Alexander Elementary School is a beautifully constructed building on a nice parcel of land in Southeast Iowa City. It opened in 2015 with a new staff and a large student body that includes approximately 70 percent of the student population on the free and reduced lunch program.
Within this student population are students who do not speak English as a first language, a fair-sized group of homeless children and students with other barriers that make learning a little more challenging. There is a committed staff of administrators and teachers who face more than their fair share of challenges on a daily basis.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to the four kindergarten teachers. Some of their stories broke my heart. For example, one teacher shared that it is not uncommon for her students to ask what she is eating for supper – and then ask if they can go home with her for supper. Some of these students will not eat dinner and will not eat until the next morning at school.
Or consider the story of one student who cannot stay awake in class. This student does not get an adequate amount of sleep each night despite several pleas from the teacher to adjust bedtime hours. The stories go on and on.
The staff, thus, accepted all the challenges associated with this new school and celebrated many successes as the 2015-16 school year progressed. Nevertheless, by the spring of 2016, it became evident that this school would benefit from outside volunteers to assist the staff, the students and always with the intent of creating a better learning environment.
That’s where MidWestOne Bank enters the picture.
After becoming aware of the tremendous opportunity that existed, MidWestOne decided to “adopt” Alexander. What does this mean? It means many things.
We’ve supported Alexander with the “standard” support such as tee shirts, pizza parties, and various forms of staff support.
But the main topic of this essay is the mentor program and this is how our fine bank has stepped up in a big way to answer the call. What we heard was that there are many, many students who—for whatever reason—do not have frequent and/or productive conversations with an adult.
Further, there are not always positive role models who are consistently present in these students’ lives. Clearly, these are barriers to learning. Our MidWestOne mentors typically mentor one or two kids and spend about a half hour each week talking to their mentee. Feedback from the staff is overwhelmingly positive, but don’t take my word for it. Below are stories from some of our mentors:
“The little boy I work with is very shy, and during our first few meetings he barely talked. He barely answered my questions. The teacher said he doesn’t get a lot of attention at home because he has many siblings and so he is not used to getting attention in class and therefore doesn’t really like it. One day, I arrived at the classroom and he saw me in the doorway and actually smiled. He came up to me and very loudly said: “Last weekend I had a cupcake fight!” He proceeded to tell me all about it for almost 10 minutes. I don’t really know what happened or what flipped the switch, but I think the consistency of me coming to the school every week helped him trust me and open up. That same day I brought him back to the classroom, and the teacher pulled me aside and said that the little boy is more vocal in the classroom and hides his face behind his hands a lot less.”
“The little girl I mentor has a living situation that is complicated and, to be honest, I don’t think I understand it all. She also tells me about her (numerous) siblings and their choices. We talk through how she would handle a situation like that, and she makes me really proud because she is very mature for her age and knows exactly how other people in her life would feel if she behaved a certain way. She thinks she has an “ugly smile.” I asked her why she would say that, and she told me her fellow students and her siblings told her she had an ugly smile and tease her about her teeth. I told her that I think that she has a beautiful smile, and that I love to see her smile. I also said that she should not pay attention to what other people say about her appearance, because the only person who should care about it is herself – as long as she likes her own smile it doesn’t matter what other people think. Since then, there have been tangible signs she is more comfortable with her smile, so much so, that it almost made me tear up. We made cards during our session that day. We were hiding our cards from each other while we made them, and I thought I surprised her by giving her a card saying I was very proud of her. But the real surprise was that she actually made a card for me, thanking me for spending time with her every week, and telling me how much it means to her. That time I really did tear up.”
“During one of my meetings with my mentee, she mentioned she was with her English Language Learner teacher earlier in the day. I told her I didn’t realize that she spoke multiple languages. She said she spoke three, but at home she mainly spoke Portuguese or French. She told me that her dad and grandpa spoke over 5 languages, but her grandfather was deceased. She then told me that he had been killed while trying to flee the Congo. She went on to say that she had lived in the Congo until she was two, but didn’t remember much of it. She, along with her parents and 5 siblings, lived in a trailer for almost 6 years in Iowa City. They recently moved into a new home.
I tried to imagine what life would be like as a refugee. his is embarrassing to admit, but that moment was the first time I thought about how lucky I was to be born in the United States. How lucky I was to have the life that I have, and I started to wonder…WHY?
It was a humbling moment for me, and the thing is, I thought I was mentoring to be a good influence on her and to teach her about life, but in reality, she has taught me more than I could ever teach her. She has given me a glimpse of a world that I could never relate to, and that has forced me to think differently about the things I consider “problems.” I wish I could tout that I am changing lives over at Alexander, but it’s probably more accurate to say that it has changed mine!”
“I meet with a 5th grader and a kindergartner each week. They seem to crave the individual attention, even if it is only for 20 – 30 minutes, playing a game, talking or working on class assignments. I’ve had several students ask why I only mentor one student from their class and want to know if they will get a turn. I am fortunate to work for a company that allows us the opportunities to make an impact on our community.”
So, there you have it. This is a group of community bankers who are volunteering their time for young persons in need. By doing so, they incrementally make Alexander School just a bit better. As our employee quoted above points out, it forced her to think differently about her own life. But most importantly, maybe, just maybe, young lives are being changed for the better.
I am proud of our MidWestOne bankers and their commitment to this cause. I am also proud to be a part of an industry that encourages this sort of community participation.