Community Foundation working to improve education and strengthen economy

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 25, 2014 

Window on My World

A Roosevelt Elementary School student, left, is tutored by a high school student in 2012 as part of the school's Club de Lectura program that has older students tutor younger kids in their first language, which dramatically improves their comprehension going forward.

BELLINGHAM PUBLIC SCHOOLS — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The Community Foundation believes in the power of education. It's a critical part of giving all our kids an even start in life. We're not alone and we certainly weren't the first ones to the party. That's good news.

One of the ways we learn at the Community Foundation is by listening to the people who are already doing great work in our community. That's how we met a man I'll call Joe. He volunteers with a local organization that helps young people prepare for college. He is passionate about helping kids focus on their future, starting in middle school. Joe is articulate, intelligent and making a difference in our community that is literally changing kids' lives.

Though you would never know it by meeting him, Joe struggled in school. He became so concerned with his academic performance during his high school years that he finally screwed up his courage and asked the school counselor to test him for a learning disability. Joe told the counselor that he thought he was learning at a much slower pace than his classmates.

The counselor gave Joe several tests and told him that he did not have a learning disability. When she reassured Joe, the counselor thought her work was done. No learning disability, no need for intervention. The problem was that Joe still wasn't doing as well in school as he thought he should. He didn't know where else to go for help. His parents were smart, loving people and yet they couldn't offer advice: the school system was unfamiliar and therefore intimidating. Joe resigned himself to the idea that he just wasn't smart.

Joe was born outside the U.S. When he was young, his parents made the herculean effort to immigrate here. They trusted that their children would get the education they needed to take advantage of the abundant opportunities for success that this nation offers. They felt like their job relative to their kids' formal education was largely done. The teachers would take it from there.

Kids who will be the first in their families to attend college have to learn to adapt in ways that many others kids don't. The same is true for kids living in poverty. There are different barriers in their path. That's unfortunate. If it doesn't affect my children or me, why should I concern myself? Because whether I see or not, it does affect me. It affects all of us. The more we can do to help all the kids in every classroom learn at or above grade level, the more teachers can teach. The more teachers can teach, the better prepared our students will be to enter the workforce. The stronger our workforce, the better positioned we are to retain, grow and attract living-wage employers in Whatcom County. More well-paying jobs mean more money circulating in the local economy.

Fortunately, Joe didn't give up on himself. He graduated from high school and college. Later, Joe became a mentor.

Joe wants to make a difference in the lives of these first-generation college students, to help ease their way in the world at a pivotal age. He encourages kids to put their best effort into school. Some kids say, "I'll get serious later in high school. I have time." Joe helps those kids see that what they do today matters - classes, tests, behavior. He felt isolated in the unfamiliar surroundings of college and wants the kids he works with to avoid that. He wants to build up their confidence, help them be resourceful and to see opportunity and success in their future.

Joe's resilience, tenacity and generosity in volunteering are bright spots to this story. And there is more good news. We have more exceptional assets at work in our own backyard: school districts, higher education institutions and many other partners working together, blazing the trail to better serve local students and families, and by extension, strengthening our local economy. We're investing in this important work because we believe that education is the gateway to prosperity. Thank you, Joe, for the education.

This is one of a year-long series highlighting the work of the Whatcom Community Foundation. Author Mauri Ingram is the president and CEO of the foundation. For more information, go to whatcomcf.org.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com.

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