Neuqua principal, Naperville nonprofit win partnership award
Neuqua principal, Naperville nonprofit win partnership award for helping kids, parents
It was early 2012 and a student's death proved the heroin problem was hitting hard at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.
Principal Robert McBride had been leading the school for four years and he noticed the traditional parent education efforts -- seminars and the like -- weren't hitting the mark.
"The attendance was low," he said. "The interest was low." The "not my kid" attitude was high.
It was time for a new approach.
Using a community partnership that now has won him a statewide award, McBride started something to provide parents the somewhat contradictory comforts he says they need to confront an evil like heroin head-on: anonymity and connectivity. He called it ParentsMatterToo.
It was a riff on the name of a nonprofit organization in Naperville, whose board he had joined earlier that school year. Called KidsMatter, the group supports youths so they can reach their potential while staying away from dangerous decisions -- be it heroin or the unknown next scourge that entices, addicts and kills.
ParentsMatterToo offered anonymity in the form of vetted online resources, short videos recorded by experts in addiction, mental health and adolescent behavior that parents could watch without anyone knowing they were seeking information.
It offered connectivity in the form of Parent Conversation Circles, groups designed to get parents talking so they could be each other's secret weapon.
"When parents have really young kids, they spend all this time talking to other parents about the most rudimentary things," said McBride, himself the parent of two adopted daughters in eighth and ninth grades. "But when kids get older and problems get more sophisticated, parents stop talking to each other and get more guarded."
Anorexia, substance abuse, cellphone addiction, excessive pornography use -- these things don't make for casual chats like stroller styles or baby food brands.
Parents need "a cloak of anonymity" to address the darker side of their children's challenges, McBride determined. So working with his nonprofit partners at KidsMatter, he gave it to them.
And for that gift, he and his charity counterparts will receive the Reaching Out and Building Bridges Award from the Illinois Principals Association during an annual convention Monday, Oct. 17, in Springfield.
The award recognizes a principal who realizes schools can't do everything, said Jason Leahy, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.
"In order to do what's best for kids," Leahy said, "it takes more than just the schools."
But good things often start in schools.
McBride, 49, let Neuqua be the trial grounds for the ideas he developed with KidsMatter Executive Director IdaLynn Wenhold to deter teens from drugs and risky behaviors.
"He provided the energy," Wenhold said about the Wheaton resident, a career English teacher who's married to an elementary teacher. "He provided the imagination."
When the first three Parent Conversation Circles met at the school, McBride explained that administrators aren't seeking to suspend students at the first sign of drug use.
"In most cases, we want to get them to help," he said.
The lesson was an eye-opener. Learning they could lean on school officials for resources without fearing the effects on their student's "permanent record," more parents came forward.
And, as they did, the conversation circles expanded.
Instead of hosting them only at Neuqua and only for Neuqua parents, KidsMatter took over the groups, expanded them into six-week courses led by volunteer facilitators under the new ParentsMatterToo umbrella and began hosting them throughout the community in spring 2014.
Now parents can join a conversation circle with greater anonymity away from their children's school -- where they can feel more free to share if their son or daughter is struggling.
"We wanted to empower them to talk about what they'd learned and make parenting a conversation among each other," McBride said.
Since the first circles at Neuqua, 180 parents have participated. Dagmar Kauffman, who now leads ParentsMatterToo, saves testimonials from participants who feel supported by the circles and the discussion opportunity they afford.
The meetings offer time to reflect on family values and learn how to avoid an overemphasis on competition, promote resilience, decrease stress and anxiety, and accept each child's uniqueness.
"I am a single parent, and there are days that I question everything that I do," a woman named Patty wrote in a note of thanks to ParentsMatterToo this summer.
"Attending the conversation circles gave me an opportunity to share my challenges and concerns about my child with the group without feeling like I was ever being judged."
Kauffman says the circles are helpful not only as one more defense against heroin, but also as a way to question assumed community values in a highly educated, high-income place that she says defines success dangerously. Success loses its satisfaction when it's seen only as a long list of achievements and activities, Kauffman said.
"It doesn't come from the heart anymore," she said. "It's a checklist. It increases stress if you are not really, genuinely enjoying it because of the whole idea that you need to be perfect -- whatever that is."
Getting the principals association award doesn't mean ParentsMatterToo is the perfect school/nonprofit partnership, or that its creators are perfect, either.
McBride describes himself as "kind of a nerdy academic." But those who work with him paint his inquisitive nature in a more positive way, calling him a "deep thinker" whose probing questions and friendly personality lead to complex conversations that actually find solutions.
"He loves and welcomes a conversation. He's interested in change," Kauffman said. "He listens well and he reflects."
Tips from a great administrator• Don't go it alone: Some issues -- like drug addiction -- are bigger than the school. When something doesn't start or end at school but still affects it, look outside for help.
• Seek community resources: Plenty of nonprofit agencies want to partner to work on issues in schools, offering a variety of supports such as food assistance or, in the case of KidsMatter and ParentsMatterToo, programs to help students make positive decisions.
• Stay humble: Classroom teachers are taught to handle problems themselves, McBride says -- because in the classroom, the show must go on. "Be humble enough to realize maybe there are some things the school can't solve by yourself," he says. "But you probably have a lot of friends outside the school that would like to solve that issue with you."