“Kids Are Care Detectors”–Dr. Kenneth Bowen, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School Director

I met Dr. Kenneth Bowen on November 8, 2019 at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland. Bowen is the Director–as opposed to the normal term we hear of “Principal”–of the school, and just with that information alone, you know that something is different at Southside-Ashpole. If you were not aware, this school became the first school in the state to become a member of the North Carolina Innovative School District. Bowen brings an impressive mix of education, business, and leadership experience to the school, and he has quickly demonstrated his ability to integrate that experience into what appears to be a fresh start and bright future for students.

Believing is Seeing

You will perhaps recognize this phrase as scripture in the Bible or from the Christmas movie Polar Express. While Dr. Bowen didn’t use those words to describe his marketing strategy at Southside Ashpole, they seem to fit perfectly with what he is doing. But if you’re thinking of “marketing” in the traditional way that a business thinks of advertising its product to consumers, you are missing the target.

Before I elaborate on the marketing strategy, recall that Southside-Ashpole was a school that previously ranked near the bottom of any state-measured statistical performance category. And with those results, year-after-year, it’s not hard to imagine how a negative mindset can take hold. How do you get students, teachers, and the community to believe success is possible when what they have seen is far from it?

In my short visit with Dr. Bowen, it is clear that he has an adept ability to mesh his business and entrepreneurial skills into the school environment. He understood that his initial target audience (his “consumers”, if you will) for “marketing” his ideas for success is actually the students, teachers, staff, and parents–the people “inside” the school. He has to convince them that success is possible. Proof of this change is seen in a short conversation I had with Ms. Whittington, who works in the office. When I asked her what has changed at the school, without hesitation, she said, “we have an expectation that we will succeed”.

Ms. Whittington’s comment begs the question: Succeed at what? For Bowen, that is a simple question to answer. He has changed the focus from students being judged on passing a test at the end of a school year to focusing on growth. In fact, the school’s mission statement is now a simple statement that anyone can remember: “To Grow and Achieve Together”. Bowen told me that “we all speak the same language [at the school] and that revolves around the question of ‘How are we growing?'”.

When hiring teachers, Bowen said the first thing he looks for is heart. He commented to me that he can provide many forms of professional development for teachers. But he cannot provide professional development for “how to love kids”. He continued by saying that “Kids are Care Detectors. They know if you really care”.

Difference Makers

I have been to many meetings during my professional life. Instead of setting myself up for failure by trying to implement all of the tips and suggestions learned at these meetings, my goal is to bring back one or two ideas that I may be able to implement easily in my office.

As I write this, I wonder what one or two ideas an educator (a system superintendent; a school principal; a teacher) could take to his/her school and implement with success. Here are some of the things happening at Southside-Ashpole that are unique–“difference makers” in my opinion–and that are having a positive effect on the school’s growth goals.

  • Southside-Ashpole is a K-5 school. There are two teachers in every grade level, with an educational partner in both Kindergarten classes and one educational partner serving 1st Grade, and another serving 2nd Grade.
  • Students have PE every day. They have art and music instruction on alternating days. One of the ways that music education has immediately proven its worth at Southside-Ashpole is the creation of a school song. I was able to watch a video of 5th graders singing the song. It was incredible. It was easy to see the pride the students had in helping to create it, and then to perform it. The school song is part of Bowen’s “marketing” strategy to help students verbalize and reinforce a belief in their ability to grow.
  • All teachers are assigned to one of eight small teams that meet periodically and report back to the larger cohort of teachers with success and strategies. Everyone has a place to be involved on teams such as the Student Learning and Growth Team, the School Climate, Culture, and Events Team, and the Parent/Community Advisory Team.
  • Play Therapy: in partnership with UNCP, a classroom at Southside-Ashpole has been set aside to allow space for play therapy. An example would be a student who has experienced the death of a family member. This student would have scheduled time to talk and play through those emotions and challenges with a professional counselor. The room currently being used is set up with comfortable chairs, toys, and an area to color and draw. It’s not hard to imagine how this helps the student (and his/her family) at home and in the classroom.
  • Learning Commons: You and I would have known this space as the library. And while there are the normal library items (books, computers, couches, etc), the “librarian” isn’t what we traditionally think of. This person is not always in the library. Rather, this person is in classrooms, helping teachers integrate technology and other resources into their teaching.
  • Parent Center: soon, Southside-Ashpole will have a space for parents which will include a washing machine and dryer, along with computers and sitting area. I LOVE THIS IDEA! The ability to have a center devoted to parents, making it easier to take care of important tasks while being a vital part of their child’s education is extremely valuable. Kudos to Dr. Bowen for offering this space. Improved student attendance, parent involvement at the school, and improved morale are just a few benefits.

I recognize that Southside-Ashpole has somewhat of an advantage over a larger school system in that it becomes easier to implement changes in a small setting. Sort of like turning around a ski boat as opposed to a cruise ship….it’s just easier. At the same time, many of the improvements at the school have nothing to do with money or size. Rather, in this case, it starts with Dr. Bowen’s leadership (although it certainly doesn’t end there). He firmly believes people will rise to the expectations that are established. He communicates those expectations in simple and consistent ways (a focus on growth, for example) so that everyone from students to teachers to bus drivers can tell you what the goals actually are. He provides opportunities for stakeholders to take ownership of meeting expectations (sub-committees for teachers, students creating a song). He (and his staff) care about the students and their success.

What’s the Good News?

The changes implemented at Southside-Ashpole seem to evolve from a recognition that simply teaching core curriculum subjects often isn’t enough in a society where schools are expected to be all things to all people. Dr. Bowen recognizes that there are external factors influencing student achievement. He has quickly demonstrated the ability to integrate “outside the box” opportunities (such as the partnership with UNCP to provide play therapy, as well as providing a parent center) with a clear mission and set of expectations.

Without exception, everyone at Southside-Ashpole believes they can succeed. That belief started before anyone could see results. There’s no doubt there have been many changes at the school in the past few months, and based on my short time visiting with Dr. Bowen, it won’t be long before there is at least one more change: They will believe AND see the results of their hard work! I can’t think of anything more exciting for the students, teachers, staff, and parents to experience!

“We allow them to make mistakes”–Brad Losh, Boy Scout Troop 301 Leader

On September 16, 2019, I met Brad Losh, Boy Scout Troop 301 leader at the “Scout Hut” which has been home to 301 for many years.  Since 2001, Losh has been the Troop leader, but he says he thinks of role as more of an “advisor” as opposed to leader. With that mindset, Losh strives to let the scouts lead themselves, which provides outstanding opportunities for real-world learning.

Several years ago, an Americna Flag was donated to Boy Scout Troop 301.  But this wasn’t just a normal flag. It was a 48-starred flag; it was used by Troop 301 when it was chartered in 1946; and it was donated by an individual who was a Troop 301 scout in those early years.  How do you get young people to understand and appreciate the significance of what that flag means–not only as a symbol of our country, but also as an artifact of the scout troop? And at the same time, how do you keep adolescent boys committed to scouting in a world where they are rarely separated from some from their phones? 

Losh will tell you that “we don’t know what it is” when asked why Troop 301 has been so successful in making scouts relevant to today’s youth, while still preserving the traditions from decades ago.  In the sense that “it” isn’t just one thing, Losh is correct. There are many “it”s that have helped 301 flourish.  

Before I describe them, it is important to understand how Losh defines success for 301.  One way is to talk about the number of scouts who have earned the rank of Eagle. Troop 301 can claim 154 Eagle Scouts, 59 of which have come under Losh’s leadership, and 20 of them since 2014!  Losh is proud of that track record, while also quickly pointing out that this is not the only way to measure success. For Losh, evidence of success is seen when a former 301 scout comes back to watch current scouts receive rewards; success is seen when a former 301 scout reaches out and invites him to dinner; success is seen when a former 301 scout applies the skills he has learned to his own life and adventures.  Essentially, Losh notes that it’s important that a scout doesn’t “quit being a scout” when his time with Troop 301 is over.  

So, what is “it” that has made Troop 301 flourish?  Losh is admittedly disorganized, often “flying by the seat of [his] pants”.  And while that may be true, you should not think that Losh isn’t prepared to lead Scouts.   He is incredibly clear and consistent with his expectations of scouts and works hard to “not mess it up”.  Here’s how he does it:

  • Specific Priorities:  Family, Church, School, Scouts.  In that order. Losh tells members of 301 that scouts is last on that list.  A child should not have to choose between scouts and other obligations or interests (they can coexist).  And when a child is forced to choose, in is opinion, scouts will lose every time. If a scout has to miss a series of meetings because he plays soccer at school, for example, then that’s ok.  He is welcome to come back when his schedule allows.
  • A short list of rules:  Losh demands respect for adults, the National Anthem/American Flag, religion (any religion, he points out), and the scout uniform.  These are “non-negotiables. Easy to understand, easy to enforce.  
  • “We allow them to make mistakes”.  This one, by the way, may be my favorite.  Losh can tell countless stories of times when failures have occurred:  cooking a hamburger that was as hard and black as a hockey puck on the outside, and as raw as the moment it was taken out of the cooler on the inside.  He’s even seen scouts skip classes at summer camp and not earn the merit badges that were needed to advance in rank. But in the end, Losh and leaders always seem to have extra food to make sure everyone eats; they always find a way to work with a scout to get him back on track.  Losh is quick to point out that allowing scouts to make mistakes doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. But what better place and time to learn from mistakes?  
  • Parental Support:  Repeatedly, Losh mentioned this as one of the reasons Troop 301 continues to thrive.  From attendance at meetings and camping trips to financial donations, parents have played a critical role in supporting Losh’s leadership and the goals of scouting.

What’s the Good News?

When I started “Good News from a Good Neighbor”, it wasn’t my intent to focus on groups that work with youth.  But my first two interviews have been just that, although they typically work with very different children. Ron Ross, at Boys and Girls Club, said that over 90% of the students he works with come from a single-parent, low income home. On the other hand, Brad Losh (Troop 301) has been fortunate to have incredible parental support (both with time and money) for his scouts.  Regardless, they are strikingly similar in that they allow children to be independent, to make decisions, and to learn from the consequences of those decisions (good or bad). They both trust kids to make the right decision. That trust, combined with clear communication and expectations has allowed children to learn lessons and skills that are critical in the “adult world”.

“I have learned strength from young people”–Ron Ross, Boys and Girls Club of Lumberton

On August 20, 2019, I had breakfast with Ron Ross, the Executive Director of Boys and Girls Club of Lumberton.  As I listened to Ron tell countless stories, my mind wandered just a bit.  Not because of boredom.  But, rather, I found myself asking why I waited so long to follow-through on the idea of Good News from a Good Neighbor.  Ross has been, and continues to be an incredible asset to our town, to the organization he represents, and to the children and their families he works with daily.

“Ron Ross Boys and Girls Club”.  He says it in the same uninterrupted cadence that you and I say our own names.  It’s as if his first name is “Ron Ross” and his last name is “Boys and Girls Club”.  But I’ve never heard Ron Ross Boys and Girls Club introduce himself in any other way. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to spend time talking with Ross, I have a new appreciation for the way he introduces himself: it is a reflection not only of his tenure with Boys and Girls Club, but also of the passion he has for working with children.

Ross has been affiliated with Boys and Girls Club since 1968—51 years!  And if you subscribe to the idea that some things are “just meant to be”, then the story of Ross’ beginning days with the organization will certainly add credence to your belief.  In Fayetteville, at the age of 17, Ross had a part-time job cleaning dishes at a restaurant.  He would take the bus to work, but since he didn’t get off until midnight, and since bus service didn’t operate at that hour, he literally would walk home.  Occasionally, he would “thumb it”, as he calls it.  One day, he was picked up by a person who introduced himself as the director of the Boys Club (it wasn’t called Boys AND Girls Club until 1990) and offered him a part-time job.  The appeal of working shorter hours and ONLY having to walk 2 miles home was too much to pass up.  And so, in a serendipitous moment, Ron Ross’ dedication to the Boys and Girls Club began. 

In the mid-1990s, the process began to establish a Boys and Girls Club in Lumberton.  Ross was approached by James Meacher (who, by the way, sold me the winning Duck Race ticket) to apply for the position of Executive Director.  The only problem was that Ross didn’t have a resume.  In fact, he never had a resume, since he had worked for just one employer since the age of 17–which was, or course, the Boys Club in Fayetteville.   His solution was to simply cut out an article from a local magazine that had highlighted his successes at the Fayetteville club, and send it in (eventually, he admits, he did prepare a “proper” resume, but that version of the story isn’t as much fun to tell).

Speaking of stories, Ross can spend hours talking about his work with young people, and those are Ron’s stories to tell—not mine.  But I can tell you that a common underlying thread is a consistency in how he interacts with children.  The approach he has taken with the boys and girls who have come through the program demonstrate lessons that every parent should want to teach their children.

What’s the Good News?

For two days, I have been thinking about how to eloquently elaborate on those lessons.  I have finally come to the conclusion that Ross’ words are profound enough on their own.  I have listed them below, with very brief commentary. The Good News from a Good Neighbor this month is simply that Ron Ross Boys and Girls Club is who he is, which, in a word, is passionate.

  • “You can do anything you want to do.  But are you willing to pay the consequences?”  This is a message that Ron asks young people who are on the verge of making an unwise decision.  I really like how Ross empowers the person to make their own decision.
  •  “What we think is tough, is not tough.”  Ross puts an emphasis on “WE.”.  Ross has seen first-hand some of the “tough” situations that children experience.
  • “Can I help the person change their life?  They’ve got to do it.  But can I help?”
  • “I have learned strength from young people.”

A quick snapshot of the Lumberton Club:

Currently, there are about 230 youth in the Boys and Girls Club of Lumberton, ranging in ages from 6 to 18.  The fee is $5 per school year, and $5 per summer.  Ross points out that many clubs in North Carolina and throughout the country charge substantially more, making it a barrier for access.  If a child doesn’t have the money to pay the $5, they can “work it off” by sweeping, cleaning, or doing other chores around the club.  The club is open Monday-Friday after school from 2-6pm, and during the summer from 9am-4pm.  During the school year, children arrive at the club and are given time to play and “unwind” from their school day.  At 4:00, “Power Hour” begins, which is a time for the children to do their homework (with assistance from Ross or other staff members when needed).  At 5:00, the students will participate in various programming, such as the “Smart Moves” program (which is an alcohol/drug prevention program) or the Cal Ripken program (which promotes exercise and sportsmanship).  At around 5:30, there is “left over” time to play or finish homework. 

One of the highlights of the year is the Christmas Party, where every child who shows up (whether they are Boys and Girls Club members or not) gets a Christmas present.  I have had the opportunity to help hand out presents several times.  You should make a point to do the same. 

If you would like to volunteer or donate to Boys and Girls Club of Lumberton, Ross can be reached at 910-738-8474.  The club is located at 1310 N. Seneca Street, Lumberton.

Tell Me Something Good

The idea for this blog has been incubating in my head for a while now. But it was just an idea with no follow-through. That is, until I won a Duck Race (my rubber ducky floated 100 yards down the Lumber River the fastest) sponsored by the Boys and Girls Club of Lumberton. I haven’t been able to explain exactly why, but that simple “victory” provided enough motivation for me to actually follow-through with a plan that has the potential to improve my attitude and my perspective. In that regard, Good News from a Good Neighbor will be, in a sense, therapeutic–hopefully as much for you as me.

I have been a State Farm agent in Lumberton since 2004, and the only reason I bring that up is to say that I have lived in this small community for 15 years and I have witnessed many people “doing good”. On the other hand, I only took one journalism class in college–on the topic of censorship–and it was certainly not about developing an ability to interview people or write an article with any sort of journalistic integrity. So this could be interesting for many reasons.

Good News from a Good Neighbor is a blog about the many good things happening in Robeson County, North Carolina, and the people who devote their time and energy to making those things happen. Every month, I will be having a cup of coffee with these people, learning more about them, and the groups and organizations they represent. Hopefully I can adequately pass along to you what I learn.

I think the singer Chaka Khan said it best: “Tell Me Something Good” (and now that chorus line will be stuck in your head all day). And that, simply, is my goal with Good News from a Good Neighbor–to tell you something good.