A while back a friend asked me to take a road trip with him to see the places of his hardscrabble upbringing in small-town southwestern Indiana. After a year or three of talking about it, we finally set off together.
I was raised in southern Indiana, too. My brothers and I were unfamiliar with money and the things it bought, but after visiting the places where my friend grew up, and listening to the stories they revived for him, I had to seriously rethink my memories of the Robison boys being poor. In comparison, we were rich in dozens of ways that had little to do with money, travel, cultural experiences, or fancy possessions. We had family stability and amazing role models of work ethic. My friend…not at all.
Throughout the road trip I marveled at the grit and determination he showed at a very tender age. In the face of very long odds, he persisted to high school graduation, military service, good jobs, and college degrees—even a doctorate. He is a community leader now in his adopted hometown. In the span of just a few hours, my respect grew mightily for my friend. His strength and the vision of what could be that led him to pursue a fulfilling life is something of a miracle to me.
The day after this “wander Indiana” experience, I stood in the doorway of a band classroom in one of our middle schools. Expert, dedicated teacher-musicians led talented, hardworking learners to perform a very difficult piece of music. It was majestic noise from about 100 players in a relatively small space, and the sound was amazing. I stood there, stunned by the professional quality of their work, pondering the positive, stable home/school settings that make the success of nearly all of these ZCS 12 year-olds not only possible, but strongly certain. Blessings, to be sure.
Coincidentally, my recent day trip to southern Indiana followed closely on the heels of a professional development session I attended with all of our ZCS school counselors. The presenter is leading a nearby community’s effort to focus attention upon common language and common research-based supports for raising strong, successful children. Our presenter challenged us to assess the common focus and supports from our own community, schools, government, churches, businesses, community organizations and residents for all our Zionsville children and adolescents.
I like this challenge for ZCS, and here’s why:
ZCS kids are blessed with support, robust life and learning experiences, and rich opportunities, but I have seen that this is not true for all. What’s more, a lot of ZCS parents have shared with me some version of the following concerns for their children as they are coming of age in Zionsville—and rather than keep these genuine parent worries to ourselves, I think it’s time we share them openly and consider how to respond together:
- “I don’t understand why so many of our teenagers have so much—and yet feel so empty.”
- “Too often I hear about successful young people who are using drugs or alcohol. It scares me that my kid could fall into this trap.”
- “Our kids are growing up differently from how I did; they’ve been lucky because of my success. I don’t think they realize it, and I don’t want them to take this lifestyle for granted or not have compassion and understanding for those with less. I struggle to create scarcity in the midst of our prosperity or make them understand that these things didn’t just come easily.”
- “I want my kid strong in the face of obstacles–not baffled, discouraged, or calling for rescue.”
- “It is hard to find ways to help my kids fail so that they learn about grit, persistence…reality!”
I respect my successful friend all the more after coming to know the places and stories of his childhood. He overcame enormous odds and developed grit because for him, he made a conscious choice to alter his circumstance. Fortunately, few of our ZCS kids face those long odds thanks to stability of family, community and opportunity. But need is not always evidenced by the social or familial condition.
Compared with most other communities, Zionsville has relatively few poverty-imperiled people (though growing up poor in Zionsville is a very real problem for some). There are, however, children for whom the assets of affluence do not provide some key elements of growing up strong in every way. Problem solving struggles that build toughness for the real world, service bigger than self, growth mindset experiences, and many other opportunities to develop capacity in youth can be systematically developed and implemented. I believe that we should study this topic—here, now, together in our community. I raise with you today my very real priority to help us examine and define the assets, language, and knowledge for building resilience in this community’s young people. As good as we are, in what ways can we get better as school and family partners in building the array of tools and traits of lifelong resilience—the essential capacity of successful, productive living.
ZCS is re-establishing staffing for elementary teaching experts in physical education. As we do this, I am reminded of how we sought more than a restart of elementary science classes after losing these to funding issues in 2011. School leaders and parent advocates banded together to add significant new capacity in the form of our elementary STEM program, the first in Indiana to have all schools “STEM Certified” by the Indiana Department of Education.
The opportunity to remake yet another elementary program of significance is the opportunity to spark a wellness focus and trend beginning with our youngest learners. We must take this opportunity to spark big thinking about wellness, resilience, challenge and grit for the children of our community, so that they are equipped for the challenges of today and tomorrow. Our new wellness offerings at the elementary school level can be both a symbol of, and a real vehicle for, how our schools work in a supportive system to help Zionsville children be strong in every way. A 360-degree approach to teaching and fostering lifelong wellness, nutrition, and responsibility for one’s own health analytics, frequent (daily) movement, fitness, and so on—this must be our steadfast path.
This restoration of an elementary course with an elevated vision and scope is one thing. Additionally, I hope there are many positive forces in this community that will come together to assess, then build, capacity and supports to foster the cognitive, interpersonal, physical, and mental toughness required for success, strength, and wellness in adolescence and adulthood.
Parents of young students, and even early adolescents, are strongly encouraged to read The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. (Please see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Gift-Failure-Parents-Children/dp/0062299239)
I am not being dramatic when I close by saying that in few–but still way too many—cases, this needed assessment and capacity building of assets in Zionsville is “do or die” for us as parents and community members. For youth who will survive the stresses and trials of growing up in the 2000’s, this is about an even firmer foundation—a stronger set of tools in their human toolkits upon leaving ZCS for lifelong success and wellness.
I’m glad you’re still reading this. Thanks for leading where you are and however you can as we embark upon this essential journey of growth and support for our youth.
Scott Robison, Superintendent
Zionsville Community Schools