. Sometimes we just have to let those coming after us with their naive optimism, show us.

Let’s take those rose-colored glasses we’ve used to look to past … and give them to our children and grandchildren so they can point them to the future. We may even enjoy the ride.

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You reach me on Twitter at @clayforberg and the Center for Green Schools at @mygreenschools.

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As a part of the Community 3.0 platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come from Front Porch collaborations. These examples represent Solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter, Solutions that can bind the relationships between the generations – young and old alike.

 

The Real Problem With Higher Education

This week President Obama unveiled his Higher Education student loan relief program. The program has nice sound bites. Lower interest rates, an extension here and there and so on. I’m not going to get into it here. I’m sure you can find more than enough on the details elsewhere.

In my humble opinion, it’s like bringing a box of band aids to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The problem is fundamental and rooted in behavior – no band-aid is going to stop the bleeding. And the problem and solution lie well beyond the pearly gates of our esteemed institutions of higher learning.

The problem lies at home … with us.

A big part of the traditional “American Dream” is going to college – and even more so having your children go to college, especially if you didn’t. Every parent envisions standing in the audience, watching their child walk across that stage receiving their college diploma in full cap and gown. After all, what parent wouldn’t want that experience. And plus it gives them standing with their friends. “The better the college my kid went to (i.e. most expensive), the better the parent I must be.”

That’s the problem. It’s the parents dream as much, if not more than their offspring’s. It’s a dream that is rooted in tradition. How could someone not want a college degree. Unfortunately, that revered degree comes with a price … and that price can be more of a liability than the asset generated by the degree itself.

The cost of a college has become exorbitant at best, and some cases outright crippling. Stories of graduates coming out of school $100,000 in debt are not uncommon. And with this debt – there is no guarantee of a job to pay it off. And on top of it, guaranteed school debt is one thing that cannot be dismissed in a bankruptcy. In other words, there is no key to unlock that ball and chain your child will carry around for years … and years.

Imagine yourself as your child, an eighteen year old about ready to graduate from high school. Let’s assume there are no parents in the picture, no grandparents either. And even better yet, no societal expectations pressuring you about what you should, and what you shouldn’t do. The only thing that matters is you – your wellbeing, and your future.

Let’s break convention, and consider alternatives to four-year college bound route to the traditional American Dream.

  • Don’t go to college. Or if you do, wait a few years until you have some experience in the real world. Not all careers require a college degree. And contrary to popular belief, a lot of the opportunities in the fast growing tech sector are among them. These companies need a lot more than engineers and degreed computer scientists. This is the route my daughter took. Well able to get into, and do well in college, she chose to take a job with Apple out of high school and became an Apple Genius. Now at twenty-five, she’s part of Saucey, a tech start-up in Los Angeles, handling logistics. Being a voracious learner, she is alway in a ‘school’ of her own direction. This ‘life-long learner’ attitude and the experience she received at Apple has been an invaluable way for her to spend her formative years. And the financial obligations of traditional college … she has none.
  • Go to school, but wait a year. Get your feet wet. Find the path you want to take. College is not the real world. Only the real world is, well … the real world. Too often we enter college with no idea why we’re there in the first place. Maybe we listened to some, average at best, high school guidance counselor  – but that’s about it. The first year or two in college is for many just an extension of high school, a postponement of reality (and an expensive one at that).
  • If you’re hell-bent on going to school, go to a community college for the first two years. The first two years of college, especially in a major university, consists of taking entry-level classes with three hundred of your not so closest friends taught by a teacher’s assistant not much older than you are. With a community college you get smaller classes taught by a real professor, probably one with real world experience. With any other purchase, getting more and paying significantly less – pulling the trigger would be a no brainer. But with higher education … ironically we lose our minds.

But with the ball and chain … you go nowhere, literally and figuratively.

None of these options will saddle you with tens of thousands in debt, at least not before you can actually start paying it off. Obama’s trying to help you, but his efforts are misguided. Debt, restructured or not, limits your options. It limits your mobility – mobility that very well take you to the opportunity, that great opportunity that you went to college for in the first place.

But debt is only one part of the equation. The age a student spends in college is between eighteen and twenty-two (if you can get out in four years). This is the prime time for learning. Kids (and I use that term with endearment) are sponges. How they spend this time and what they are exposed to will make a major impact on their lives for years to come. To waste it away in classes that may or may be relevant to their future is unfortunate, if not tragic. If a student is hard and fast on what they want to commit their professional life doing, then allocating these formative years is fine. If not … then it’s not. 

Now there’s certain professions where you must have a degree, and for several, an advanced one is mandatory. In these cases, medicine, law, engineering, etc., you’re just going to hunker down, take initial financial hit and hope it comes around in the long-term. Hope is the operative word here, especially with the unfortunate de-evolution of several of these vaunted professions. If you want to go into business or become entrepreneur … it’s a questionable decision to go down the traditional four year college route.

The world of the Millennial generation is not the one of their parents. These young people don’t have the professional security awarded their parents. Unions are in shamble. Careers based on working with one company, or even in one industry are gone. Professions, traditionally bastions of prosperity and prestige such as law – are anything but that now. To impose the rules and norms of ‘work’ relevant decades ago is doing a great disservice to those we entrust the future of our country with. And we will all suffer because of it.

Several months I wrote about the ‘Nomad Movement’ taking hold amongst Millennials. By being nomads, these young people (and others) are forging their own version of the ‘American Dream.’ They do contract work with Uber, Lyft and others on their way to carving out their own niche in the world. Often this is done through creative and entrepreneurial means. Such behavior twenty-years ago would have been looked at with disdain and shame by parents. Now it really doesn’t matter. It’s survival.

Everyone has their own “Perfect World” and their path will be different from the person sitting next to them. But the education taken should be the education appropriate for that path. Understand there are options … and the four-year university degree is not the only avenue to success. In fact it very well could be the barrier to success.

The “American Dream” of a college degree and a white picket fence may have been right for your parents … but is it right for you?

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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Related posts:

‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ … Cross-Generational Entrepreneurial Synthesis

A couple of days ago I was having a Twitter discussion with Sandra, from Nebraska. Sandra is hard-core in the ‘farm-to-school’ movement. Actually it really shouldn’t even be called a movement since it’s just common sense. She posted an article from NPR discussing the fact that revenue from farmers markets nationwide have more or less peaked and in some locals even declined. There are areas that are still seeing increases, but overall the trend is not what you’d expect considering all the publicity of the last few years.

The article detailed several of possible causes. According to Sarah Low, a USDA economist and lead author on the report; “Farmers are increasingly using middlemen to sell to restaurants, grocery stores and distributors. With an increasing share of their produce, dairy or meat going to those channels, some farmers may choose to forgo the farmers market.” Simply put, the farmers market phenomenon may just be ‘growing up.’

However there was one quote that caught my attention.

“It’s just not as cost-effective for producers to be face-to-face with consumers,” Low says. “A lot of farmers like to spend their time farming, not necessarily marketing food.”

IMG_445732030

Thinking about it, this makes sense. And taking it one step further – what if this reason is a major factor why there’s not more locally grown food available overall. This especially hits home with me. I live in a farming community outside of Billings, Montana. The farmers around here grow either corn or sugar beets if their land is irrigated, or barley and wheat if it’s not. And that’s it. Aside from an occasional ‘corn-on-the-cob,’ nothing grown in the fields here make it to my table.

I have a small garden and grow herbs, kale, tomatoes, carrots, etc. And they all grow very well. Yet our local farmers don’t grow any of this, and most don’t people in my town don’t even know what kale is. I know since I give away a lot of it. Their crops are put in big trucks and driven to processing plants owned by multinational corporations headquartered in lands far removed from this little farming town.

But what if the farmers had another option, an option where they didn’t have to spend their time marketing to and groveling in front of those picky consumers looking for ingredients for their next caesar salad or Chicken Florentine (just kidding).

Now on a different subject, but not really, as I’ll come back to this in a minute: My town has a big generational gap. I’m not saying this divide is intentional, but rather I just don’t think there’s much contact between the teenagers and the retirees (or even just adults). And I guessing this might be the case in a lot a small towns and even big cities in America. We’ve always seen age divides, but with the advent of the diversion of personal technology, these chasms may be getting even wider. There seems little opportunity for common ground.

Schools are part of your community – and your community should be part of its schools

I believe a lot of this is the fault of schools. After all, aren’t schools responsible for developing the young talent that supposedly is the future for the community it serves? Yet how much connection is there actually made with its community? And yes schools are supposed to serve the community. The residents pay property tax to fund the schools. But schools are often viewed as the castle on the hill … including the moat. I’m not going so far to say there are crocodiles in the water under the drawbridge, but what hell. In some schools there might as well be. For example, in my little town, even my father, a high school teacher with 25+ years experience, is uncomfortable even going in the building. Here’s someone with a wealth of knowledge at their disposal he’s willing to share … and nothing. Yet they have no problem sticking their hands out asking for money for renovations to update a school that should be closed and consolidated with those of the neighboring towns.

But what if we could change this, especially in rural and farming communities. We have the perfect vehicle for it too … the farm.

Now, let’s get back to my previous point about farmers wanting to farm and not be marketers. After Sandra initially posted the NPR article I mentioned above, I tweeted back:

What about a middleman between farmer and a  handling marketing, packaging, distribution, etc.

And her response was:

One local farmer I know hires students from a nearby school to come out to help him get ready each season. Great experience.

And there was the synthesis that sparked the fire that created this piece and my Farm-to-School-to-Market’ concept.

What if rural high schools and middle schools created programs where students could be the marketers for local farmers producing farmers market ready crops. Not only could the kids market the crops, they could handle the whole post-harvest process as fledging entrepreneurs. Heck they could even help with the harvest if need be. And why stop there, they could even work out co-op deals with the farmers helping grow the crops in the first place. And who says the Farmers Market has to be their only outlet for sales? The students could negotiate deals with local independent grocers and restaurants for additional revenue streams for their products.

Kale 2 crop posterize

I’m sure virtually all rural schools have Vo-Ag programs in their curriculum, but what I’m outlining here isn’t just a farm project. It’s a hands-on exercise in entrepreneurialism and business development. Imagine each school having several groups of students, each potentially spanning different grade levels – creating mini-produce companies. The students in each group would be responsible for all aspects of their micro business, possibly even working with the farmer for crop selection down to the branding and packaging of their product. They would also determine where they would sell them; retail through farmers markets, door-to-door in town, or contract out for wholesale (stores and restaurants). And who knows, maybe some enterprising group could create packaged products from their raw crops – like kale chips. Their options are limited only by their imaginations.

Each group would structure their company how they wanted and allocate duties and decision-making accordingly. Some members of the group may want to take on more responsibility and then be compensated accordingly. I want to note that ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ is not meant to be a school fundraiser. It’s the kids who are putting in the work, so they should be the ones who are rewarded financially. The school benefits by the fact that here’s a ready-made curriculum piece dropped in their lap that actually provides real-world benefit, unlike most activity associated with the dreaded standardized tests, so much in vogue.

Many aspects of ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ could be integrated directly into regular class activity, either as part of traditional instruction or as independent projects. Each student group would also have to keep an account of their experience with their company, probably through an online blog. Their ideas, tips and suggestions would also be included and shared as other ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ groups spread geographically and became commonplace in the rural eduction curriculum.

Students who attend schools with farm-to-school programs are 28% more likely to choose healthy food options. This is especially important given the recent findings showing that once a person becomes obese they will most likely fight obesity all their life, regardless of whether healthy eating and exercise routines are adopted. Anything that can be done at early ages to promote healthy eating, must be done. And imagine if these healthy eating habits were taken home as homework to benefit the whole family. But these farm-to-school programs can’t happen with just desire. They need a supply of healthy food. And that means local farmers raising it … the core tenet of ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market.’ 

Be part of making your community’s school a real world experience

America’s public schools are often accused of creating test-ridden robots of their students. Here’s a way to counter that accusation, and at the same time help bridge a generational divide all too prevalent in rural America. Combine this with helping seed and nurture a much-needed ‘farm-to-school’ movement … you have trifecta of benefits.

Rural America needs outlets for its young people. The best and brightest of these communities will go where they can express themselves creativity, artistically or through business endeavours. Whether they flex these creative muscles in the towns they grew up in is up to their communities and the metaphorical canvases they provide. Their home towns have the advantage. Retaining talent is a lot easier than attracting new. But make no mistake, having young talent is not an option for a community to flourish. It is mandatory.

Literally and figuratively … it’s on your plate. Now it’s up to you. Wake up your schools! After all … they are your schools.

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I can be reached on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+. And also please follow Sandra at @_prairiespirit. If it wasn’t for her … you wouldn’t be reading this.

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Yet another blow in the search for the next Hemingway

I wrote this two years ago – but it’s just as relevant today as then.

Yesterday it was announced that the College Board would drop the essay requirement for the SAT college entrance test. This along with free access to pre-test preparation material is hailed by many as a good thing, the change that will level the playing field for low-income and disadvantaged students. I view it as subversive tactic to rid American schools of writing in lue of irrelevant facts, figures and Common Core nonsense. After all David Coleman, the man behind the Common Core standards, is also the president of College Board.

When my daughter was in high school, our living situation was not ideal. Now we lived in a great area, Manhattan Beach, California. We had the beach, the weather, crime was virtually nonexistent and the neighborhoods were clean and friendly.

Our physical abode, was little different story. Well actually, we didn’t have one – at least in the traditional sense. We had motel rooms and tent, a very good tent … but a tent none-the-less. However, we made it though and I believe we’re both better off because of our precarious living situation those years. Alex, my daughter, had one thing she could always fall back on. Alex wrote. Writing was her own personal therapy. She wrote about the good times … and she wrote about, well – the not so good times.

Writing

But writing was more than therapy for Alex. It was a source of pride. She writes well, very well – and she knows it. Being a good writer give a student a ‘leg-up’ in not just English class but in any other venture that involves communicating – and that’s most everything. And not being able to write effectively can set an otherwise good student back a step.

Writing enables you to form thoughts in a way that requires you to think before you talk – which all too often doesn’t happen in discussion. This thought process fine-tunes articulation. By altering just one word, meaning can take on a whole different twist. From this thoughtful articulation, synaptic connections are built. And we all know we need more synaptic connections.

Writing also has an archiving function. You can always go back and read what you wrote a month ago, or year ago and reflect. You can build on past ideas, thoughts and revelations. It’s not so easy to reflect on a conversation you had with someone six months ago. Chances are it’s gone the way of burnt out memory cells.

You would think our schools would make it a point to incorporate writing into the curriculum wherever they could. Don’t sequester it to English class. Every class, every subject requires communication, and writing is high level communication. And every class and every subject need our students to further develop their abstract thinking abilities. And that’s where writing comes in … it’s perfect for that.

Well that’s what you’d think. But … NOOOOO! That just makes too much sense. Here’s a technique that would systematically improve our student’s prospects now and when they leave school. But … NOOOOO! We can’t do that – we have standardized tests, and we have our ‘fill in the right oval or be damned’ philosophy. After all we have to keep up with Jones (oh! I mean the Chinese).

I’m fifty-five years old. I didn’t really start writing until five years ago when I started this blog. Before then I didn’t write. I don’t think I wrote 5000 words total in my life. I didn’t write in high school and I didn’t in college. But I didn’t need to. Because even back even we had the ovals – and I knew how to play the oval game.

But I’ve found out something over these last two years and 200 blog posts. Even being ‘old,’ I’m thinking better. My comprehension of issues is better. My articulation of these issues is better. And the breadth of my understanding on diverse subjects, subjects I’ve had little exposure to – is better. And this is happening now at age fifty-fifty. Imagine the effect it would have on the formative brains of teenagers!

But … NOOOOO! Writing proficiency is too subjective. How are the teachers going to grade writing? Where’s time for them to go through all those words? “Just give me multiple choice … and give me my ovals.” Now I see the point in periodic testing. If you don’t test students on progress, how are you going to know if  someone is following behind to the ‘point of no return.’ But does that mean we have to kick writing to the curb because it involves more effort and can’t be tested with ovals?

Our public education situation in the United States is unfortunate at best and more accurately, pathetic. This vaulted institution which reigned king has dropped precariously in world comparisons. And this free fall shows no sign of letting up. Writing would help … help a lot. But we have no time or no patience for writing in our schools. We have ovals. And in the age of ubiquitous technology and social connectivity where’s so much information to devour and write about, this situation is ironic.

The internet 2.0 is based on communication – back and forth. I say something, you respond … and so on. Constructive dialogue using writing is what it’s made for. Some would say term papers are writing. I suppose, in the broadest interpretation of the word. But outside of a grade and a few notes in the margins (mainly grammar corrections), there’s no dialogue.

Personally I write about things that interest me. While I’m twice as old as the average college student and three times that of someone in high school, I don’t consider myself a better, or worse writer – just one with more real world context. My 25-year-old daughter writes better than I do. But what if writing could be that bridge that connects school to the real world for these students? What if writing made all those irrelevant ‘facts’ relevant? And what if writing provided that “spark” that ignited an interest in school … and a want to be there, and a desire to learn when they’re there.

The way we can do this is through blogs, blogs that students write. I’m a firm believer in students creating a blog that can travel with them, even after they graduate. The content can be personal or it can be incorporated with class material. Students can determine relevance on their own terms – not just on the teacher’s. In other words … they would be thinking.

I believe the purpose of school is prepare a student of a life-long habit of learning, a yearning, an addiction. You can learn a trade or a profession. But what happens if that trade changes, or worse yet – becomes obsolete and goes away.

The skill of learning prepares one to adapt to the changes that loom as inevitable as the rising of the morning sun. And the sun is going to keep rising until we’re all dead and gone.

And writing is the vehicle that can deliver that skill.

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Come and join me on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+.

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Your children’s education is your responsibility … not the school’s

Schools are designed around curriculum that is learned in increments. Learn one thing and then move on the next thing. One builds on the other. But what if you didn’t understand that first thing. How can you learn that second thing or the third, fourth or fifth. In many cases you don’t. And then you just fall further and further behind. And with that comes disengagement and very often dropping out of school all together.

When my daughter, Alex, was in 2nd grade – she went to school in Tiburon, just north of San Francisco. Tiburon is a very affluent area and it’s school system is considered one of the best in California.

One day I was sent a letter from the school. The letter read that the school wanted to put my daughter in a remedial reading class … since she couldn’t read! This came as a complete surprise to me. She was bright and curious and I was told in 1st grade in Irvine (where we lived the previous year), she was doing fine. She didn’t really have homework and I came from a family where my parents didn’t read to me, so I just missed it. 

One day a week, Alex went to this “special” class. The expectations on the students were virtually non-existent. I was told if they learned two words a week that was good. It was all about self-confidence. After six weeks, and reading a book called, “Why Johnny Can’t Read or Write but Feels Good About Himself,” I took matters in my own hands.

Alex had more than enough intelligence to learn to read. But, it was obvious, the “whole language” approach the school was using wasn’t happening.  Reading to a kid over and over again amounts to little more than maybe an interest in reading (which is great) and word memorization. But what if they run into a word they haven’t seen before.

Over the course of a weekend, I created a set of fifty phonics blends cards – like flash cards. I tried to think of every blend imaginable, depicted it in a word, and then a sentence on each card. After all – how would  someone know the pronunciation of “tion”  or “cial.” It make no sense. I thought if my daughter learned the blends then she could decipher the words … and in turn, read.

The next Monday I pulled Alex out of the “that special class,” much to the disconcert of her teacher and the principal. I actually had to sign a release. But within one month of using the the flash cards, Alexandria Forsberg was reading one grade ahead of the class!

Image by L. Sean Key
Photo by L. Sean Key

With school budgets being just another target of austerity efforts, there’s little that can be done for those for that fall behind. Some creative and hard-working teachers put in extra hours or develop “ad hoc” tutoring programs with other students. But this is by far the exception … not the rule. And unfortunately this extra help is often done years too late, in middle or high school.

Parents need to realize the way schools operate today may not be the way they did when they attended them. I assumed “come hell or high water” my kid was going to be taught to read in school. If I was told that the instruction I provided was an equal part of the “grand scheme,” then I would have approached Alex’s education in a different way. Rather than just augment it with real world knowledge, nurturing her creativity and establishing a desire in her to always be a learner – I would have included the basics.

Unfortunately, not all parents can do nor have the time to do what I did. I worked at home, which helped a lot. But regardless, this doesn’t absolve a parents from the responsibility to take control of their child’s education. Whatever resources they can’t provide directly, they have to find access to. This is where friends, neighbors and community comes in.

This extended network of instruction and mentoring can be informal or better yet – be organized. Change your perspective or orientation. Rather than relying on the schools, view them as a supplement, as extra instruction. I know this seems backward, but what’s the alternative … mediocrity, or worse yet failure?

We can’t assume theat public education and the schools are magically going to get better either. It’s been thirty years since the  report, “A Nation at Risk,” chastised American public education and demanded improvement. Reform after reform, test after test, have come and gone. And all for nothing. Our national education rankings have actually declined during this period, rather than improved. Our government is incapable at looking past politics and partisanship to actually make anything better for the future of our children. And by the systematic destruction of the social services safety net – the worse is yet to come. As business becomes more technically and intellectually advanced, their future workforce become less.

There is no easy solution other than awareness, diligence, and most of all – resourcefulness.

After all … what other choice do you have. Your children didn’t ask to be put here.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and Google+

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