Three VERY Special LAST Days of “School”

By Bill Henk – For some reason, two of our all-time most popular Marquette Educator posts centered on the same theme — first days of school.

The initial post I wrote to launch the blog described my first day of kindergarten, an episode that can only be described as a seriously inauspicious beginning to my career as an educator.  The second dealt with my daughter’s first day in Kindergarten.

I mean, who reads these posts anyway?  Well, based on our data, lots of people, not just our regular followers.  Why do they read them?  I have almost no idea.

But far be it from me not to capitalize, shamelessly or otherwise, on a topic that might attract greater numbers of readers.  And so today I give you — a post about LAST days of school.

Actually the three brief accounts I share all depict the equivalent of graduations.  Besides marking important educational milestones, the scenarios span a lifetime of learning from early childhood to adolescent and young adult to mature adult and even senior citizen.  Each one qualified as special in its own right.   I decided to title them affectionately as “On the Right Path, Give a Year. Change the World, and Reclaiming Adult Learning.”

On The Right Path

I’ll start with my daughter’s “graduation” from K-5 at St. Mary Parish School.   Audrey’s excitement for the big day was unmistakable.  She and her classmates had been practicing the program for weeks.   She mentioned the event frequently, but like everything else school-related, she never gave up any specifics.  As a result, my wife and I didn’t know what to expect from K-5 graduation, only that it meant a great deal to Audrey that mommy and daddy participated.

What no one knows is that daddy chose attending the graduation over a professional meeting of some importance.  My daughter will only graduate from Kindergarten exactly once in her life, and so with apologies to Marquette, I wasn’t about to miss it.

Even so, I won’t subject you to a sappy blow-by-blow account, but instead share a few photos of the event.  What I will say is that the program played to a full crowd of families at the church, and it brought out several emotions in my wife, Lisa, and me.  Basically we went back and forth between laughing and crying with plenty of admiration for the performance of the kids and the teachers.

There were two other emotions I just couldn’t shake, though — first, the unavoidable realization that our little girl, who seemed to be just a newborn not that long ago, was growing up, and second, pride in the gratifying way she was doing it.   Audrey is definitely on track with her schooling, but then again, she benefits from  enormous advantages in learning that I literally wish all children could enjoy.

Although some days it feels like a child’s unfolding will take forever, every parent will tell you that time just flies when your kids are growing up and that you need to stop and enjoy it.  And they’re right.  So I did.

Give a Year.  Change the World

The title above represents the main motto of an educational reform effort that I appreciate a great deal — City Year (CY). My appreciation stems from the young people, ages 17-24, who devote a year of their lives to the mission of helping urban middle schools and their students.  Unmistakable in their bright orange jackets, City Year corps members demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to social justice, a theme that resonates deeply within our Marquette University College of Education.

By way of history, two years ago I had the pleasure of participating in the kick-off of City Year Milwaukee (CYM).  My role was to interview City Year’s founder, Michael Brown, in the Weasler Auditorium on campus.  Michael exuded intelligence and passion, and he responded to my questions in a thoughtful way.  This encounter qualified as my first inkling of how the organization’s leadership contributed so powerfully to its articulation.  But to be honest, the enthusiasm and energy of this first cohort of CYM corps members impressed me even more.  Think of their zeal as infectious.

In the urban middle schools where they were placed, the corps member would encourage student attendance, help to improve their behavior, and assist them with academic pursuits.  They were to serve, in effect, as role models for the many young adolescents they would engage, a large proportion of whoom would be at-risk for school failure.  Although I can’t say that I’ve seen hard data on the effectiveness of the program, my instincts tell me inherently that the corps members do indeed make a difference, changing the world a little right here in Milwaukee.

As it turns out, I had the honor of giving the City Year commencement address a few weeks back.  And let me tell you something.  The corps members hadn’t lost one iota of zeal.  The pre-ceremony atmosphere just rocked.

Of course, no hope whatsoever existed for my keynote address measuring up to that high standard.  But I gave it my best shot, and enjoyed trying.  Frankly, the real stars were the corps members who spoke at various points in the ceremony.

Let’s just say that I’ll always fondly remember having the opportunity to celebrate with the second cohort of CY corps members on what amounted to their LAST day of school.

Reclaiming Adult Learning

My third graduation experience came in attending the annual Literacy Services of Wisconsin Luncheon.  The event honored adult students who, for whatever reason, had struggled with and overcome either basic reading and writing deficiencies, challenges in acquiring English as a second language, or with trying to acquire their GED.  The event agenda also celebrated the organization’s tutors and its programs in computer literacy, financial literacy, and workforce readiness.

LSW describes its programs as providing a “unique service delivery model of one-on-one tutoring that offers students individualized assistance and produces decisively positive outcomes.”  The organization operates on the fundamental principle that every person has a right to an excellent education, another core belief of my College.  Again, although I don’t have any formal evidence, I’m imclined to believe that the tutoring couldn’t help but be transformative for the students.

From direct experience as a literacy educator, I can tell you  that these tutoring services are vital.  As a doctoral student, I tutored adults, those who fell between the cracks of our educational system, living their entire lives with debilitating and embarrassing academic and linguistic shortcomings.  It took a profound emotional toll on them.

So you know, it takes extraordinary courage and resolve to triumph over these obstacles, and I salute each and every one of LSW’s students who have embraced the journey to reclaim their learning and prevailed.  So not surprisingly, LSW’s LAST day of school qualifies as another graduation ceremony that will be unforgettable to me.

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