2008 Alternative Break Project

From PhiSigmaPiWiki

During his 2006-2008 term, then Vice President of Chapter Development Erik "Duff" Walschburger announced plans to further increase the scope of Phi Sigma Pi's support of the organization with an alternative break that would occur in January of 2008. Plans were made for brothers to travel to Carl T. Smith Middle School in Phoenix Arizona.

Carl T. Smith Middle School

The Carl T. Smith Middle School served 420 5th through 8th grade scholars (please note that the school does not use the term students). Located at the corner of 43rd Avenue and Van Buren in downtown Phoenix, CTS serves a community made up of 99% ethnic minorities, over 90% qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, and almost two thirds are English language learners. Because of explosive growth in the area, CTS underwent a second construction phase and had recently added 13 more classrooms and 8 more bathrooms. Maximum capacity at CTS is now 500 scholars.

In the three years prior to the 2008 break, CTS experienced many ups and downs academically. In 2004-2005, CTS scholars performed well academically and thus received a favorable state label of performing. However, in 2005-2006, student achievement suffered greatly as a result of high teacher turnover, high student mobility, issues with violence and behavior, and eventual replacement of school administration. During the 2006-2007 academic year with a new, energized staff and administration, test scores raised significantly and behavior incidents nearly diminished. Behavior incidents were reduced by nearly 75%, reading scores increased by 60%, and math scores increased by nearly 80%.

The Trip

On January 6th, 2008, 13 Brothers traveled to Phoenix along with Executive Director Suzanne Schaffer. From January 6th to January 12th, Brothers constructed a playground for Carl T. Smith Middle School, assisted in various tasks such as a Teach For America discussion panel at the Phoenix Regional Office, interacted with students and Teach For America Corps Members, and explored Phoenix.

The Alternative Break Project Corps Members


Welcome to the daily update for the Alternative Break Project as told by me, Executive Director Suzanne Schaffer. No doubt the other 13 Brothers will have their own stories, but I did want to provide a window into our world here in Arizona.

2008 ABP Corps Members

Day 1: January 6, 2008

Most of us started our day at 3:30am. Many had perfect flights, others got stuck in Houston. A small group of Brothers attended a welcoming dinner hosted by the regional office of Teach For America. They shared their experiences as corp members and as staff for Teach For America. We were able to taste some local foods (and Samantha got to try her first bite of goat cheese! - it didn't take much to entertain us, we were really beat).

Day 1's Takeaway: Even with very little sleep, Brothers find an amazing amount of energy (especially when they are giving of themselves to see a national project come to fruition.)

Day 2: January 7, 2008

Brothers are put to work

Ahh... the joys of staying at an Embassy Suites - a great breakfast. We all grabbed a full breakfast before heading out at 7:30am.

8:00am - We arrived at the school psyched and ready. We were crowded into a conference room awaiting the introduction of the school principal (who was busy with the police recording the recent "tagging" on the school building. Tagging = graffiti). We learned that the school is four years old and prior to the current principal, and Teach For America alumnus, coming on staff two years ago, the halls were filled with graffiti and fires (yes, students had set fires in the hallway). You would never guess it today. He has really made a difference here.

9:00am - The principal pops his head into the room saying that, "the trees are here and they need help unloading them." We step outside to experience the Arizona desert weather...well actually; it is about 55 and pouring down rain! We unloaded all 25 trees that the Brotherhood purchased for the project and retreated back inside to review the blueprints for the playground. With sketched blueprints shoved in a plastic sleeve, we were now ready to get to work!

Brothers are put to work

10:00am - We get all John Henry. It was either four inches of mud or rock solid clay that we had to pick axe and dig through... in the rain (Did I mention that before?). By 11:30am we had seven planted trees, twenty-six very muddy feet and 13 starving stomachs. We stepped back in time and stood in the cafeteria lunch line. Taking about 30 minutes to dry off and eat, we headed back out to the playground.

At day's end, we were able to plant 13 trees (we are very proud of our progress, despite the...you know, rain). We have decided to switch up the schedule to allow the playground to dry out a little before planting the other 12 trees and laying the red rock. Tomorrow will be our first day in the classrooms, which is very exciting. Plans are to return to the playground on Wednesday .

Day 2's Takeaway: Before we started out this morning one of the teachers we met asked us what we were going to do today because of the rain, insinuating that the original project would not be a go. One of our Brothers said to her, "Going out and planting trees. It's just rain." This truly captured the spirit of our Brotherhood...never giving up regardless of the circumstances.

Day 3: January 8, 2008

With one eye slowly opening, I waited to see if I could move after a day's worth of pick axing. I moved one leg and then another... yep, I'm OK (whew!). The day begins…

"For the courtesy of others, please be sure that all brains are switched on before entering the classroom."

We arrived at the school ready to start our first day in the classrooms. The Brothers waited in the library for the assignments and directions to classrooms. I didn't have a specific assignment, so I stayed back.

CTS Student's Assignment
Carl T. Smith Library

Looking around the library I decided to start my own "in-school" experience. I walked over and introduced myself to the acting-librarian (she works as a teacher support coach and manages the library). She shared her hopes for the library and the proud reading challenge she is promoting between the scholars (they don't use the word "students" in the school) and the teachers. Shyly, she admits that she looks forward to the library not being the storage closet for the to-be-installed whiteboards, light bulbs and monitors. She quickly follows with sincerity that she understands because of the recent facility's addition; but nonetheless, she is ready for the library to be... the library.

The library needs books for all reading levels. One level is remedial books (1st - 2nd grade level) that eighth grade boys wouldn't be embarrassed to carry around. "Like this book," she says holding up a pink book titled "Suzy the Mule." Tough to look cool with that in your backpack in eighth grade.

Next she invites me to join in on the teachers' meeting for 5th grade reading progress. They reviewed the scholars by name talking about the number of words read and whether progress was made. The meeting wraps up with a "same time same place".

Back on my own, I begin to walk the halls. Not sure what I'm looking for. Instantly, however, I see that true hope, a "no pity" mentality and a sense of humor exists on the same walls that just two years ago were covered with graffiti. As I continued my walk, the acting-librarian's voice kept repeating in my head about a book series t hat boys just love to read but they only had one of the books. Felt weird to know the need and not fill it, right? I went in search of Captain Underpants! Yes, that is the name of the book series that the CTS boys are just wild about. I walked straight up to the Border's counter and whispered, "Where I can find Captain Underpants?" (it felt just as awkward saying it as I'm sure it is to read it). They directed me and scooped up a couple of the books along with a few mystery books that are apparently the craze with the students... oops, I mean, scholars as well. We'll get them "checked-in" to the library tomorrow.

School ended and the Brothers looked just as tired as they did yesterday - but for different reasons (Hint: Ashley shared that the entire class received detention). To rejuvenate ourselves, we took an hour break before heading off to Macayo's Mexican Restaurant in downtown Phoenix. Teach For America hosted the dinner and introduced us to more local teachers. It was a great night. Thank you Teach For America!!

Day 3's Takeaway: Actually, today there is a BOGO special. While roaming the halls earlier, I read a posted sheet in an office window that read, "There is a little piece of fortune in every misfortune" (the graphic was of a stubbed toe on a treasure chest). I really got that there is no room for excuses - you simply need to keep moving forward with what you have and make it better. My other takeaway was; during the dinner this evening, I asked the school principal what he would like to see more of out of collegiate education (teachers) programs. His one word answer, "leadership." Hmmm...

Day 4: January 9, 2008

We were psyched - another day of transforming the playground. As the saying goes though, "the second day is always the worse". This of course is in reference to sore muscles. We didn't have much time to complain about it because we needed to plant 12 trees and spread a half ton of red rock. Instead, we stretched in preparation - actually Brothers did the "tree" (yoga thing). Get it? the tree - planting trees? OK, if it isn't funny you can email Jannette :)

Brothers Stretching Before Getting to Work

In rolls the bulldozer with Steve and Adam from the district (you guys rock!) and is a sight for sore arms. Before we knew it, we had six other district facilities/maintenance crewmen at the site, with none other than an auger. Could the day get any better? I think Emily said it best, "We are experiencing the industrial revolution" all over again. We quickly realized that we needed mulch for the trees (12 bags), 10 bags of concrete, along with decorative stone (a pallet) to prevent a wash out of the red rock that was going to be laid. Without a bat of an eye, the facility's director approved two of the guys to meet us at Lowe's with the district's trailer to haul back the remaining items we needed. (bonus!) We spoke with the Lowe's manager to tell him what we were up to and he knocked off 20% from the bill (double bonus - Thanks Sales Manager Eric!).

Brothers Raking Red Rock

Do you ever have one of those days that things go way better than you could have ever planned? This day was just that. The auger and crewman were going crazy drilling holes and planting trees, the bulldozer was dumping the crushed red rock in the areas where we needed it with Brothers raking it out and, get this, the sun was shining and it was semi-warm (take that East coast...finally).

We wrapped up the day having three bags of decorative stone left over. Brothers got creative and wrote out in stone the school's initials in the newly landscaped playground. Very nice touch. It felt great to accomplish all that we had done and to see it come to fruition. It was one of those, "we did that!" moments.

Our schedule keeps us hopping, so we returned to the hotel to freshen up for dinner and to meet Kristin Bower, 2006 alumna of the Alpha Epsilon Chapter (West Chester University). The decision was made to eat at an Asian restaurant named Fate which is located in the art district. "Fun and chic" are the words used to describe the restaurant - I would say, "great food and strange bathroom lighting". But most excitingly tonight was the chance to meet up with a local Brother. I do want to mention Kristi Herbst, also of Alpha Epsilon, who had coordinated the local alumna dinner, but was unable to make it.

Day 4's Takeaway: The power of a few can and does create change. We started out Monday with the crewmen, scholars and teachers looking out the windows thinking that we were nuts for doing this work in the rain. Today, they joined our cause and many told us this was the most fun that they have had on the job in a long time (I could say it was our great company, but I really got that it was the mission of the project for them). The Facility's Director was granting all kinds of permissions, and the community stepped up all because a few Brothers demonstrated their dedication and kept aligned with our purpose. I saw today the impact that we have as Brothers on each other, on a middle school, on a school district and on our communities - how powerful is that?

Day 5: January 10, 2008

The second day in the classrooms and there appeared to be mixed emotions as we crossed over the school's threshold. Suppose no matter which school you walk into, each day can bring you something new.

Brothers Creating Action Plan

Attendance has been down in schools all over and CTS doesn't seem immune to it. Some scholars had transferred over the break. It can only be assumed (given the local news and hallway talk) that it may be in correlation with the recent laws that took affect January 1 regarding illegal immigrants. My understanding is that federally all children have the privilege to receive a public education. Though, it appears that parents/families are concerned about loved ones being "found out" and deported, so the children are being kept home out of fear. Left me speechless…

During lunch Brothers had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Geston (Mr. G) the school principal. The Brothers walked away from the lunch table fully understanding his commitment to the scholars and his determination to truly make a difference in these scholars' lives. The Brothers told about how Mr. G knew each of the scholars by name, their progress, their story (some heartbreaking, others providing hope), he even knew who was dating who and who just broke up. The man truly knows his student/scholar body. Truly inspirational.

This evening Teach For America ("F" is always capped) had coordinated two Teach For America alumni hosted dinners. Brothers had a great time eating a home cooked meal (trust me, you can only eat out so much before it gets old) and hearing about their Teach For America experience (...and testing out some moon shoes). Thank you Julie and Andrew!

Day 5's Takeaway: True leadership doesn't need recognition. It doesn't need a title. True leadership is a commitment, a passion, a level of integrity, the ability to create and keep focused a vision. Leadership is action and when others see your authenticity, they will follow... making you a leader. Mr. G, this was our lesson from school today and you have been a great teacher through example.

Day 6: January 11, 2008

Our final day at the school - hard to believe. The week went by so quickly. The energy in our sweet 15-passenger ride was really high today, maybe because we have reached a milestone in the project's program or maybe because we had a better understanding as to what to expect in the classrooms. Either way, it was great.

Every now and then Mr. G calls random Friday assemblies for the school. He shared the intent is typically to be a pep rally of sorts to keep the scholars' spirits up. This Friday there were two reasons, 1. to introduce and thank the Brothers (two shout outs were given by the members of the audience for "Hokies!" and "Mizzou!") and 2. to announce that it is safe to come to school. "Why?" you may ask, was there a shooting, school vandalized? No. As was shared yesterday, families are concerned about the recent immigration laws in Arizona and how it may affect them. Mr. G shared to the scholar-body that it is safe to come to school and stay for the after hour programs- "please tell your parents."

Not the kind of pep rally assemblies I'm use to. But for many this guarantees them two meals M-F (the only meals some scholars get) and access to power...education. I suppose when I look at it that way, there really isn't any other greater motivational pep rally that could be delivered.

The Brothers attended their classrooms and some had the chance to take over the class. As the day drew to a close, a teacher handed out envelopes with Brothers' names written on them in children's handwriting. Here is what one scholar had written,

"Dear Rachel,
Thank you! I want to thank you for coming and volunteering at Carl T. Smith. Especially on Monday because it was raining and very cold! I :didn't know people will move out of their way to help to fix a playground. I'm sure that the whole school is thankful. I really hope you guys :get something out of it because you guys deserve it. You guys taught me something it is better to give than to recieve. I heard that you guys :are coming from all over the country. I can't say how thankful I am.
Brother Patrick DiCosimo

Need I write more?

After the last bell rang, we all headed to FEZ Restaurant to meet other TFA teachers. We started asking some questions to get a better understanding of TFA from a corp member's perspective. For a recent graduate it seems as though you get your own personal concierge - OK, exaggerating a little, but still not a bad deal. We spoke with Amy a 2007 corp member (which means she started in 2007). She shared with us her experience of being relocated via TFA. From what I took from the conversation, they help corp members find housing (many times at a discount), roommates and even get discounts for the corp members on new cars. She joked, "So, you know who are TFA in Phoenix because we all drive the same car." Really great insight. - Thanks TFA Ashley for coordinating the social!

For dinner we headed to a local sushi joint, Sakana, to celebrate Patrick's 21st birthday - nice cat. (Did anyone else notice when the hibachi chef said that they just reopened after being shut down for two years? Interesting.)

Day 6's Takeaway: It is better to give, than receive.

Day 7: January 12, 2008

Alternative Break Project, January 2008

8:00am - My alarm clock goes off and I feel like a million bucks and some changes. We got to sleep in! Today's plans include a discussion panel and a hike up Camelback Mountain (so, for those who know me, I was really psyched!).

10:14am - We arrived at the Teach For America Phoenix Regional Office (after a few U-turns and residential sight-seeing, not intentially). TFA had coordinated a discussion panel with two TFA alumni and one active corp member. They spoke a little bit about their experiences and fielded questions from the Brothers. While there was good information shared, theone piece that stuck with me (and I swear I'm not a writer for a presidential campaign) is change and not that way you may think. Actually there is too much of it; there is a lack of consistency in curriculum delivery, (retention) of teachers, and (retention) of school administrators. When one, and typically several at the same time, of these elements changes, it disrupts the dynamics of the school, classroom and ultimately the students' success.

2:00pm - After a delicious lunch hosted by Teach For America, we set off to hike Camelback Mtn. Kristi Herbst (Alpha Epsilon alumna) was able to join us - thanks Kristi! We stood at the crossroad deciding whether we would do the easier loop trail or summit the mountain - summit the mountain! As challenging as it was, the view is amazing!

To wrap up the trip, we headed out for our final dinner as the 2008 Alternative Break Project corp. A Brotherasked me earlier today if I felt as though I have 13 new kids - honestly, I wasn't sure how to answer that. I'm lucky enough to have 4200 "kids" on any given semester. But, I was fortunate enough to get to know personally 13 amazing Brothers. Your commitment and devotion to the Brotherhood and to this project is inspiring - thank you!

Day 7's Takeaway: I must admit, I was excited about "transforming" the CTS playground. It sounded great and I knew we would be able to see our progress with the project. But what ended up happening is that the playground (project) has transformed me.

How do we fix all the issues that we were able to see so clearly in just six short days? Honestly, I have no clue. But, as a Brotherhood, we now know the situations that exist and whatever your profession or your chapter focus maybe I encourage you to take a look and see how you can make an impact on ending the inequities in education.

As I close I would like to thank the following people:

  • The 2008 ABP Corp
  • The Phoenix Teach For America corp/alumni
  • Demmi from Teach For America
  • Ms. Brown
  • The CTS teachers
  • Will Seaman
  • Ernie Clark
  • Chad Geston
  • Kristin Bower and Kristi Herbst - for showing us your town
  • Matt Nicoletta (Beta Kappa) and Karen Cohick (Gamma Upsilon) - for assisting in graphic design for the Building the Playground Fundraising page
  • Mr. John (My Dad) - who came along on the trip after hearing about it and wanting to be a part of it
  • Teach For America - for believing in the possibility of closing the achievement gap
  • National Staff - for doing what you do best
  • National Council - for approving the project
  • Last, but not least, Kurt (my husband) and Alexandra (my daughter) - for putting up with me and my crazy schedule!