stephanie bio pic1When I was asked to contribute to this blog as one voice in the rotation, I was challenged.  My roles at City Neighbors are varied—but none of them include teaching. Nor am I a parent of a City Neighbors student.  What of value could I possibly have to say?

I could relate stories of interactions I’ve had with children during my ten years with City Neighbors.  Like the kindergartner who was having a bad day.  I sat beside him and talked about what it felt like to have a bad day.  He listened to me with rapt attention, his gaze never wandering from my face.  We were bonding. I stopped talking to allow him space to respond.  And he responded, alright.  “What is THAT?” he asked, poking his little finger against the mole just to the left of my nose.   He hadn’t been clinging to every wise word.  Instead, he had been staring at that mole as if it was a third eye.  That young man received an education that day on “beauty marks.”

Or I could tell you about the first grader who, also having a bad day, repeatedly screamed “Poopyhead!” at the top of her lungs as if it was the vilest obscenity ever uttered, we adults having to bite our lips and turn our heads.  If you sense a pattern here, it’s because when one works in a school office, she often encounters students who are having bad days.

I could tell you those stories.  In fact, I have.  But those aren’t what makes City Neighbors unique. Beyond bad days and beauty marks, it’s the learning that makes City Neighbors.

As I mentioned, I am not the parent of a City Neighbors student or alum.  When City Neighbors Charter School—our founding school–opened its doors in 2003, my son was already 17-years old, his own educational struggles mostly behind him after his father and I took a risk and enrolled him a progressive private school in fourth grade. His five years there restored an authentic love of learning that had been eroded by a more traditional education in a parochial school.  His experience is not an indictment against traditional or parochial schools.  We all know children who survive and some who even thrive in those environments, me being one of them.  My quiet, introspective kid, however, wasn’t.

Had City Neighbors been an option then, we would have leaped at the opportunity because, although I am not an educator, I know learning when I see it—or hear it or smell it or taste it or touch it.  It doesn’t necessarily look like children sitting behind desks in neat rows.  It often sounds loud and looks messy.  It bustles.  It thrums.  It chooses authentic, meaningful experiences over rote, dusty facts that a basic Google search can provide.  It does whatever it takes to capture a child’s heart and mind.

It doesn’t mean bad days don’t happen at City Neighbors.  We sometimes have G-rated scatological epithets hurled at us by frustrated five-year-olds and our imperfections are sometimes literally pointed out by little fingers poking at us.  But I know what learning looks like.  Just like that beauty mark, I see it.  Every day.

~Stephanie King, Business Manager, City Neighbors Foundation & Office Administrator, City Neighbors Hamilton~

gwendolynSocial media and news can be discouraging, leaving us feeling disenfranchised about the state of our communities and our children’s educational future.  However, there are twice as many powerful and uplifting stories that go untold. There are those who wake up every morning with hope, purpose, and passion to positively impact our children, our schools, our community, and our world.  There are parents, administrators, teachers, staff, cafeteria workers, grandparents, maintenance persons, guardians, students, daycare providers, bus drivers, babysitters, and countless more who care and are making a difference– every day.  Sometimes their stories are overlooked and they are unsung heroes.  Every story matters.

We will never be able to do everything to make our society perfect.  However, we do have a powerful sphere of influence and we should use it impactfully with inspiration for good.  No matter how small or great your contributions, they really do matter, so for that I say thank you!

~Gwendolyn Unoku, Progressive Ed Summit Coordinator & CN Parent

fullsizeoutput_1d46I love IEP meetings! If you’ve been involved in the IEP process, as a parent or educator, you probably think that sounds preposterous. In fact, there is a whole cottage industry on Etsy of t-shirts and coffee mugs poking fun at the often contentious, tedious, and exhausting process of developing programs of support and specialized instruction for students with disabilities.


While they are somewhat in good fun, the tension, resentment, and frustration that underlie the slogans are evident to anyone in the know:

Sorry for what I said during IEP season

IEP: I Expect Progress

Keep Calm and Avoid Due Process

Goal: In 2 out of 3 trials I will be nice at the IEP

I’m “That Mom” #SorryNotSorry

(Full disclosure: I have pondered the purchase of two such products: (1) the gift sets of coffee cup reading IEP Prep and wine glass reading IEP Recovery and (2) a t-shirt reading Radical Inclusionista.)

But I have come to see the IEP table as a powerful place where a dedicated team of experts come together to think deeply about how to support one student. Experts in speech and language development, fine and gross motor development, teaching reading and math, building positive peer relationships, and experts about one very important child – her parents or guardians. No one is in it for the money – or the snacks. (I always plan on baking something wonderful, but never manage to fit it in to my IEP prep schedule.)

We bring ourselves as we are: overworked, underpaid (or not paid at all), sometimes emotional or overwhelmed or frustrated. We come together to share ideas and build the next part of the path. When you get beyond the jargon and MANY acronyms (PLOP = “present levels of performance,” LRE = “least restrictive environment,” ESY = “extended school year”), the team bats around ideas for accommodations and supplementary services, decides on service hours and where they should be provided and by whom. We talk about strategies – what’s been working and what hasn’t. We share anecdotes about the student in the classroom, at home, in the community to better understand how we might leverage strengths in the service of learning or track down the roots of challenges that stand in the way of progress.

When we do IEP meetings right (and in my experience, City Neighbors stands out for its commitment to doing them right), we build a powerful connected set of supports and services that can help students thrive in our school communities.

What does it take for the IEP table to a place of collaboration rather than contention? Here are few tips I’ve learned from and with my daughter’s team at City Neighbors:

  1. Assume the best intentions of every team member.
  2. Have confidence in your own expertise, including parents/caregivers! (You know your child best! Your most important role is helping individual team members to better understand your whole child – bring photos of your child from outside school doing the things they love, write an “all about me” document talking about your child’s strengths and challenges, what works best at home, what your child loves to do, what your child and your family envisions for the future.)
  3. Come prepared. Read the reports. Make some notes. Ask questions.
  4. Educators/therapists: Complete your reports on time so that parents have time to review them. (5 days before the meeting, please.)
  5. Bring a friend– or the parent of one of your child’s classmates. (I volunteer!)
  6. Start from the strengths. Keep the focus on how to leverage what a child does well to support learning, rather than focusing on deficits.
  7. Think about how the language we use around the table shapes the relationships, the attitudes, and perspectives of parents, educators, and most importantly the student. By avoiding words like “non-compliant,” “lazy,” “stubborn,” we can focus on what the we can all do to better support a student who isn’t getting what she needs to be successful.

Take a breath and enjoy your next IEP meeting! I’ll bring the snacks.

~Liz Zogby,  Parent and Board Member, City Neighbors Charter School



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