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by Elizabeth Pope, Live & Learn, THURSDAY February 12, 2009
SNAPSHOT: The nine-year-old boy was crouched against a wall when Barbara Cervone spotted him in the hallway of an impoverished Chattanooga school. "He was clearly AWOL, hiding from his teachers," says Cervone, who was visiting the school in 2001 as the national coordinator of the $500 million Annenberg Challenge aimed at improving public education.
Curious, she chatted with the boy and asked what he wished his teachers knew about him. "He said, 'I'm not bad. I come to school because I'm hungry and my father whips me,'" says Cervone, 61, of Providence, R.I.
Alerting the principal to the child's plight, Cervone thought of all the children in overcrowded classrooms who remain invisible to teachers and administrators. "What's always intrigued me are the stories kids bring with them," she says. "The schools I cherish are the ones where every child is known well."
Storyline: In Boston, soon after her Chattanooga trip, Cervone met a group of high school students from Lubec, ME, a depressed seacoast town. Under the guidance of their biology teacher, the students had started a mussel farm, raised trout and salmon and perfected a diet for sea urchins, a highly prized delicacy in Japan. The students' expertise in aquaculture helped revitalize their town's ailing fishing industry.
The experiences resonated with Cervone, who was frustrated with the shift in debate about school reform. Increasingly, policy makers and administrators she met on her cross-country travels were over-emphasizing high-stakes testing and top-down decision-making, and she was convinced this was the wrong approach. "The emphasis on standardized tests was coupled with the assumption that kids are only good when they don't engage in risky behavior—don't drive drunk or get pregnant or do drugs," she says. "It was a vision of education that sold kids short." After four decades as a grant maker, researcher, administrator and school reformer, she believed her work had lost its soul.
New Vision. One day, Cervone was working on a report with education journalist Kathleen Cushman, when the pair envisioned a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo, What Kids Can Do!. That germ of an idea grew into her decision in 2001 to leave the Annenberg Challenge, then the country's largest private grant for school reform, to start What Kids Can Do (WKCD). The multi-faceted nonprofit organization showcases young people's accomplishments by sharing their stories through the Internet, books and videos. "Typically stories about young people begin with an adult perspective with just a few quotes from youth," says Cervone. "That's not the case with WKCD projects—the youth voice comes first."
What Kids Can Do. The group's website publishes articles, videos, and audio slideshows, created with teenagers around the world who are marginalized by race, class and economic conditions. Cervone, Kathleen Cushman, and a part-time assistant produce most of the stories, collaborating with young people and mentors in the field. The site also posts daily bulletin updates on youth news from local and national media.
Student voices have driven WKCD stories on Hurricane Katrina, teen efforts to help local day laborers, California teens fighting carcinogens in the beauty industry and even an all-girl fire-fighting emergency medical team in Alaska. The website—aimed at policy-makers, teachers and the media more than students—gets 75,000 visitors a month and has led to national media coverage on many stories. "It's a good feeling," says Cervone, "when you get a call from someone like Judy Woodruff" (news anchor on Public Television's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer).
Enlarging the Vision. With help from funding partners—or on her own dime—Cervone also travels to Tanzania, China, India, and Romania to help students tell their own stories. Some material appears in book form as well as online. A visit to a Chinese school features a voice-over slide show of Beijing high school students studying English and giving lessons in Mandarin Chinese.
WKCD collaborated on the best-selling Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High-School Students (New Press) and later launched Next Generation Press, which publishes other books co-produced with youth such as First in the Family: Advice About College From First-Generation Students. Two years ago Shannon O'Grady, 29, an 11th-grade English teacher at Bronx Leadership Academy II, organized 14 students to write a Bronx version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. WKCD provided funding and Cushman's help in facilitating discussions, transcribing materials, and guiding the project. Students were "a mix of street culture and school culture," says O'Grady. The group met after school to devise test questions on military recruitment, why students fight, what makes an American and what it takes to go to college. "They were thrilled when the book came out last spring," says O'Grady. "They can Google their names as authors." Students also gained confidence at workshops where they discussed the project with educators and other adults. "WKCD's support was vital," says O'Grady. "It wouldn't have been possible for us to do this on top of our normal school responsibilities."
Seeing Rewards. Cervone herself takes time from a 60-hour workweek to help a Youth in Action media project involving a group of Providence students fighting proposed cuts in the city's public bus service. Last fall students took about 1,000 digital photos and interviewed bus riders about the impact of cuts on their lives and businesses. The Project, which was posted on the WKCD's website recently, was a confidence-builder for Darren Canonico, 16, a junior at Textron Chamber Academy. "I didn't know I could do all this technological stuff— it's really coming out good," he says. The project also taught him an important lesson about persistence. Canonico had just finished interviewing an elderly veteran who depends on the bus when the boy realized his digital recorder was turned off. "I didn't want to go back and ask the man to redo it, but Barbara was like, yeah, you have to," says Canonico, who loves poetry and wants to be a nurse. "We did it again and it came out great. I guess I've got more guts than I thought I did."
Purpose Prize. Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank, recently honored Cervone with a $10,000 Purpose Prize fellowship, awarded to age 60-plus social innovators. "Purpose Prize winners often see a problem that others miss, then use their experience to find a way to solve it," says Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Civic Ventures. "Barbara realized that a critical ingredient was missing from the national discussion on education reform—student voices. What sets her apart is that she had the courage and the savvy to create a new way to bring those voices to the table and to enrich students' lives and, not incidentally, their educations in the process."
Cervone says in her younger years she never imagined she would create an organization that crosses the boundaries that separate youth development, school reform, service learning, and adolescent literacy. "Sometimes I ask myself 'How did I get here?,' " she says. "But the beauty of this is there is so much wonderful work out there—we'll never run out of good stories to capture and tell."
Elizabeth Pope often writes about career issues and creative retirements for NRTA Live and Learn.
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