How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Debra Hoffer

Debra Hoffer (BF ’12, BF ’04, BF ’02, LN ’06, LL ’93) president, Junior Achievement of Kentuckiana, Inc.

Bingham Fellows Class of 2012

My first thought when I heard about the 2012 Bingham Fellows topic was that if there is a magic bullet for increasing parental engagement in their children’s education, someone would have already discovered it.  In fact, they’d be a regular on Oprah.

Fast forward to the Bingham Fellows Opening Retreat.  I’d read my homework, had a few ideas to contribute and was hopeful that we would share our visions for success, agree on the best solutions and the rest of the Bingham Fellows process would be just ironing out details.  In reality, the process seemed a lot like trying to eat an elephant (something which I have never done in one sitting).   At the end of the day, I decided to just trust the process and modify my expectations for immediate clarity of vision.  A nice glass of Chardonnay was waiting for me at home, which helped me adjust my attitude.

What has transpired during recent weeks is a sometimes frustrating, sometimes delightful, always exhausting process that seems to be leading to some form of success.  We have listened to wise speakers, performed more research and tossed out hundreds of ideas, both good and bad.  Now, in our small groups, we are narrowing our focus.  We are taking small bites of the elephant.  And, it tastes quite good.

What I am learning is the importance of setting the big goals aside while one works to set small goals.  Small goals give us something to chew on, something with attainable outcomes.  We have begun to join our minds together to agree upon a common definition of success, and we are becoming a team.

I think that, one bite at a time, we will eventually eat this elephant.

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The secret behind one school’s success

Brian Jones

Brian Jones, (BF '12) membership development manager – Louisville, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce

Bingham Fellows 2012 February program day

Rather than an exhaustive list of things learned, snazzy quotes, or a rundown of items accomplished during our February program day, I’d like focus on something shared by someone outside our Bingham Fellows class. Here’s what I consider one of the most memorable insights from the last program day.

We had a discussion with Lisa from Atkinson Elementaryʼs Family Resource and Youth Services Center, a school that has seen tremendous improvement in the last five years under the leadership of Principal Dewey Hensley.  During the conversation, I asked her what was not working prior to his arrival and what did they change?

She shared that “pre-Dewey,” the school was “siloed”.  There was no cohesion, no collaboration between principals, teachers and students. After his arrival, Dewey asked all teachers to buy into the mission, “all of our students can and will learn and achieve at the highest levels.”  Everything became focused on student achievement at Atkinson Elementary. In short, Dewey Hensley got the right people on the bus and set its course accordingly and the school’s performance improved as a direct result.

Now, this strategy might seem fairly obvious and the most common sense answer to turning things around in a persistently low-achieving school, especially when the relatively easy answer to dealing with adversity is usually focused on ‘inputsʼ rather than ‘outcomes.ʼ In fact, the actions of Atkinson Elementary seem so simple, it’s a wonder they havenʼt been replicated throughout the rest of the district, state, and country.

However, you have to look a bit deeper into what Atkinson’s leadership decided to ‘doʼ despite all of the challenges and barriers faculty, staff and students face daily. In short, this is a school that says, “Regardless of the hand we (principals, teachers AND students) are dealt, we will deal with it, because all of our students can and will learn and achieve at the highest level. Our definition of SUCCESS is Hard Work + Resiliency + Teamwork = SUCCESS,” said Lisa.

Resiliency, as Julia Inman of the Greater Louisville Project defined it for the Bingham Fellows, is the ability to readily recover from adversity; to rebound after being bent, stretched, or compressed. Atkinson Elementary models the very definition of resiliency in principle and practice; truly a lesson for all of us in Louisville that goes beyond the ABC’s and 123’s.

Everyone has a stake in this

Julie Brown

Julie Richardson Brown (BF '12) B.A., M. Div., community integration coordinator, Family Scholar House

Bingham Fellows 2012 February program day

I arrived for day two of the 2012 Bingham Fellows Opening Retreat before the sun had even come up, fumbling out of my coat and stumbling towards coffee on automatic pilot. Only a few others had arrived and it was still quiet, so I slipped over to the enormous windows lining one side of our meeting room.

We were at least twenty floors above ground-level and as I drew up close to the windows a wide expanse of the city of Louisville appeared. Cars were beginning to populate the interstate. Activity had begun in the streets below. Things hadn’t quite exploded into a busy city weekday yet–but you could feel it coming. Feel the just-before-full-dawn energy building. To my right the sun was climbing up out of the horizon, a brilliant hot pink and orange. To my left a flock of wild geese–so completely out of place–flew high and fast over office buildings and hospital towers, disappearing into morning clouds almost before I realized they were there at all.

It was a big-picture moment. And I could not help but think, as I stood there letting coffee and time do their work on my still-sleepy body and brain, that it was the most perfect of places to set about the task of being a Bingham Fellow. An ideal spot to think, “common good,” “whole community,” “all in this together.”

We’re charged with thinking about how we might–as an entire community here in Louisville–set about encouraging and supporting parental and community engagement in student achievement. And then, doing something about what we come up with–putting thought into action in a way that encourages our students to do and be their very best, that helps families see that education is both a family and community project, and a lifelong process. No simple task.

It is safe to say that intelligences, emotions, tempers, personalities and anxieties are running high from the get go. Everyone has a stake in this. Everyone has a child or a grandchild or a niece or a nephew or a friend involved in our education system. Everyone wants the best for their own children, but also for all children (and yes, I really do believe, at our best selves, we want what’s best for them all). And because those of us who comprise the Bingham Fellows class are all driven and passionate people–leaders in our work places and individual communities–we also all have our own supposed ideas of THE most important part of the problem and perhaps even, THE solution to it all.

And what we really have to be able to do is get all of that out of the way and position ourselves so that we can see big-picture–high enough and wide enough that our own stuff gets lost in what it means to be about the common good.

It will not be easy. It won’t even always be pleasant. And I imagine that somewhere along the way at least a few of us will want to quit. I also know—I can already tell from two days together–that we’re up to the task. And that somehow we’ll manage to think beyond ourselves and into what it means to be part–just part–of the village raising our children here in Jefferson County.