Watch Highlights from the 2011 Walk of Heroes Celebration!

If you weren’t able to make it to this year’s Walk of Heroes Celebration, you can watch a short video with highlights from the event!  The celebration honored Pedro Garza for his contributions that paved the way for the building of the beautiful Southwest Key Headquarters, Community Center, and East Austin College Prep in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood in Austin.  Read more about the celebration



August 8, 2011 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Food for Thought at STEM Summer Institute

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon, and the kids are hungry.  Snack supplies – wheat bread, jars of peanut butter, halved bananas – are waiting for them on a table in the front of the classroom.  But before the snacking can commence, there’s a lesson planned for these kids about nutritional basics.

This is “Kids in the Kitchen,” a weekly program offered at the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Summer Institute being held at East Austin College Prep, in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club and the KDK Harman Foundation.  Southwest Key has partnered with the Junior League of Austin and the Capital Area Food Bank to teach the kids at camp about healthy eating and lifestyle choices.  Today’s lesson is about food groups.

Two young women in blue aprons lead the class with one key visual: a brightly colored food pyramid poster that has been prominently displayed on the white board.  Each student has their own folder filled with an array of nutritional materials for them to peruse and take with them, from their own copy of the food pyramid to the recipe for the snack they’ll be making at the end of class.

The afternoon begins with a short quiz to gauge the students’ knowledge about food groups.  Once completed, class takes off.

“Can anyone give me examples of foods that belong in the grains group?”

Hands shoot up as kids give responses that include cereal, bread, and tortillas.

The teacher continues along this vein, explaining the differences between each of the food groups and their respective daily recommended serving sizes.

Every so often, there is a small hiccup in the kids’ understanding of which foods belong where.  A common misconception arises: “Does jam count as a fruit?”

“No,” the teacher tells the class, “because you wouldn’t ever eat enough jam for it to make up a whole serving of fruit.  You only spread a little bit on bread here and there, and besides, eating a whole cup of jam with a spoon sounds pretty gross to me.”  The kids giggle at the thought, and the matter is resolved.

The teacher continues, “Also, jam has a lot of added sugar in it, so it really belongs in the sweets and oils group, which we shouldn’t be eating very much of.  In the new plate chart we were looking at, there isn’t even a space for sweets and oils.  Those foods are only for special occasions.”

After their review, it’s time for a challenge.  The kids are divided into teams, and each team is given a blank sheet of paper that has a different food group name at the top.  Whichever team can come up with the most examples of foods in their category wins a prize.

After a bustling three minutes, the winners are announced.  The fruit group has come up with 26 different entries, with exotic fruits such as figs and pomegranates making an appearance on their list.

The teachers are proud of the kids, and the kids are proud of themselves.  After a brief post-test (the exact same test that was used as the pre-test, to examine how much the students retained from the class), the kids are ready to assemble their snacks for the day: open-faced peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

As the kids slice up their bananas and slather peanut butter on their bread, it is clear that they’ve gotten more out of this hour in class than just a tasty meal.  With childhood obesity on the rise, it is now more important than ever to teach children healthy habits from the get-go.  Reviewing the food pyramid may not seem like much, but the more kids are taught to think about what they’re eating, the more likely they’ll choose to pick up an apple over a candy bar when hunger strikes.

This “Kids in the Kitchen” session was only the first in a series of four throughout July.  With this class as a launching pad, the kids are off to a running start.  Wonder what’s on the plate for next week?

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

August 5, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Southwest Key takes on Leadership in LULAC

Southwest Key is proud to sponsor two Austin-area District 12 LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) councils.  LULAC’s mission is to “advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, housing, health, and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States.”  In recent years, several Southwest Key staff members have taken the step up to becoming leading members of these councils, under the guidance of past District 12 director, Mr. Marcelo Tafoya.

LULAC officers are sworn in at a district meeting

Valerie Joiner, a long-time Southwest Key veteran, became president of one of the Southwest Key-sponsored LULAC councils in 2009.  Joiner viewed her leadership role as an opportunity to serve residents of East Austin, a neighborhood that she has come to care deeply about after many years of working and attending church in the area.  As president, she had the responsibility of communicating to her fellow council members about meetings and important events; in addition, she became proactively involved and knowledgeable of civic and political issues that affect East Austin.  Despite the fact that LULAC exists to improve the welfare of Hispanic citizens, councils can be very diverse in membership: the roster of Joiner’s council is filled with a number of Latinos, African Americans, and Caucasians who are united under a common commitment to improve the quality of life for families in East Austin.  Valerie handed over the council presidency to Southwest Key’s Marcus Gonzalez this year.  Though she no longer serves as president of the council, Joiner remains actively involved to this day.  Currently, her council is working on holding a membership drive to encourage East Austin residents to join LULAC and become advocates for their community.

Valerie Joiner (second from right) and Kristan Silva (rightmost) are sworn in

The other Southwest Key-sponsored LULAC council is comprised of teachers from the East Austin College Prep Academy.  In the spring of 2011, Kristan Silva, the College Coordinator at East Austin Prep, took up the position of president for this council.  Silva got involved with LULAC to stay informed about the issues facing the East Austin community, especially those affecting education, a topic that her council is especially focused on.  Since becoming president, Silva has embraced her role in LULAC by making sure her council’s members and others involved at the school are aware of the relevant issues and of how they can help.  Silva appreciates the new insight the position has given her about obstacles faced by the East Austin community, such as getting registered voters out to vote.  Leading is not without its challenges however; in the future, Silva aims to increase her council’s involvement at district meetings.

Since 1929, LULAC has been serving Hispanic populations all over the U.S.  Key to the strength of the organization has always been volunteer involvement at the community level; this allows more voices to be heard and more issues to be addressed.  By stepping up to leadership roles within local LULAC councils, Southwest Key staff members have shown their dedication to the improved welfare of East Austin families.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

August 3, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Middle Schoolers Visit Colleges, Touring their Future

Poverty is often cyclical in nature.  The American Dream has always centered on the chance to have a richer and fuller life with opportunities according to ability, regardless of economic status.  This dream includes a decently well-paying job, home ownership, watching football on a plasma-screen television, steak for dinner, the works.  Unfortunately for most people, this American Dream is completely unattainable.  It is so unattainable that many people living in poverty cannot even picture themselves doing these things.  And the worst part is, they cannot imagine their children having a life that is any different from their own.

In this day and age, most Americans know that in order to live the American Dream (or at least a portion of it), they need not only to graduate from high school, but to earn a college degree.  But attending a university is expensive; even for all those mottos touting the idea that you can achieve anything as long as you work hard, there simply is not enough financial aid and scholarship money to go around for all the students who could go to college but cannot afford it.

This problem of the cyclical poverty, where generation after generation fails to attain the necessary education to have a well-paying career, hits home in the East Austin Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, of the 5,776 residents aged 25 and above in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace (78721) neighborhood, only 53.1% have a high school diploma or higher, and only a miniscule 7.3% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.  The result?  One in five families (21.4%) lives below the poverty line.

What students from this historically poverty-stricken, educationally-stunted neighborhood need is a place to start.  And for many of them, that place is the East Austin College Prep Academy.

Upon entering the East Austin College Prep main school building, it immediately becomes clear that this is no ordinary middle school.  Hanging from the ceiling along the central corridor are banners from universities all over the U.S., some perhaps more familiar to Texans (Rice University, UT, Texas State) and some that may be a little more foreign to the middle schoolers (Dartmouth, University of Washington, Yale).  Each classroom door has a sign indicating who teaches in that particular room and what college they graduated from.  From the moment a student begins their academic career at East Austin Prep, the expectations are set: each student must graduate from high school and be accepted into college.

On a tour of Baylor University

In order to facilitate this college-bound culture at East Austin Prep, field trips were taken to various Texas universities throughout the 2010-2011 school year through a program called “College Connections.”  The trips were funded by the State Farm “Breaking Barriers Through Success” grant, which aims to teach students about “disparate education, achievement gaps, and the barriers faced by particular sub-groups in receiving advanced and higher education opportunities” through a “direct service learning project developed by youth” to achieve greater awareness that “all students, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, should have access to higher education.”

To get the gears turning in students’ heads, East Austin Prep’s College Coordinator, Kristan Silva, had students complete a project researching educational disparities that affect their immediate community and the state of Texas.  (Read more about this project)

Inside a classroom at UT

Fueled by the college focus of their school and the new insights gleaned from their research, the students were ready to see for themselves what college was like.  Ms. Silva arranged for the 7th grade students to visit six Texas universities: UT San Antonio, Texas Christian, UT Austin, Texas A&M, Texas State, and Baylor.  Parents were invited to join their kids on trips as well since they would be sharing their child’s journey to college.

Each college trip had a similar agenda, including a student-guided tour, lunch on campus, dorm visits, and a free university t-shirt they could wear on Fridays to school.  To give the middle schoolers a sense of the financial reality that comes with attending a university, the tour guides would touch upon the costs of attending college and the various means through which one can pay for college.  Afterwards, the students had a group discussion where they could gain a better understanding of the college and any remaining questions could be answered.

The engineering department at UTSA

One of the most distinctive moments of students’ college trips was their visit to the UT San Antonio engineering department.  As they gathered around, a professor from the department talked to the students about engineering and the importance of math in science.  Afterwards, she showed them some of the robots that her undergrads were working on.  Throughout the demonstration, the students were quiet, respectful, and completely engaged in what they were learning.  It was clear their encounter with college-level engineering had firmly established interest among the students in careers in a scientific field; upon returning to school the next week, several started talking about becoming engineers.

During their trips, students see first-hand what being in college entails; the experiences will undoubtedly represent a tangible end-goal for their academic careers.  The students were in awe throughout their time at the universities, picturing themselves as future college students.

A stop along the tour at Texas State University

The middle schoolers at East Austin Prep have a long way to go before they become full-fledged college students, but their curriculum and classroom experience at East Austin Prep keep the idea of college at the forefront of their minds.  By emphasizing the importance of college, addressing barriers the students may face, and introducing them to the college environment, this innovative middle school prepares its students for the challenges that await them in applying to college and beyond.  Students at East Austin Prep are given the skills, support, and encouragement that has been lacking in the past so that these bright youngsters can succeed in college and help bring an end to the cycle of poverty.

The whole group at TCU

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

August 1, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Speaking the Spoken: Personal Growth through the Power of Poetry – Part 3 of 3

Students who are expelled from school face a myriad of challenges that must be addressed in order for them to function successfully in society.  Southwest Key’s Travis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) serves just this purpose: to get expelled students back on the right track in life.  One of the most inventive programs at the JJAEP aimed at personal growth is Speaking the Spoken, which teaches students to articulate their thoughts and feelings through spoken-word poetry.  (Need to refresh your memory? Check out the first two installments of this series: Part One  Part Two)

Through their Speaking the Spoken experience, the students at JJAEP learn to open up and express themselves freely.  In a student population where there is normally a high level of stigma associated with sharing one’s feelings, this is a major accomplishment.  Additionally, students gain the ability to cope with their issues in a creative way that is more productive, introspective, and healthier than engaging in fights, drugs, or other criminal activity.

After Speaking the Spoken, students’ written and oral communication skills improve substantially, as does their attitude toward presenting their ideas to others.  The success of Speaking the Spoken can be seen in the pre- and post-tests that are administered to students upon arrival and completion of the JJAEP program.  After four years of data collection, 98% of youth who identified as having a lack of family and social supports reported an increase in their ability to express themselves and control their anger; these students report having a greater perception of self as well.  Students become better writers, talk and interact more openly and positively with others, and are glad to be a part of the Speaking the Spoken program.

Jason Rubio, Southwest Key’s program director for the Travis County JJAEP, praises the program, saying, “I’m sure that many of our students will look back and reflect on their participation in this program as one of the highlights of being at JJAEP.”

As the Spring 2011 semester at JJAEP came to a close, the students made a trip to East Austin College Prep, where a similar Xenogia program had been taking place, funded by the National Council of Crime and Delinquency.  The JJAEP students performed their spoken word poetry for the Prep students, focusing on messages about making good choices and living positively.  Considering the background of the JJAEP students, creating such a message was a challenge; growing up, they often lacked the types of positive role models that they sought to emulate through their performance to the young and impressionable Prep students.

At one point during the performance, one of the East Austin Prep students asked, “What is the JJAEP?”

To which a JJAEP student replied, “It’s a place where if you make a mistake, you get a second chance.”

What students make of their second chance is up to them.  Speaking the Spoken offers an innovative way for students to gain insight into their emotions and express themselves artistically and otherwise.  Through spoken word poetry, their raw feelings are transformed: coherent, meaningful, revelatory.  The Speaking the Spoken program captures the spirit of the JJAEP in this transformation.  After their JJAEP experience, those who were once headed down a dead-end path are prepared to live a positive and meaningful life.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 29, 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

Speaking the Spoken: Not Your Typical Poetry Class – Part 2 of 3

At Southwest Key’s Travis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP), students learn how to express their thoughts and feelings through poetry in the innovative Speaking the Spoken program, taught by Zell Miller and Da’Shade as a project of the Xenogia collective.  (Revisit the first part of the Speaking the Spoken blog series here)

In class, Miller has students go through various exercises designed to enhance their poetic writing skills, get them to open up to new modes of thinking, and give them an opportunity to speak about issues they would not have a chance to elsewhere.  In one such exercise, students are given prompters such as “Power is…” or “I am…” and are asked to free-form write in response to each prompt.  Students are asked to consider their life experiences and inner thoughts and feelings when addressing each prompt.  The focus of these exercises is expression, and as such, the only rules are that their writing cannot be disrespectful and it cannot contain any punctuation.  By taking away the traditional enforcement of spelling and grammar rules, this class gives students the freedom to express themselves however they see fit.

After their writing exercises, Miller helps students take their poetry from the page to spoken word.  In addition, he facilitates collaboration between the students in order to weave their poems together for group pieces.  These group pieces tend to revolve around a common theme that is present in the students’ individual poems.  By tweaking here and there, the students are able to create a multi-voice poetry performance that feels coherent but contains elements of each collaborator’s work.

In order to encourage his students to open up, write, and speak their poetry aloud, Miller insists on being completely authentic and creating a relationship with his students.  These two things, he feels, are the keys to success as a teacher.  If he doesn’t have a positive relationship with his students, he cannot expect them to trust him or put their best efforts into their poetry.

While most JJAEP students hardly consider themselves burgeoning poets, many are drawn to the class based on their interest in hip hop, which has strong ties to spoken word poetry.  The class introduces students to more socially conscious hip hop and thought-provoking rhymes, and over time students generally become much more comfortable and confident in their work.  In fact, some JJAEP Speaking the Spoken alums have gone on to join under-21 poetry slam teams and have taken on spoken word as a serious hobby.

The Speaking the Spoken program at the JJAEP concludes with a performance of the students’ work, with parents and Southwest Key staff in attendance.  To Miller, this is the most rewarding part of his job: seeing his students progress from never having written a poem to proudly performing their work in front of others.  The performance highlights that the choices and experiences that led to the students’ referral to JJAEP can be expressed through poetry that they can celebrate and be proud of.  Performing in front of an audience also helps students gain confidence and a sense of self, which can benefit their future relationships and job prospects.

Integral to the mission of the JJAEP is changing students’ attitudes and perspectives on education, adult role models, and life in general.  To learn about the unique role that Speaking the Spoken and Xenogia plays in this process, subscribe or visit the blog on July 29th to read the final installment in this three-part series.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 27, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Speaking the Spoken: How Poetry Can Help Rebuild Lives – Part 1 of 3

“You’re expelled.” There’s a phrase no kid wants to hear while they’re in school.  But for numerous kids whose choices and life circumstances have led them down a troublesome path, expulsion is inevitable.  What happens next could determine a lot about their future: whether they graduate, drop out, or end up in jail.  In order to get these students on the track to success, their behavior and attitude issues must be addressed in a safe environment that fosters personal growth.  This is where alternative education steps in.

Southwest Key’s Travis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) offers a unique school setting for adolescents aged 10-17 who have been expelled from their local school.  These are students who likely have pending felony charges and are at high risk for dropping out altogether.  While it maintains some characteristics of a regular school, the JJAEP is very different in its goals and focus.  Whereas a regular school prioritizes academic growth and achievement, the JJAEP is centered on changing students’ behavior and establishing positive relationships between the students and the school, the administrators, and their adult role models.  To this end, the JJAEP school day is highly structured and incorporates therapeutic elements to address students’ emotional needs.

One of the JJAEP’s most promising programs geared toward psychological growth and healing is Speaking the Spoken: The Art of Verse, conducted by Xenogia (zen-OH-zhee-uh), in which students learn to express their feelings through spoken word poetry.  Speaking the Spoken is funded by the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, is offered 2-3 times per week over the course of six weeks, and is incorporated through the JJAEP’s high school level English classes.

What is Speaking the Spoken?

The Speaking the Spoken classroom program at the JJAEP started as an offshoot project of the Xenogia spoken word collective in Austin, which was established in 2001.  Xenogia poets perform slam poetry, participate in poetry competitions, and offer instructional classes.  At the JJAEP class, students are given an introduction to spoken word poetry and are taught how their life experiences can fuel their poetry.  A strong emphasis is placed on exploring what caused the students to end up at JJAEP and digging deep into their personal sense of identity.  The six- to eight-week curriculum consists of one week of course preparation, three weeks of intensive artistic and cultural curriculum, and two weeks of follow-up, reflection, and educational and artistic therapy.  The last two weeks of the program are used to integrate artistic curriculum instruction into the students’ daily lives and includes a performance of the students’ poetry.

In order for a program like Speaking the Spoken to be successful, it is vital to have a teacher that the students can respect, admire, identify with, and enjoy learning from.  All these elements of a great teacher (and more) are embodied by the program’s instructor Zell Miller, an interdisciplinary artist.

Miller is a self-described “teaching artist responsible for helping youth find their voice,” and has been a poet all his life.  He looks at poetry as something that is inside every person and can encompass a broad range of things, from conversation to one’s use of language to the sounds of words.  Each person’s poetry is distinctive based on “how people bend things depending on where they come from,” Miller said.

An Austin-native, Miller has taught similar programs at various middle and high schools in AISD for several years.  Prior to working with Xenogia, Miller had been teaching performance work for over 20 years.  Integral to his spoken word poetry lessons is the way he presents the art form to his students.  Instead of taking the typical high school English teacher approach, Miller emphasizes to his students that poetry is a source of inner strength and power: while one can be stripped of many things – home, family, rights – no one can ever take away one’s individual voice.

Each Speaking the Spoken class session brings new thoughts and feelings to light.  To get a glimpse at what these classes look like, subscribe or visit the blog on July 27th to read the second installment of this three-part series.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern

July 25, 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

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