2011 Alternative Break Project

From PhiSigmaPiWiki

During the 2010 National Convention Vice President of Chapter Development Kyle Williams announced Phi Sigma Pi would travel to the city of Memphis, TN. The trip took place May 15th through May 22nd. 19 Brothers from around the country assisted KIPP DIAMOND Academy (KDA). This was the first opportunity working with a KIPP school. While in Memphis, Brothers built an outdoor classroom for the students of KDA.

About KIPP

KIPP is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 99 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving around 26,000 students.

According to the KIPP Memphis Website, the schools offers a rigorous, college preparatory education. As such, homerooms are named after the teacher’s collegiate alma mater. Grade levels are also identified as the year in which its students will enroll in college (for example, our eighth graders this year are the Class of 2015 because they will enroll in college in 2015).

Because of the longer school day, week, and year, KIPP students benefit not only from extra time in core subjects of Math, English Language Arts, Science and Social Studies, with more instruction in courses such as Critical Thinking, Organizational Skills, and Life Skills. Executed daily, intervention offers specialized instruction and practice for students who are not reading on grade level, and facilitates literacy development for all students. Furthermore, Saturday school curricula provide an added enrichment component and seek to expose KIPPsters life skills and civic duties. Examples of past Saturday school electives include recycling, team building, book club, and a men’s life skills seminar.

KIPP Diamond Academy

KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School (KMCMS, formerly KIPP DIAMOND Academy) is KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools' flagship school. Opened in 2002, KMCMS serves 400 students grades 5-8 in North Downtown Memphis.

KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School first opened in 2002. Though 93% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, the school was ranked the third highest performing public middle school in the state of Tennessee for academic growth from 2008- 2010.

The Trip

On May 15th, 19 Brothers as well Ryan DeGuzman, Director of Expansion, and Chris Triplett, Senior Region Consultant, traveled to Memphis, TN. The week in Memphis consisted of setting up an outdoor classroom for the students of KIPP DIAMOND. Alternative Break Corps Members were also able to shadow Teach For America Corps Members, interact with students, and attend an award ceremony and field day put on by KIPP DIAMOND. Brothers got a feel for Memphis while visiting Graceland, the Stax Museum, and Memphis Zoo.

The Alternative Break Project Corps Members


Welcome to Memphis and the fouth edition of Phi Sigma Pi’s Alternative Break Project! Throughout the week Ryan DeGuzman, Director of Expansion, and Chris Triplett, Senior Region Consultant, will be keeping you updated as we all work together to build an outdoor classroom for KIPP DIAMOND Academy.

Day 1: May 15, 2011

One word can describe how I feel right now: STOKED! Whether by car, plane, or floating down the Mighty Mississippi, every Brother has made it to the home of Graceland, the Grizzlies, and fantastic BBQ: Memphis, Tennessee!

We sat down as a family to dine on Papa John’s Pizza for our first night together as both Ryan and I delivered the do’s and don’ts, the weekly agenda, and facilitated a get-to-know you game with all 19 of our passionate volunteer Brothers! The excitement was in the air, despite many people traveling over 6 hours (some by over 10!) to get to the majestic lands of Memphis.

Tasks were assigned, Brothers turned in their waivers, and everyone is cleared and ready to work come 7 AM Monday morning. Tomorrow will bring thrills, joys, and amazing memories for all involved in making this Memphis school a better place for the children who grace its corridors!

Until next time,

Chris Triplett, Senior Region Consultant

Day 2: May 16, 2011

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Today was the start of our journey as a Brotherhood here in Memphis. After getting ready for the day and eating breakfast, we piled into our vans and drove to KIPP Diamond Academy! We received a warm welcome from the students, teachers, and principal during their morning meeting, followed by a tour of the building.

After the excitement of our arrival died down, we were faced with a room full of mulch, flowers, wood, and tools. To say we felt overwhelmed is an understatement! Nonetheless, we headed to our construction site to organize the day’s objectives: sawing all the wood to make benches for the outdoor classroom.

I, personally, haven’t touched a saw since my 8th grade woodshop class – and I wasn’t alone. Many of the other Brothers have never used one. We weren’t sure how it was going to work, so we did what we thought was best and jumped into the mysterious land of measuring, marking, and cutting pieces of wood.

Throughout the morning, we struggled with straight lines, knots in the wood, and chilly weather. When our lack of sleep and the overwhelming size of the project kicked in, we didn’t lose faith. Instead, we sang “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of our lungs!

That was enough motivation to get us through the rest of our workday at KIPP. During lunch, we interacted with the students and got to know more about them. We have already heard some inspiring thoughts from these students and cannot wait to be in the classroom with them later this week.

After our workday ended, we headed to the Civil Rights Museum and ate dinner with Teach for America representatives. The museum was very interesting and it was a once in a lifetime experience to see where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I know it is a sight I will never forget.

Upon our return to the hotel, we had a brief meeting discussing our thoughts about our first day in Memphis and share our room chants. Overall, we had a very exhausting, challenging, and successful day! We are all looking forward to a good night’s rest and can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store for us.

Until tomorrow,

Allison Kirstein, Upsilon Chapter

Alternative Break Corps Members

Hi all! It’s awesome to be back for my second time leading the Alternative Break Project. (I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for some good Memphis BBQ, anyway!) For the record, it’s unseasonably cold in Memphis. As Denise put it, “it’s always unseasonably cold during Alternative Break Project.” But, we’ll take unseasonably cold in May than unseasonably cold in January!

After a quick breakfast at the hotel (the Holiday Inn here has a pancake maker, by the way!) we arrived at KIPP Diamond Academy in Memphis right at 7:30pm.

KIPP Diamond Academy, where the Alternative Break Project is being held this year, is located in a part of Memphis that definitely has seen better times. Many homes and businesses in the area have been vacant for what seem many years. A church down the street from the school had its stained glass replaced with plywood and surrounded by barbed wire fencing. What is a sign of a strong and thriving community for many of us was one of these casualties in this neighborhood.

The building KIPP Diamond Academy was, for a time, abandoned too. In its former glory, it used to be Caldwell Elementary. However, just in the past year, KIPP opened a school for grades five through eight.

When the corps entered, staff members that knew each and every student’s name greeted us. Banners of various universities from the ceilings and each homeroom named after a college, laying down high expectations for each of these students and signifying the importance that these students are striving for a common end goal in mind.

After receiving a warm welcome from Dwight Hosang, the principal, Brother Andrea Cirillo (Beta Mu ’09), and the entire student body (thanks for the warm welcome, by the way!) we were given a tour of the school. Right now, only a small portion of the campus is being used. The plan is to use the remaining portions of the building for an elementary school and high school. Our construction supplies and items were stored in an unused wing of the school and got to work right away.

We’re in the process of building an outdoor classroom. This involves some moderate landscaping and building 12 wooden benches. We’re building these benches completely from scratch, which requires us to saw lumber in to the requisite sizes. Now, admittedly, I had assumed that the process of building the benches would be the most difficult part of this project, but by the end of the day, we had cut the lumber into all the necessary sizes, stained all the wood, had started assembling these benches, and began the landscape work. Not too shabby for six hours’ work!

The plan for the day was to leave the school at 2:00 p.m. so we can be at the National Civil Rights Museum, just south of Downtown Memphis, for a self-guided tour and to meet up with our on-site Teach For America representatives, Chloe and Brad. As you might know, the National Civil Rights Museum is at the site of the Lorraine Motel, which is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot back in the 1960s. We made it to the National Civil Rights Museum around 3:00 p.m., which was a very eye-opening experience and it gave all of us an appreciation of the work many in the 1960s, including Dr. King, had put forth in abolishing the social injustices that we still are working to rectify today.

Afterwards, we headed to the Happy Mexican, one of the… kitschiest Mexican restaurants I’ve ever seen. Nonetheless, the food was good (I love a good dish of Arroz Con Pollo anyday).

Brad, one of our Teach For America contacts in Memphis, led a discussion on social and educational inequality during our dinner. It was a very livening discussion, and one of the biggest takeaways that I had was one of setting ‘high expectations’. Brad revealed to us that strong leadership at KIPP had set the groundwork for high expectations at all levels of the institution, including within the staff and within the students. The students have been shown to demand only the best from their teachers, and that truly shows with the drive some of these students have to go to college.

It’s apparent that KIPP is also setting high expectations for a turnaround even in the local neighborhood as well. I’m sure that the community atmosphere within the school is infectious and we can see the school being a lynchpin in the turnaround of the area.

I also am super proud of our corps members for setting high expectations for themselves. We truly are rocking as a group and it appears that we’re moving ahead of schedule in our project! We’re hoping that we can get our outdoor work done by Wednesday so that we can have an in-classroom day on Thursday and participate in the groups’ field day on Friday.

Meanwhile I’ll set some high expectations for YOU and make sure you read tomorrow’s blog, yes?

‘Till next time,

Ryan DeGuzman, Director of Expansion

Day 3: May 17, 2011

Hello from Memphis! The weather has finally gotten better so working outside was actually really nice today (except for the sunburns).

Our day started just like yesterday with breakfast from the hotel, chatting with Brothers, and loading up the vans to head over to our home away from home, KIPP Diamond Academy. Since we got all of the sawing done yesterday, we were able to finish up sanding/staining the wood and start on the construction of the benches as well as the area where the classroom will be. One team started digging up dirt while the other started on the benches.

Lunch with the kids was really fun. The school is treating us like superstars and being so welcoming. One of the most amazing parts of my day was when one of the students looked at me and a couple other Brothers and asked “Do you go to Yale?” We told her where we did attend school and she continued to say “I plan on going to Yale. I want to be a doctor and a singer. I want to be an entrepreneur.” This girl is 13 years old.

By the end of the work day, we were all very tired but had managed to clear out the area where the classroom will be, plant flowers, mulch, and build five benches. After a well-needed break, we headed over to Jessi Massey’s parents home for an authentic Memphis bar-b-que, which was delicious. Brothers sat around, enjoyed dinner, and talked for hours. The presence of Rita’s Water Ice for dessert was a huge surprise and was enjoyed by all.

Before we all headed to bed, we had a short meeting in the lobby and got to hear another lovely haiku from Chris McCoy (thanks!!).

Memphis is amazing and this whole experience has been wonderful so far. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the week goes.

Lots of Brotherly Love,

Lauren “Loppy” Lippert, Upsilon Chapter

Outdoor Classroom Progress

Day two is done and the corps members are still going strong! After Monday’s “light” work day of sawing wood and “conceptualizing” how the setup of the classroom would look, the corps members started Tuesday off in sprint that never let up.

We arrived at the school a little earlier, but with more energy than I recall from the previous day. The group knew what needed to get done and they were determined to achieve it. We separated into two groups, the “grounds” team and the “building” team. The “grounds” team probably gained muscle upon muscle (as well as sun burn on top of sun burn) from shoveling a 65 ft round diamond shaped hole to create the area where the classroom will eventually exist. The “grounds” team worked diligently and consistently, almost in a rhythm of love for the kids inside the school while they dug the hole. Many sun burns and hours later, the hole was dug, the rakes came out, and the classroom had taken shape!

On the other side of the work spectrum, the “building” team worked through a few minor power glitches when it came to putting the benches together. Apparently, the power drills did not have the same energy and battery life that the Brothers using them were exhibiting. Nevertheless, the “building” team utilized “Brother-power” and used a little manual labor to create a total of five benches (seven shy of the total number we will eventually have). By working together and using a little ingenuity and creativity, the “building” team devised a rock solid bench construction system that benefited them today and will make tomorrow’s bench construction even faster and easier!

After a long 8 ½ hour day at the school, we decided to pack up so that we would be both physically and mentally rested for the next day. We jumped in the vans and headed back to the hotel to rest and recoup before leaving for Brother Jessi Massey’s (Delta Zeta ’11) house about 30 minutes away from the hotel.

The Massey’s put together an amazing spread of BBQ sandwiches, fruit, queso dip and chips, and the most “cool” dessert out there, Rita’s Italian Ice! The corps members from Pennsylvania were baffled that Rita’s had escaped the promised land of PA (although they still consumed their fair share of the tasty treat!) Great food, great conversation, and a relaxing atmosphere made our trip to the Massey household a truly memorable experience. Thanks Massey’s!

Tomorrow will be a great day to be a Brother as we are looking to finish up our project by lunchtime or mid afternoon! I know that this motivated group of Brothers can accomplish anything, as they have shown me over the past couple of days that where there is a will there is a way and that they all have a strong idea of the true meaning of servant leadership.

Until next time,

Chris Triplett, Senior Region Consultant

Day 4: May 18, 2011

240 pieces of wood sawed by hand, 272 screws, and twelve benches later, we are finished with our outdoor classroom! Spirits were high today as we saw all of our hard work come together to form KIPP Diamond Academy’s outdoor classroom.

As far as large-scale projects go, none of us could have asked for a more successful and smooth process. We finished everything for the outdoor classroom by noon. After briefly admiring our handiwork and taking lots of pictures, we headed to our favorite part of the day: lunch time.

Lunch time is great for multiple reasons. First of all, and most obviously, we get to eat. In addition, we get to spend time with students. We love getting to know about their interests and goals. However, it is unanimous: Nash is the coolest lunch man ever! You may ask why Nash is so cool, but don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of reasons. Never in my life have I seen anybody so caring, welcoming, and passionate. Every morning he welcomes us, praises us on our progress, and thanks us for coming (he also secretly tells us what to expect for lunch that day). At lunch, he takes the time to talk to us about how our project is coming along. Perhaps what has struck us most about him, however, is the amount of pride he has in what he does. While making lunches for about 250 students every day, he uses only fresh ingredients and no canned foods. In addition, he only uses lean meats such as turkey and chicken because, as he puts it, “Their grandmothers feed them enough of the bad stuff on the weekends. It’s my job to feed them to learn!”

Overall, it amazes me – and I’m sure all of us – that Nash has so much pride behind his work. Seeing his optimism every day has made me realize that it is good to be proud of your accomplishments, even the little things.

After lunch, we were able to help the school in various other ways throughout the afternoon, including picking up trash in the field and taking down bulletin boards. We called it a day and headed back to the hotel for our daily wrap-up meeting, power naps, and showers. Then it was time to celebrate the completion of the outdoor classroom! We headed to Rendezvous, a well-known barbeque restaurant, and explored downtown Memphis for a while.

Tomorrow is our first day working directly with the students of KIPP Diamond Academy and we are all excitedly awaiting this opportunity!

Until tomorrow,

Allison Kirstein, Upsilon Chapter

Lunch Break

That was awfully quick! The punch list that needed to be done today included:

  • Finishing 7 of the 12 benches
  • Final staining 12 of the 12 benches
  • Backfilling approximately 80% of the outdoor classroom with mulch
  • We arrived on-site at around 7:20 AM. Upon arrival, we broke up into our respective teams: “Team Dig” and “Team Bench”. Each team has made their own chants, and we’ll post those up on Facebook shortly (much to the disdain of our corps members, I’m sure )

Team Bench got into a nice groove when we got underway. We further divided into two teams, each cranking out a bench every 30 minutes. By 10:00 AM, only four benches needed to be built! However, by that point, the drills became temperamental and drill bits started breaking and the cordless drills started to lose its battery power. Undeterred, Team Bench took to the screwdrivers that I picked up earlier in the day and hand-tightened all the screws we needed to install each bench. Our bench completion rate slowed down to one every two hours or so.

Team Dig got quite a bit done outside as well! Every time I stepped outside to check out the progress, the outdoor classroom was coming together more and more. Since we had some flex time, we decided to improve the landscaping by removing all the existing grass in the outdoor classroom, laying down landscaping fabric to prevent weeds from growing, and backfilling the area with mulch to make it look nice and neat. By the time Team Dig finished up outside, Team Bench finished up all the benches, and we brought them outside to complete the project! Check out the pictures from our completed project in this blog and on the Alternative Break Project Facebook page.

Lunch has also been exciting and fun, as always. It’s great for our Brothers to be sitting there in the lunchroom (we’re served a few minutes in advance of the students) and then have the students swarm all over us, ready to ask us question upon question about what we do in college. It’s gotten so bad (good?) that teachers have been asking us to move around the cafeteria all during lunch because there are still students that haven’t had the opportunity to connect with us!

Since we finished the project in the morning, we spent the afternoon doing some basic building maintenance, which included sweeping the field of garbage, cleaning out a supply closet, and pulling down the decorations and artwork from the walls.

We checked out of the school at 3pm, so I headed out to the main office to just notify them of our departure. There, the records keeper at KIPP Diamond Academy thanked us for our hard work and mentioned how we’re making an impact in their lives. These students, as we discussed, don’t have many college age role models, so us stepping in and showing these students what they can aspire to be – and most importantly, can easily achieve with a little bit of hard work and a lot of perseverance – truly means a lot to these students.

Wednesday was meant to be a decompression day for the Brothers. After a short group meeting back at the hotel, some of our team headed to downtown Memphis. Others went to check out the water level of the Mighty Mississippi. Quite a few headed out to Memphis’ well-known BBQ joint, The Rendezvous. As for Chris and myself, we stood in line at the Lowe’s return desk, returning all the tools and supplies we ended up not using.

I enjoyed the spirit of perseverance within our Brothers to complete our project. Even though we ran into our fair share of roadblocks today, our members would always find ways to work around them (and have a good laugh along the way). I’ve definitely also seen many of our Brothers begin taking leadership roles within our group, helping direct the process of the project.

Tomorrow, the Brothers will be in the classroom. Since the year is winding down, we will all be talking with small groups of three to four students, giving them a more clear ‘roadmap’ of the path to college and what students need to do in order to get there. This, I anticipate, will be the most fun day of the week.

Who are we? PSP! Who are we? PSP! Who do we love? KIPP Diamond Academy!

I’ll catch you on Friday,

Ryan DeGuzman, Director of Expansion

Day 5: May 19, 2011

Ryan DeGuzman, Director of Expansion, says, “There are only two things in the world that make my heart melt: southern accents and hugs!” Lucky for him, we got lots of both today as we got the opportunity to interact with the students for the whole school day.

This morning started just like every other, meeting for breakfast around 6:30 and heading to KIPP Diamond Academy by 7. Today, there was one major difference: our sweatpants were traded with dress slacks and we were headed into the classrooms instead of the field!

In the morning, we split up into three groups that went into 5th, 6th, and 7th grade classrooms. Brothers with the 5th graders assisted the students with their class work while Brothers with the 6th and 7th graders led a small group discussion about college. The questions we asked varied greatly, examples including:

1) “Do you have a flat screen TV in your dorm room?”

2) “Is it true that you don’t have to wake up early for classes if you don’t want to?”

3) “What classes do I have to take to become a veterinarian?”

4) “Are you allowed to have friends over?”

5) “How do you apply for college?”

6) “How do you know which college is the best college for you?”

After our first session, it was time for KIPP Diamond Academy’s award ceremony. These awards were presented to students voted “most improved” and “outstanding” in various subjects, such as math, reading, music, and dance. In addition, students who were on the honor roll all year were recognized. To conclude the ceremony, the 8th grade’s valedictorian and salutatorian spoke about their experiences over the past four years. It was so encouraging to see the amount of support the students have for one another which was displayed through cheering on their classmates as the received trophies.

Following the awards ceremony, we ate lunch and continued our small group discussions. When the regular school day ended early, the celebration began! Katie Peachey, VP of Philanthropy, joined us, and we enjoyed pizza with the students while we continued our conversations from earlier.

And then…

we learned how to “wobble”! Although Brothers from Gamma Theta already knew this intense line-type dance, we Pennsylvanians were clueless as to what we were doing until the energetic 6th graders informed us. We had a blast!

After concluding our spontaneous dance party with “Cupid Shuffle”, we headed back to the hotel for our daily meeting and to relax for about an hour. Then it was back to the vans to join Teach for America corps members for a potluck dinner at their beautiful old, open home they call “the doll house”. It was great to spend time with the corps members in a non-school, informal setting and get to know about how their college experiences have helped them after their undergraduate career has ended.

Today was certainly an amazing day, but all week long we have been looking forward to tomorrow, which is Field Day!

To part, I will leave you with a KIPP Diamond Academy original chant:

Teacher: Give them a clap!

Students: *Clap*

Teacher: Give them a clap!

Students: *Clap*

Teacher: Give them some love!

Students: *Clap clap clap*

Teachcer: Give them some fireworks!

Students: “Ooooh! Aaaah!”

Sending love, new dance moves, and chants from Memphis,

Allison Kirstein, Upsilon Chapter

Brothers interact with KDA students.

Hello again eager readers of our adventures in Memphis! Today was our first day dressed in business casual as an entire group, and might I say, we clean up very well! Our mission for the day was to entice and encourage the young minds of the 5th, 6th, and 7th grade to start preparing now for their future college careers. What a day we had!

Many of the kids were exceptionally eager to learn about college and how to best prep now for a successful transition into higher education. The skill sets of time management, diligence in work ethic, and consistency in attendance and attentiveness floated around the conversations as truths of college bound ideals. Many of the kids have high goals, whether it be to play in the NBA, study astrophysics at Harvard, or attend Yale to become a lawyer. While this aspirations are very high, I honestly believe that many of these dreams have a strong sense of coming true if the children simply continue their successes, build for the future, and surround themselves with positive influences.

After a fun filled day at the school, the team ventured back to the hotel to debrief from our day in the classroom. The corps members reflected on their interactions with the children and I was very impresses with the energy and love that our group of leaders showed the children throughout the day.

To close out the night, we attended a meet and greet with TFA Corps Members at one of their houses in Midtown Memphis. Good food and good conversation was had by all. Many of us left that house pumped about the mission of TFA and many of our corps members now want to apply to be TFA Corps Members! It was a truly amazing day and I can not wait to play outside with the kiddos during Friday's field day!

Signing off until next time,

Chris Triplett, Senior Region Consultant

Day 6: May 20, 2011

When we stepped off the vans and entered the school, you could sense that the whole school was abuzz. After all, today was the last day of school for these students. As a celebration, the school held a Field Day for its scholars. We worked with Mr. DeWine, a 7th grade teacher who coordinated the school’s Field Day activities.

Field Day consisted of two main parts. The first was a carnival, complete with bouncy slides and bounce castles. We all took it upon ourselves to, um… test the bounce slides and castles to make sure it was suitable for all the kids. J There were also various table games for kids to play, ranging from milk can tosses to wheel of fortune games.

The other portion of the field day consisted of field games such as a potato sack race, obstacle courses, tug of war competitions, and plenty of hula-hoops for the kids to enjoy. I personally manned the coconut carry station, which required participants to stand back-to-back with a coconut between them and have them shuffle to the end of the course and back in the fastest time. Many students took it upon themselves to find creative ways to accomplish this goal, ranging from one child carrying the other on someone’s back or simply dragging the other along for the ride.

This is probably the first day that we experienced the intensity of the Memphis sun in the middle of May. Pretty much all of us had pretty awesome tans (or pretty bad burns). Note to self: bring sunscreen next time.

The school day was extremely short due to the early dismissal of the students. So, at 2pm, we all herded into groups, headed into each of the individual classrooms, and said goodbye to the scholars that we worked with. It was weird knowing that this was the last day for the scholars, teachers, administrators, as well as us. It was a bittersweet feeling, actually.

Afterwards, we headed to Gus’ World Famous Chicken for some hot n’ spicy chicken with some of the local Phi Sigma Pi alumni.

Tomorrow is solely an ‘Explore Memphis’ day! For those that can put up with the fact that I’m an early riser, we’ll be heading out to Graceland, The Stax Museum, and the Memphis Zoo. I’m particularly excited about the Memphis Zoo. Local Memphians keep telling me that the Memphis Zoo is light-years ahead of the San Diego Zoo, which in itself is a huge feat to accomplish.

Ryan DeGuzman

Director of Expansion