This year I decided to stay in Grinnell to work at the Grinnell-Newburg School District (GNSD) through Grinnell Corps. Throughout the last five years, 7-13% of high school students at GNSD have chosen to leave school each year without completing graduation requirements. Those who do not earn a high school diploma are much less likely to secure a well paying job in today's increasingly competitive job market, and they are more likely to live in poverty as adults. This shows why it is so important for schools to prepare students to not only graduate, but also to be successful in higher education and the job market. That is why I am working to find ways that GNSD can improve the schools to increase student success. Edie Eckles, the Superintendent of Schools at GNSD, has shown me how my work is not just about dropout prevention or about raising graduation rates, but about improving student success. The graduation rate serves as an indicator that there are aspects to the school's overall culture and climate that are potentially not meeting the needs of some students. I am working to find out what these weak spots might be, and to identify what changes could be implemented to improve them.
The challenging part about engaging in a long-term project like this, is that I don't get to experience an immediate sense of satisfaction from my work. The gratification that comes when you're doing direct care and you make a breakthrough with a particularly troubled youth is very different from the project I'm now pursuing. I have to "keep my eye on the prize," so to speak, for the fulfillment that will come at the end of my year and throughout the years following my fellowship when I see what kind of difference my work has made to GNSD.
No One Knows What to Call Me
It's an interesting experience to begin a position that hasn't been occupied before at GNSD and has no easily explained title. I quickly learned this complication during the last few days of May when I was visiting each school in the Grinnell-Newburg District. I was introduced to many students and teachers and each introduction came with a two minute description of what it was I actually was going to be doing. And still many were confused. No one quite understood what role I would be playing and how I might affect what they were doing.
When I was at the middle school visiting a sixth grade lit. class, enjoying the performance of revamped fairytales, one girl came to me and, noticing my unusual presence in her classroom, asked me if I was the new principal. I had two thoughts in response: first that my new attempts at a more professional wardrobe must be paying off, and second that it would be much simpler (and an extensive career leap) just to tell her I was, because at least it was a position she was familiar with. For some at GNSD, I might just be considered "that one girl" associated with Grinnell College doing "something or other."
There's No Escaping Burling
I think most seniors finishing their final papers and exams last spring survived the experience by reminding themselves that it would be the last time they would be stuck working in Burling until closing time. I had the same thought as I finished my last work of my undergraduate education. Then I walked the stage, moved my stuff two blocks to a new apartment, and purposefully attempted to create a new "adult" lifestyle. Yet within the first week of starting at GNSD, I found myself trekking over to Burling, searching the stacks for what I needed. Books on the experience of being an adolescent, on what makes for a successful school, and on the best strategies for interviewing students. So it seems that even in my new "adult arena," Burling still has the answers I need.
My summer in Grinnell has been a very peaceful one, as summers here tend to go. With students gone and many GNSD personnel off contract for the summer, I've spent a lot of my time at the school district preparing for their return. Although I'm looking forward to the more stimulating experience of working directly with youth, it has been nice to have a calm period to become prepared for the coming school year. It's also pleasant to live in Grinnell's small, self-contained community, not to mention walking less than two blocks to get to work each day.
I've also started to explore areas of Grinnell that I hadn't done while in school here. I started volunteering at the Galaxy Youth Center, which has allowed me to brush up on my Monopoly and tie-dying skills, as well as teaching me what 200 filled water balloons look like. I also have a bike in Grinnell for the first time and have enjoyed staying active while exploring the surrounding Iowa countryside that I've always loved. Along with keeping up with a daily newspaper and a summer reading list, these things have helped me to feel balanced and a part of the Grinnell community. I have also been reveling in the local summer produce, frequenting the weekly farmers market. I've always been in love with cooking, and have gotten increasingly interested in the local foods movement. Grinnell is the perfect place to investigate these interests.
When Everyone Returns
Very shortly students and teachers will be returning to GNSD and my project will move from the planning and preparing stage to more hands-on activity. I'm really looking forward to this next stage as I will be starting to interview students, parents, and teachers as well as doing regular classroom and school observations. This should be the point when I can fit together all of the hypothetical research I've done about school culture and climate with the reality of what's going on at Grinnell-Newburg. I'm also looking forward to building relationships with some students and letting them know how important their input will be in the process to improve their school.
This will also be a time of adjustment socially, as friends and others in the college community start to return to town and I will be getting used to occupying quite a different role than in the past.
If anyone has any questions about my project or Grinnell Corps, don't hesitate to e-mail me at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!