By Justin DeWaele
On Saturday, April 2, the second day of the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference at the University of California, San Diego, a panel of experts came together to discuss the challenges facing education in both the developed and the developing world for a working session entitled “Education Pathways and Opportunities for Adolescents.”
The panelists included Margaret Meagher, the Program Manager for the MasterCard Foundation’s Youth Learning mission; Vivian Onano, Ambassador of a sustainable model for mentoring disadvantaged girls in poor, rural communities called Global Give Back Circle; and Joel Arquillos, Executive Director of 826LA, the Los Angeles branch of a national organization that helps students improve their writing skills. Each of the speakers explained their own experiences regarding education, but they all agreed that effective education does not require a lot of capital or many resources—it only requires passion, persistence and talent.
Margaret Meagher, who works primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, discussed the immense problems that education activists in this region of the world face. While lack of education is a grave issue—140 million school-aged children in the developing world do not attend school—Meagher emphasized the shortcomings of the quality of education students receive in sub-Saharan Africa. She reported that students in some countries of this region have a 40% chance of being illiterate after five years of education, and that many of the schools don’t provide students with relevant skills for college or the global job market. Other issues prevail as well, including a lack of school supplies, a lack of role models to inspire children, which is exacerbated by discrepancies in teacher training that result in poor instruction in the classroom, and the fact that many families do not see a use for formal education. Meagher cited some initiatives—Campaign for Female Education and Education for Employment—that work to reach out to disadvantaged children to solve these problems.
Vivian Onano, a one-time beneficiary and now a benefactor of the organization Global Give Back Circle, described her experiences as a young girl in Kenya and how GGBC helped provide her with the opportunity to acquire technological skills and attend Carthage College in Wisconsin, where she studies to become a doctor.
Joel Arquillos discussed the need for better education even in the United States and the ways that 826LA assists teachers to provide students with the personalized education that they need. Arquillos and the numerous volunteers and staff of 826LA work to reduce the 50% of Los Angeles students who do not finish high school, using an approach that brings students close to their mentors and develops trust and respect between them.
PROSPECT sat down for an interview with Joel Arquillos before the presentation to discuss his organization, the education system, and the importance of writing.
PROSPECT: In your organization, 826LA, you emphasize the importance of connecting education to the community as well as being sensitive to the need of students to spend time with their families, how do you accomplish this?
ARQUILLOS: That’s part of what we do, but the backbone of what we do is help students with their writing skills. It has become an organization, as you pointed out, which supports education at all different levels. We have an after school program that helps students finish their homework; we go into classrooms all over Los Angeles to support student learning in the classroom. We support families as well by meeting with them, keeping them updated on their student’s progress, and letting them know what other opportunities are available to them. The two 826 centers in LA have become community centers where students, families, teachers and tutors can interact with one another.
PROSPECT: In one of your blog posts you wrote two very interesting things: 1) students learn best when they are given the tools to take ownership of their learning and 2) Many young people rarely get the chance to relate what they’re doing in academics to their lives or to talk through what’s going on with them. These present two very important issues within education because many students don’t learn the tools to take ownership of their own learning early in life and unfortunately, many students come to college without these skills. How can education be reformed so that students learn these very important skills?
ARQUILLOS: I struggled with that problem too as a student. I attended public school all the way through to college. My parents were immigrants to this country and I had no siblings so I had to figure a lot of things out. Education was always very important to my family. I was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey and luckily the New Jersey school system was very strong—it still is today. I think that has a lot to do with the way the resources are given out, the resources that are available to students, and the relatively high pay that teachers receive there. However, even with all that, having the framework to know what kinds of things you need to access as a student is not something that every student wakes up one morning and has the instinct to do. It comes from having parents and relatives that support and focus that process. Unfortunately a lot of kids today who are first generation or come from difficult situations, for whom getting to college is a dream but figuring out how to navigate that process and figuring out how to build the kinds of skills and experiences necessary to get to that level of schooling is difficult. There’s not enough teaching of that going on right now.
From the perspective of a former high school teacher, it was a struggle for kids to fulfill the necessary requirements for getting into the UC system. Many students don’t have access to guidance counselors because of the huge amount of students each guidance counselor is assigned. Students also don’t have access to classes that help provide them with those skills. When I was a teacher we had a program called A.V.I.D. which some schools are starting to offer now where students build the foundation of learning how to be a good college student, such as working in groups, collaborating and figuring out lessons or studying in groups. These are things that some students just don’t learn how to do in high school. Sometimes students get lucky and get into a good school without gaining these skills and then they end up having to take many remedial classes to make up for it and it’s frustrating for them. I think if we strengthen our curriculum to include these areas and develop these skill sets it can help prepare the students better for college. It is certainly not an easy fix.
PROSPECT: Do you think the school system has gone backwards? Did schools used to do a better job of teaching kids these skill sets than they do now?
ARQUILLOS: Everything is changing so fast. Even when I was teaching—four years ago was when I started working with 826—it was very different. We take for granted how big of a part the Internet has in the learning process now. Students have access to professors’ pages that spell out the course requirements, and it has a set of research skills that goes along with it. Some teachers need to go back to school to learn these things and some feel intimidated by the level of technology that students are clued into and that they are not familiar with. But having experience in a classroom with a teacher that is passionate about their work, able to build community in the classroom, and helping students feel that they are part of a bigger picture and working towards a common goal together – that is something that helps in college. Another thing to remember is that students have different intelligences—some are book learners, visual learners, or excel in social interactions—and having a teacher that supports all of these learning styles in the classroom makes a big difference.
PROSPECT: How did 826LA establish all the partnerships and connections with schools that it has today?
ARQUILLOS: 826 is a national organization that started in San Francisco as 826 Valencia. I was actually the director of the national reach as well at one point. We have always started these organizations from the ground up. We don’t enter the communities and aim to change things around. We want it to come from people already on the ground [that] know, care about, and reflect the needs of their communities. With that said, every 826 center has a teacher in its ranks from the community. By teachers opening their doors to us and allowing us to come into the classrooms, we have been able to bring volunteers in. Each year, we do a major book project where we publish books with specific schools and specific classrooms. We have also done a lot of professional development in Los Angeles; we have offered programs where teachers can bring their students into the centers and we work with them there. It has become a word of mouth thing where teachers see what’s happening or read about us in the news. Teachers sometimes don’t realize that there is help from the outside, so we come into schools, not with the attitude of ‘we are going to teach your students how to write’, but rather we ask ‘what do you need?’ We break down large class sizes and give students the one-on-one attention that the teachers aren’t able to provide. In that way we build trust with the teachers. Now we have so much demand in such a large school district that it is hard to provide all the help that is needed. You start to think that you should focus on a specific number of schools, but then you don’t want to ignore other schools. So we built up relationships with certain teachers that we work with regularly now and we are able to branch out from there and develop bigger projects.
PROSPECT: I saw that you did some fundraisers with Judd Apatow and also the satirical video that was made about your organization with Judd Apatow’s people.
ARQUILLOS: I got a little nervous when that video first came out because I thought people might think that we are a goofy organization that does these sorts of things. But smart people get it and it definitely gets the word out which is great.
PROSPECT: It seems that your organization approaches fundraising in a different way in that you maintain a sense of humor about it. Tell us a little more about this.
ARQUILLOS: Fundraising is honestly one of the most stressful parts of the job, as 826 is an organization that doesn’t have a government contract. The main part of our fundraising is the kinds of events we do with Judd Apatow. Another thing we do is that we have themes to our storefronts where we sell products. Our Chicago branch has a pirate theme, where you walk in and it feels like you are on a pirate ship and you can purchase all of your pirate needs, eye patches, glass eyes, etc. New York has the superhero store; LA has the time traveler’s store. The concept behind this is that it is quirky and funny and it’s supposed to get the creative juices flowing. People often walk into the stores out of curiosity and don’t realize that there is a tutoring center in the back. This is one way we inform people about what we do and recruit volunteers, an incredibly important part of our organization. We also get funding from foundations and donors, and we try to keep it fun and creative. Last year we had a spelling bee for cheaters, which brought out some celebrities and it was very fun and entertaining. We don’t have an annual event that we do so we are always trying to come up with fun and new ideas for fundraising, and we use these events to recruit more volunteers.
PROSPECT: Do you think that other organizations that have a very serious goal, like 826LA, could benefit from using quirk or humor in their fundraising strategies?
ARQUILLOS: I think that since our organization was started in this quirky way—it was started by the writer Dave Eggers who doesn’t think like most people—it was always going to take on this different sort of flavor. I don’t know if a long-established organization can suddenly change their image to have that sort of humor. However, I think there are fun things that an organization can do to open up new channels of interest. It’s a lot of work—we have events almost every weekend now. Luckily we have volunteers, interns, and staff who are willing to put in extra hours to do things, but having fun also comes with doing more work. Some organizations probably want to just stick with the work they’re doing—sometimes I wish we could do that. But now that we have this established, we have to continue with it and keep up the interest.
PROSPECT: Your organization focuses on writing skills. In light of the presentation you are about to be a part of and also the crisis of lack of education in the developing world, how would an organization with the same goals as yours have to be different in a poor or developing country?
ARQUILLOS: We are able to do what we do here because of the unique environment we have in this country. Also, 826 tends to exist in cities where there are a mixture of people and backgrounds. There are high-need students and people who are able to give their time as volunteers. We exist in areas where there is such a wide range of wealth and people who are willing to give their support for this kind of work. If you go to a different part of the world where that format is not in place, it would certainly create a lot more challenges. I would like to think though that the volunteering that is behind what we do is something that can happen anywhere. It’s just a matter of figuring how and where to make it work. It also takes older, more established generations to realize that they can also be a part of a larger community, which in many other parts of the world is a bigger part of people’s lives than it is here. There are also safety issues that may be a barrier in other parts of the world, as there are in Los Angeles. There are certain lines you do not cross with students, so it is important to create a safe environment.
Some elements have to be in place for an organization like ours to work. There has to be some level of stability in the community, and you must be able to encourage and develop a volunteer core to come into classrooms. I don’t work in other parts of the world and I don’t know exactly what that would mean. I was at a conference a little while ago where we were trying to find solutions for the devastation in Haiti. I offered an idea that we carried out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina where we brought groups of volunteers to work on writing with kids who lost their homes and were living in the tented communities that were springing up. The students actually published a book of stories to help them think through the devastation and to help their minds find some peace after the crisis. This is just an example of a way 826 could work in a devastated area. It just takes a little more creativity.
PROSPECT: Why is writing such an important skill for students to develop outside of its immediate applications?
ARQUILLOS: I was a high school social studies teacher, and social studies is a subject where writing is certainly emphasized, but I did it every day with my students. It’s all about just settling down and writing down your thoughts. Writing is a pungent tool because it allows people to stop, think, reflect and put their ideas down. I think a lot of people don’t take the time to do that. Maybe it’s because people don’t feel safe enough to do it or they don’t think they have the skills to do it, or maybe they just don’t have a quiet place to do it. Allowing students that time to put their thoughts down I think is hugely transformative. On top of that, what it is providing is a vehicle for young people to communicate their ideas more effectively. Even if there are students that work with us that are poor writers down the line, it still allows the skill sets to develop so that they can build that infrastructure in their thinking to be able to speak their mind and connect with others, and that opens up opportunities for the future. So I think writing is a totally empowering thinking process. Even with all the writing that is happening today on Facebook and Twitter, practicing writing can help make those messages clearer and help connect with the people you are trying to communicate with. In sum, writing is therapeutic.
Photos courtesy of 826LA.