21 Students who will change the world

Brush NHS 2019

This year, the SEL Experience Project’s Sally Martin was the speaker at the Brush National Honor Society induction ceremony. It was a privilege to meet these outstanding students, who we are certain will be changing the world for the better. The following are the remarks that were shared at the ceremony:

One of the most surprising things that has come out of spending the last four years interviewing alumni and sharing stories on the SEL Experience Project blog, has been the almost uncanny way that the Brush grads we interviewed, almost without exception, have chosen professions where they can help others and level the playing field.  Whether they become doctors, lawyers, artists, or teachers, they often choose to serve the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised–the ones who need the most help in our increasingly divided society.   Often, they tell us that attending a diverse school system made them want to use their skills to make the world more united, fair, and equitable. They felt that SEL helped shape their world view, and made them better equipped to function in the wider world.  The examples are inspiring. Dr. Melanie Ferrara Finkenbinder, a primary care physician who works in an underserved Latino community in Columbus has helped create a free grocery store to provide her patients, who live in a food desert, with a reliable supply of fresh produce.  Ari Daniel Shapiro brings issues of climate change to national audiences as a science reporter for Public Radio International. Adina Pliskin is breaking the glass ceiling of Hollywood through her work as a Latina documentary filmmaker and producer.

Getting to the place of writing the blog came from some hard-won wisdom.  Like many white middle class parents, my husband and I were warned by well-meaning friends that we shouldn’t use the schools in South Euclid.  According to them, SEL Schools just weren’t good enough for our children. Since it was part of the family tradition anyway, we dutifully put our kids in Catholic School. When our son, Chris was in eighth grade, he announced that he was done with private school and wanted to attend Brush. Given that this kid was about the most stubborn child ever born, we relented.  Much to our surprise, Chris thrived at Brush, got an excellent education and especially enjoyed the incredible art education he received from Ms. Connor and Ms. Curry. In 2018, he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he continues to live and work in the art field. When I became the Housing Director for the City of South Euclid in 2008, I saw how the lack of confidence in our schools was causing a reduction in our housing prices.  Realtors frequently mentioned concerns about the schools, and school rankings–which never tell the whole story– had been dropping.  When Brush grad, Beth Fry became my intern one summer, we realized that we both had grave concerns about what was happening as white families left the district.  The once balanced diversity that was the hallmark of SEL was rapidly shifting.  In less than 12 years, the district went from being 80 percent white to 80 percent black–a particularly strange phenomena since we weren’t seeing the same level of white flight in the populations of the two cities the district serves.  Both South Euclid and Lyndhurst are still majority white communities.

Sadly, this isn’t a unique problem.  According to award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones, who points out in her recent New York Times article entitled, “It Was Never About Busing”, we have made little progress since the Supreme Court passed Brown vs. the Board of Education.  She reminds us that 65 years later, black students are as segregated from white students as they were in the mid 70s.

As our best and brightest, you have a special charge.  You are called to be the change.  My generation has failed.  Our society is divided like never before. When a school district has re-segregated, it should serve as a warning sign that our society has run off course. We look to you, as our future leaders, to change this firmly entrenched pattern of fear and separation. The noted author and psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler Ross said that there are only two emotions from which all other emotions arise:  fear and love. If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of fear.  Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. As we can see from what is happening in Washington, our society at large has chosen fear.  Your generation must change that.

Last Friday, I had the privilege to speak to a sold-out crowd at the City Club about the challenges of inner-ring suburbs, which was also being live-broadcast on WCPN (NO PRESSURE THERE!).  The subject of schools came up and I told the story of the blog and my family’s positive experiences with SEL Schools.  After the presentation, I was mobbed by people who praised me for having the courage to discuss race.  They said no one talks about this stuff.  That’s precisely the problem.  It’s the elephant in the room and it’s time we called it out.  One of my favorite poets, the late song writer Leonard Cohen, wrote a song entitled ‘Anthem’ that contains the following lyrics:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

It’s time to let the light in and speak our truth.  When I let go of my fear and decided to start talking about this, I found that it resonated with so many people and allowed them to step out of their fear too. When you are old enough to vote—make sure you do.  Urge the adults in your household to vote at every election.  This is critical.  It matters.  Never be afraid to speak the truth to power. Keep showing up and speak your truth.  We are proud of you.  We are depending on you.  I can’t wait to see what you accomplish.

Congratulations to the 2019-2020 Inductees and current members of Brush National Honor Society:

New Members:

Kaelum Adams                    Hailee Jones

Lillie Alshiekhtala                Alex Kumar

Aiyana Buckner                   Isabelle Lashley

Jessyka Camandillo             Sean Pierce

Dylan Dicenzi                       Jaslyn Rozier

Nathan Eckman                  Gwyneth Seddon

Gianni Fitch                          Darrien Smith

Raya Fitch                             Devin Suttles

Arthur Franklin                    Carla Wagner

Hali Hocker                          Alyssa Wiegand

Niah Johnson

Current Members:

Keenan Barnes                    Nikolas Anderson

Sloane Boukobza                Victoria Semler

Noah Turoff                          Suyee Chen

Shalea Williams                   Amber See

A Place for Everyone

Laurie Kowalski tells a story about the Brush Track team that sums up her feelings about South Euclid Lyndhurst Schools.  “When my son Charlie, who has special needs, arrived at a track meet and realized he had forgotten his money for concessions, he became openly distressed.  Members of the track team saw how upset he had gotten and they all ran to him opening their wallets and making sure he knew that they would  take care of anything he needed. The generosity and acceptance from the students at SEL Schools has been amazing.”

Lyndhurst residents Laurie and Jim Kowalski have three children:  Kristen, 23; Alex, 19; and Charlie, 18.  Both Alex and Charlie have special needs.  The Kowalskis credit SEL staff for helping each of their children realize a  high level of achievement.

Kristen, class of 2011, is an Occupational Therapy student at the University of Pittsburgh. While at Brush she excelled at sports and academics, and thrived in many extra curricular activities.  She was accepted into the OT program at Pitt as an incoming freshman– an impressive accomplishment.  This summer she received a scholarship to work abroad for five weeks in New Zealand, working with adults with developmental disabilities.  She will then be interning at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis and at the Cleveland Clinic for the remainder of the summer.  Kristen’s desire to help those with disabilities began when she was a child, influenced by her brothers’ special needs and the diversity she experienced first-hand during her SEL education.

Alex, class of 2015, has Down syndrome, and spent his SEL career in an inclusive classroom setting. He is currently working in the community through Cuyahoga East Vocational Educational Consortium (CEVEC).  This summer he is working at TJ Maxx and will be working next fall at the Mandel JCC and is exploring college options.

Charlie,  class of 2017, will be starting his senior year at Brush next fall.  He started his SEL career as one of the first students in the Autism unit at Sunview School, and has a special aptitude for computers and art.  He was accepted into the Excel Tech graphic design program, and is exploring college options to pursue a career in a related field.

Laurie, who is employed by The Upside of Downs, (an organization that provides support, education, and advocacy for people with Down syndrome, their families and communities) serves special needs families in 16 counties throughout Ohio, and feels that SEL Schools provide some of the best special needs programming in the state. “The inclusive atmosphere and acceptance of all kids has made our special education experience exceptional.  Our kids have been included not only academically, but their experience in extra curricular activities, particularly sports, has been amazing.”

Laurie credits the athletic department  for going above and beyond for her children. “The coaching staff has been amazing to our kids–in particular swimming, cross-country, and track.  The athletic director and staff always made our kids part of the team and made them better athletes as well.  Their encouragement and caring have made a big difference in their confidence.”  When asked what she wished people knew about SEL Schools, Laurie adds, “I wish that people knew what an incredible staff SEL has, and how they shouldn’t judge the schools by hearsay.   All of our children have different needs from advanced classes to special education needs.  The staff in the district has worked tirelessly to make sure all of those needs were met and to ensure that all of our kids excelled. People should experience the schools for themselves and they may be pleasantly surprised. At SEL Schools, there is a place for everyone.”

 

Kowalski family

Just Wait Until You Hear What These Brush Kids Did…

Sometimes at the SEL Experience Project, we get a scoop so great that we just can’t wait to share it.  Right now, we’re so full of ARC pride, we just might burst! The Brush Robotics team took the highest possible award at last weekend’s qualifying tournament at Kent State University. After taking the second place alliance at Tri-C in January, the team went on to to earn Captain of the winning alliance at Kent against 24 other teams–the highest award possible!  The Brush team also took the Control Award, which is given for the best use of sensors and robot control algorithms.  They will go on to compete in the state championship in Cincinnati this weekend.  Way to go Brush Robotics Team!!!

If you have a great ARC story to share, please email us at selexperienceproject@gmail.com.  Don’t forget to include some adorable pictures!  We love to share the great news, so keep it coming!Brush Robotics Team

Tell Us Why You Love Attending SEL Schools!

If you’re a current SEL student, tell us about your experience.  We may post it on the blog and share it on social media.  Don’t forget to include a photo!  Cut and paste these questions into an email and send it to us at selexperienceproject@gmail.com.

What is your name and grade?

What school do you attend?

What do you like the most about your school?

What activities are you involved in?

Who are your favorite teachers?

What are your goals for the future?

If there was one thing you could change about your school what would it be?

 

The Problem No One Talks About

When Beth Fry and I started the SEL Experience Project blog our goal was to highlight all the positive outcomes and stories from the South Euclid Lyndhurst School District and to have an “honest” conversation about the rumors and negative perceptions that have resulted in an erosion of support for our schools. The “honest” part is the hard part. It’s hard to talk about race and social class. I don’t feel qualified myself. I’m uncomfortable doing it, yet someone has to try. I’ll start by sharing my family’s story and do my best from there.

In 2001 we moved into our home on South Belvoir in South Euclid. Before long we were hearing negative stories about the schools. We were told that we “couldn’t use the schools”.  At the time our school district had excellent ratings, yet there was so much negative neighbor-to-neighbor talk. Frankly, I didn’t think much about it since our extended family had a long-standing tradition of Catholic education. We just enrolled our son in Catholic school and that was that.

It wasn’t until 2008 when I became South Euclid’s Housing Manager that I began to fully grasp what a high price we were paying as a community because of these negative perceptions. To be sure, our city like many others, was hit hard by the housing crisis. Almost 20% of our housing stock has been in foreclosure. Much of that was a result of predatory lending, but compounding that and predating that, there has been a long and disturbing trend of families moving away in search of “better schools”. During the crisis this occasionally showed up in the form of “strategic defaults”—people who could pay, but decided to stop paying on a mortgage. In some cases, these people purchased other homes elsewhere, then walked away from their South Euclid home. While strategic defaults weren’t widespread, I saw cases I could tie directly to negative school perceptions. In meeting with Realtors, I heard over and over again that the poor reputation of our schools was creating a problem with property sales.

Our homes are selling to young professionals, single folks, and empty nesters, but not to as many families with children. As a result we are seeing a trend of smaller household sizes. Rental properties have increased in South Euclid and other inner-ring suburbs as a result of the glut of bank-owned properties that were sold to investors and because of homeowners who have moved and rented out their homes. Many of these homes are now occupied by lower-income families who use the schools.

As we lost middle class families and more lower income folks began using the schools, we saw a shift in the demographics of our school district. In 12 years, our schools went from being predominantly white to predominantly black. Our school poverty rate increased over 2,400 percent and we became a Title 1 school district, which means that more than 40% of our school population is on free and reduced lunch and our district is eligible for special federal subsidies.

The schools no longer match the demographics of either community they serve. Both South Euclid and Lyndhurst remain predominately white and middle class, although the level of diversity in both cities continues to increase. As a result of the increased poverty levels of the schools, our test scores and state rankings have decreased. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy—as residents convinced each other that the schools were no good and decided to flee, it became clear, based on the ratings, that they had indeed become far worse. Except that they haven’t, and that’s where this gets complicated.

When our son Chris was in eighth grade he announced that he did not want to remain in private school for high school. This came as a shock to my husband and I and I’m embarrassed to admit that we fought him on it. In the end his stubbornness won out and he was enrolled at Brush High School. Little by little we realized that in spite of everything we’d heard, there was absolutely no truth to the negative rumors. Chris loved Brush and received a great education. When he graduated in 2014 he got an impressive scholarship and is now a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The dedicated faculty and outstanding programs continue to exceed our expectations. Our daughter Sarah is now a freshman at Brush after spending eight years in private school. She loves the school, especially the fact that the other students are kind and accepting, something that wasn’t always the case at her former school. On her first day at Brush, the first group of girls she encountered in the cafeteria immediately waved her over and invited her to sit with them for lunch.

Not much has fundamentally changed about the curriculum at the district since it had excellent ratings. District wide, there are over 30 AP and Honors classes, scores of extracurricular offerings, a STEM program, opportunities to earn free college credit while in high school, 58 sports teams, including a gorgeous stadium, and world-class music and art instruction. There’s even a farm to fork program that brings local produce to our cafeterias, and the impressive Excel Tech program, that allows students real world training in over 22 vocations. It’s not a stretch to say that if all of our residents decided to start sending their kids to the district, our rankings would quickly be back to where they were 12 years ago. That’s the frustrating part. Now, we’ve come to the hardest part.

The unspoken but prevailing narrative is that if you’re black and low income the schools are just fine for you, but if you’re white or middle class, the schools aren’t good enough. There are plenty of code words and phrases that people use to say it, like “the schools have changed”, but what is really being said is that since the schools are predominantly attended by minority students, they must be inferior. I like to think that we’ve come a long way in terms of equality and acceptance in our little community, but this is still a chasm that sometimes feels insurmountable.

Worst of all, the students are aware of the negative things that are being said—they read all those nasty remarks on social media and Cleveland.com. Sarah was told by her former school peers that if she went to Brush she would probably be stabbed and have no friends; that it’s a “ghetto school.” I never thought that something as simple as sending my children to a neighborhood school could be considered an act of defiance, but in way it is. Another private school mother who sent her children to Brush told me her story. She explained that she and her kids took a lot of abuse for using the public school, but that she felt it was the best thing she has ever done for them in terms of preparing them to live in the wider world. Academically, her children have excelled. They received impressive college scholarships and have gone on to seek advanced degrees.

After having worked on our storytelling project for the better part of a year, I can say that one of the most surprising things I have discovered is that our graduates tend to be highly motivated by social justice and by and large want to go out and make the world a better place. Many already have, and we love to tell those stories.   But all this negativity has taken a toll on the morale of our students, faculty, and the community at large. It needs to stop. By far, our school district is one of the largest pieces of our municipal infrastructure. It’s not disposable and neither are our communities.Beth & Sally B&W

Our city is recovering. Due to a lot of hard work and innovation on the part of city staff, we’ve seen over $100 million in residential and commercial investment in our city since 2010. New homes are being built and values are increasing. Unfortunately, our residents are limiting our success. By saying negative things and continuing to feed the destructive narrative about our schools, we are undermining our own property values and perpetuating a cycle that is harming us all and further dividing us. The only way this is going to be solved is the same way it began—by changing our everyday conversations over the backyard fence, at the grocery store, and on social media. Our kids are worth it and our neighborhoods are worth it.

–Sally Martin