Breaking the Cycle with High Quality and Equity in Education: Why it Matters

There are many issues and reasons when it comes to children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds not doing as well as their affluent counterparts.  Children deserve high quality education, equity and equal opportunities regardless of their origin, socieconomic status and family tree.  They deserve to realize their full potential and grow into their highest capacity.  Educators and families must have strong partnerships. This can be established when teachers treat everyone fairly and ensure children and families feel safe, welcomed, loved and cared for.  Just as there are rules in the classroom: be safe, be kind and most of all take care of each other.  I am a preschool educator at heart. When I say let’s hold hands and stick together like peanut butter and jelly I mean it.

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There are two myths about the achievement gap: low-income families have lower expectations for the academic achievement of their children and students from low-income families have much lower motivation to learn.  This is false. I come from lower class and we struggled. I never knew we were poor or how much my family sacrificed to ensure I made it so to speak.  It comes down to many influences but I will talk about two main influences: family expectations and how teacher(s) perceive their students.  Teachers must have high expectations and a belief in their students that they can in fact succeed and they are somebody.  We all are somebody. You can tell so much about a person by how they treat people…every person no matter who they are.

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Our exposure and our experiences make us who we are and who we are to become.  My family, especially my sister, pushed me to succeed and had high expectations of me and motivated me to learn.  She would stay up most nights mispronouncing vocabulary words to ensure I knew them for the next day.  At a young age, I was taught to read to understand not by anyone else but my older sister. When I was failing, my sister figured it out by asking and talking with my teachers.  A strong school family partnership is key to change someone’s trajectory in life.

I believe a family is a child’s first teacher and wants what is best for their child.  At times they may not know what to do and seek help.  Families do the best they can.  When a child has someone in their life who truly cares, anything is possible.  Children are resilient and need a dedicated role model to help them.  When a child has a handful of individuals who care and do the best they can, they are empowered and they believe in themselves.  There is no excuse why we cannot help children and families through education.  Education turns lives around and is the cure for poverty.

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Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime (Chinese Proverb).

As opposed to Jill, I grew up in a highly diverse neighborhood. Christians, Jewish, Muslims, rich, middle class and poor. There was no upper middle class then. I remember going to elementary school and being in a classroom of 32 students with only one teacher. My mom was the room parent for five consecutive years and she contiued to stay engaged in parent-school association until I got to my senior year in high school. I must say I owe my success to my parents and their ever lasting support.

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Education starts at home. First, we learn to be a good human being by treating one another with respect, understanding and showing empathy. We learn to take turns listening and speaking. We carry these personal traits to school life.  Then we start learning the academics. When I was growing up, my parents would tell me “never talk about money or what you do over the weekend or on breaks. It is rude to brag about what you have. You can hurt others’ feelings because you do not know where they come from and what they can or cannot afford”. Today, I teach the same thing to my son. There are so many other things we can talk about and share with each other. There are so many ways we can support each other, work and grow together.

Achievement gap is unavoidable in today’s world but it can be minimized. This is only possible if we work together. Shared understanding of what high quality is by all stakeholders, exposure to cutting edge information, various experiences and collaboration with others. These are some of the most crucial factors in progressive education. We are raising children in the 21st century, therefore we cannot continue to think like and use the methods from 30 years ago. Family styles, parenting styles, technology and many other things are different than the way they were in the old days. There is so much research out there, within our reach. One click of a button and information is in front of our eyes. No need to wait, no need to check out the book from the library, in many cases, no need to pay for it…So, if we know better and have more information, why not apply this knowledge into our classrooms and provide our children enriching experiences and prepare them for success?

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Assumptions as Jill desribes at the beginning are no different than stereotyping people. How many of us think it is not OK to stereotype? I am sure, MANY of you who are reading this right now. There are families who are fortunate and there are ones who are not. There are families who want the best for their children but they do not have the means and there are ones who do not know what is best or how to provide the best. Anytime I come across a family who is not as fortunate as I was when I was growing up, I spend more time with them. I reach my hand out farther and try to pull them closer. Why? Because I may be their only chance. I may be the one who is supposed to break the cycle for this family. Because  8 to 10 hours this child spends in my care may be the happiest and the only productive time period he or she has. Helping someone achieve does not always cost a lot of money. We only need to pay attention, listen and reach out within our means. When it goes beyond our means, we can partner with others and ask for help. Remember we said closing the gap is only possible with collaboration? Well, it really is.

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Achievement is not only for a certain group of children. It is for all. All it takes is an opportunity. Any one of us can be that opportunity for a child who then may become a doctor, scientist, teacher, lawyer, police officer, entrepreneur and who knows.. perhaps the future president.

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When Things Fall Apart: Resiliency and Having the Courage to Get back Up

Bruises happen. Children fall and they get back up. Life catches us off guard and no matter how cliche this may sound…life is full of surprises. This is the part where resiliency comes into play.

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The ability to endure and bounce back is vital to sustain what we have and keep moving forward. Getting a scrape or falling down hurts. Let’s face it. “When we fall we must get back up.” We must keep moving. Taking this lesson from childhood into adulthood still resonates.
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We get hurt, we get back up. All of us at some point have been hurt in insurmountable ways. It takes longer for some to get back up but the thing is getting back up is worth it. There is a whole big life that goes on out there.

I remember as a child I lied. I gave a forged note saying how great I was doing in school when in fact I was doing horrible. When my sister opened and read the note she asked “Did your teacher really write this note?” I said, “yes.” She asked again, “I’m only going to ask one more time; did she write this note?” I said “yes.” The next day I walked into our apartment and was taught my first lesson: Never lie. It wasn’t that I was not doing well it was the fact that I lied about it.

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We went to school together to talk with my teacher and she told the teacher to give me more work and put me back into my former classes. (I was performing so badly that they had placed me in remedial, unbeknownst to my sister). The teacher said, Jill just lost her mother and that could explain so much. My sister looked and said something I will remember forever “That is no excuse. Our mother would be rolling in her grave if she knew Jill was failing.” Resiliency. It’s being bruised. Its enduring. It’s having the courage to rise again. To hold and keep your form even with the scratches and scrapes during life. Even when things fall apart.

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If not all, most of us face with events that are not desirable. Being disrespected, ignored, neglected in different ways and unappreciated are all hurtful things. How about being stabbed in the back by the people we loved and trusted for so long? This is life and things are not always in our control.

It is crucial for our children to learn these lessons early in life. Not at the same depth as us adults but disappointment and sadness will happen. It is not useful to sugarcoat everything and hide the truth because it is hurtful. The important piece is that we deliver the message appropriately and still teach the lesson so they become resilient in time. They need to bounce back and give it another try.

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My son is orange belt in karate. Last weekend due to our jam packed schedule, he had to attend the class with red belts. He begged me not to go in and said he was super scared. I convinced him to give it a try and there he went…

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Master was teaching them a new move but because my son was just learning level 3 and they were learning level 6, he panicked. Every time master called a move he was doing it wrong. Tears started building up in his eyes and he started hiding his face. After observing red belts making the same mistakes and deciding he can get help he started moving faster. I sighed deeply with huge relief. I wasn’t able to go out there to comfort him or to help him. He gathered himself up and moved on. The class was over and he said to me “Mommy, I am sorry I doubted myself. It was hard at first but I can do what red belts are doing. Do you think Master David would promote me to red belt?” All I thought was my work as a mother and of course my husband’s, was paying off. He felt failure but didn’t give up. In the end, he was proud of himself and so was I. Don’t be afraid of falling, as long as you find the strength in you to get back up, all will be well.

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Carpe Diem: Seizing the Moment and Making Lasting Memories

We work to live not live to work. Some have it backwards. The awesome thing about children is that they are really good at seizing the moment.

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They are present and stay in awe of well, anything. Shadows, bugs, people, the breeze… And, children show this way of being best through play.

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They don’t work against time but with it. Children are in tune with just being and they are totally ok with it. As adults, we sometimes forget what it’s like to be a small child figuring out life. Grown ups still don’t have it figured out. Sometimes we focus on the most ridiculous things wasting time and energy when we should just be. I think even when we die life will still be one big question mark but isn’t life wildly beautiful now?

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As spring starts setting in, you hear the birds chirping, see the beginnings of cherry blossoms, time goes forward and it feels good. Or some of us think “oh man I lose an hour of sleep” but the thing is we gain that hour at the end of the day to really take in warm sunsets. I was never a morning person and I am a night person at heart. So I am looking forward to that extra hour of light in the evening. During this new season, I am going to just be. Like children.

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Today I am going to renew a promise to just be in the moment. Nothing more. Nothing less.

“Being in the moment” as Jill says. We often forget enjoying ourselves. We rush our children, protect them too much sometimes thinking the more we protect them the better adults we are. Well… not long ago, we went to an Adventure Park (not amusement park) far out in Maryland. As children put their gear on to climb up the trees, and an obstacle course 25 feet high off the ground and a zipline! My heart was pounding like it was going to come out of my chest any second. My son is swinging from one tree to the other, walking on a trapeze like wire holding onto a harness I thought “why on earth did I allow him to participate? What was I thinking? If something happens, I will never forgive myself and my life is over!” Thoughts were racing through my mind a million miles per hour. Then something happened. A few children on the trees yelled with excitement, “Look! Look! there is a deer. Look, another one.” I saw the deer. Running, freely, hopping… I felt so good. I was in awe of their speed and freedom. Then my son said, “Mommy I did it, I just crossed over the triangle, I walked through it not falling.”

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In that little moment, I realized I cannot dictate his life. I must allow him to take risks so that he can taste what accomplishment feels like. So that he can enjoy being in that moment. No need to get upset or spend the whole time worrying. I needed to enjoy the moment as well. It was like the deer ran by to tell me something. To shake me and make me realize that there is so much to life and we should experience it, observe it, soak it up. Once he completed the obstacle course and came down, his eyes were bigger than ever with self fulfillment. On the way home, he said he thought he would die up there and he couldn’t believe how he did all of it although it was so hard. He repeated several times that he would do it again, only this time he would try to go higher. (Glad they have age­ height limitation, so I don’t need to worry about convincing him not to try to go higher).

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Let your child try, let him experience different things, let him be exposed to things that will make him want to try to do more and take on a challenge. Let yourself enjoy the moment rather than worrying aobut the past or the future and making a mountain out of a molehill only later to realize you wasted that precious time.  Live for the now.

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Changing Lives Together

Several years ago, a mom walked into my office with her twin boys who were barely a year old at the time. She looked fragile, slim with a smile on her face trying to cover a sadness that was sitting deep inside, most likely for a long time. She was in her early twenties. She said she wanted to enroll her boys to my program. There was an urgent sense of wanting to help this family that covered my mind and heart. After completing her enrollment process, I conversed with her. I asked her what she needed from the program, how could I support her and anything else that she wanted me to know. What I learned from our conversation was not unique but unsettling. A single mom who was abused by her mother’s boyfriend, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, out of high school trying to find a job and living in an apartment with roaches and surrounded by drug users. I was unsure of how to handle this young mother…what to say to her, how to say it… I admired how she felt comfortable and opened up to me, sharing that her mother reported her to the police because she was gay and using drugs. They needed to take the boys away from her. By the time she was done talking, she was in tears apologizing and I was sitting across from her trying to hold my tears in with a big knot in my throat.

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A couple of weeks later, both of the boys were having medical issues. I was supporting this mom by asking questions gently and ensuring she trusted that my goal was just to help her become strong and able for her children. She was going to the hospital every week and they were giving her the run around. I was coaching her to ask questions to the pediatrician after figuring out she did not know what to ask and she entrusted doctors as they were educated and they were “doctors” in her mind. We were spending eight hours with these boys and our observations were clear: they were not getting the care they needed!

I asked the mom to call the doctor’s office and I would put the call on speaker and I would speak. She was fine with it, in fact appreciated me taking the time to help her. I realized that all this time, a registered nurse was attending her children not an actual pediatrician. With all due respect to registered nurses, these boys needed a doctor not to mention a specialist. The RN was extremely rude on the phone trying to belittle the mom saying she did not know what she was doing with her children. She went on speaking in that “I know every thing because I am the RN” voice until I pushed back by saying I would write a letter to the hospital and I would ensure to follow up until these two children received the care they needed. When I was finished, I had the contact information on my notepad. In a few weeks, both children went through tests, one was diagnosed with autism and the other had severe gastrointestinal issues that were being addressed by specialists. The journey was not over for this family.

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Mom was extremely upset and emotional about her twin boys’ situation. I made a referral, which resulted in ABA therapy, and wrap around service that included home visits and support for mom. This was incredible. Mom stopped by my office every single morning praying for me and thanking me because I cared for her, her family, that I did not treat her differently because she had a mental illness and she was gay. As we thought things got better, we had another situation. One of the boys was working with the ABA therapist three times a week. The first one was fine but the second one they assigned him was impatient, forceful and not nurturing. I could not bear seeing this picture one more time. The second time I observed her work, I called her supervisor and shared my observations and concern. The same day mom came to my office and said that the home visitor was talking down to her and that she felt very uncomfortable. I followed up with the home visitor who was also one of the supervisors in her agency. She told me that there were roaches on the walls and that the TV was in the same room where children sleep. She added that mom needed to move out of that house if she needed her children to get better especially since one of the boys had asthma.

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The interesting part in this conversation was her tone. She was sharing these things with me with disgust. I wanted to say, “Yes genius, this family is on WIC, mom is in training to get a job and this is the apartment the housing assistance is paying for, and yes there is a long waitlist for a better place”. Well, I did not because I knew I had to keep it professional. I said thank you and asked for an in person meeting with mom and me in my office. Within that week, we met. I asked one of my colleagues who is a clinical social worker to sit in for this meeting. I wanted to make sure I was not missing anything because I was not a social worker and I had to cover all my grounds for this mom. I had to advocate! The owner of the agency, home visitor, mom, my colleague and I met. I saw exactly what mom was telling me…

  • You have roaches in your home, it is not safe for your children
  • They need to eat better food because they need better nutrition
  • You cannot let them sleep in the same room with a TV
  • You need to spend more time with them to bond
  • If you had a job …

After the last part, it was a blur to me. Mom was crying and they were still stating all the negative facts to her as if no one was aware and concerned. I ended the meeting, called the referral agency, shared our concerns and what took place. They followed up with us in person and ended their contract with that particular therapy agency. It took a little bit but it happened. This is only one family I am speaking about. Mom kept in contact with me for a while even after children transitioned to public school. I heard things are getting better for them. This is an example how we all can advocate for children and families. It may sound like social work but it is an extension and continuation of what we do: support children, educate and empower families, enable them to help their families. This is the only way we can make a difference. One family at a time.

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Like Berna, I vividly recall a set of experiences that define first who I am and who I am in the process of becoming and second the how and the why I help others. It’s never the evil people that are the most at fault in times of crises and chaos, it’s the people who never speak up and fight for what’s right.

At some point, everyone needs help. How can we teach children Blooms Taxonomy if Maslow’s needs aren’t met? It’s as simple as that. I grew up in Scranton in Townhouse projects and although our family didn’t have everything we had each other and that was more than enough for me.  Understanding this and where I come from: my roots so to speak, I get life. I get that it’s not about the money or the material things but the time, loyalty and authentic relationships. Throw in music, food and conversation and you have all you need.

When I moved to Washington, DC I walked into a small box sardine like apartment. I lived in unit 4. Koolaid stained carpet. Roaches. A defective heater that was tagged with warnings of don’t use. I cried.  Hearing gun shots my first night, coupled by pattering of sneakers on concrete I thought: what did I get myself into? The next day held my answer. I showed up to my neighborhood and found a child locked out. I let my dog Courage outside and the three of us became friends.  Everyday “Johnny” would come and ask to play with Courage. Eventually, we put up a basketball hoop to which a neighbor complained and threatened to call the police on us. The children absolutely looked forward to playing everyday. We couldn’t take that hoop down.

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My next door fiftyish year old neighbor who I learned could not read during a Home Depot run as we were trying to find water resistant liners, when hearing the name police immediately freaked out. I calmed him down and said I will call the police myself to ensure the hoop was allowed in our alley. And, it was. Then I walked over to the other neighbor’s house to talk and negotiate the hoop. My neighbor said that the hoop was going to destroy her quality of life as she was retired. I responded with “What about the children’s quality of life?” Together we created some rules of the hoop. Some were that children had to stop playing on it when the streetlights came on, absolutely no drugs and treat each other kindly.

This not only gave children something to do but created a community of support. It was by far not perfect but nowhere is. Every neighbor-hood has its problems but the question is, is what kind of neighbor do you want to be? We can all be advocates easily and it starts by being a kind and understanding neighbor.  Often, I think of how I’d like to be treated…then I act accordingly.

Yes, it is a lot of work but didn’t we all choose to do this? Belittling, criticizing, judging, isolating, pushing down and away are not the ways we will gain these individuals and show them how life can be better. It is by taking that five extra minutes to make a phone call, ten extra minutes to look someone in the eye and truly listen, speaking up for them and standing by them until we try every way and use every power we have. If we do not, who will? Never underestimate how you can change a person’s life and in return how they change yours.

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Passing the Torch: Early Ed… Then What? Why and How We Should Be Ready for Our Children. Speaking up for Children, Families and Educators

Posted by Jill Telford and Berna Artis

“Come as you are”, said he. “But I love you, so I will not let you stay there. I will move you, and it will hurt, but I promise I won’t leave you.” –sum.c

Recently, we attended a conference, “It Takes A City” in DC and I reflected on my experiences and how I felt immediately. While sitting at a table of educators, with widely different views and experiences in education and hearing from a high school teacher, first grade teacher, education specialist and an assistant…When asked what I do, I responded I work in an Early Learning Program in DC. I heard from most of them at the table “They are just so cute but I don’t know how you do it.” Pause. Sigh. I took a deep breath. I realized I was sitting at this table for a reason.

There is a disconnect between early childhood education and the K-12 world. As I listened to their set of experiences, I realized we are so connected so why is there a disconnect? A high school teacher lamented how 23 out of 26 of her students have IEPS mainly for ADHD. 23 out of 26. My eyes widened. My chest hurt. These numbers bothered me and I could tell it bothered her too. I talked more about how early education focuses on the whole child. After my talk about developmentally appropriate practice (DAP), meeting children where they are and helping when needed, utilizing the curriculum but being flexible and following the lead of the child…the teachers said how thankful they are when children come from a high quality program and previous classes that supported them. They said our work shows. We make a difference!

I thought we don’t do this kind of work for a thank you. Our work should not stop there. Children come to a classroom with a diverse set of experiences, perspectives and ways of being. They come as they are and it is our job to help move them. Families, get to know your child’s teacher. Write a letter explaining who your child is and how he or she best learns. Paint the picture of your child in a positive and realistic light. Show and share who your child is in order to create a mutual understanding and best possible support. What is your child’s hopes and dreams? After all, you know your child the best. This way teachers can meet him where he is developmentally. Collaborate. Families are a child’s first and most important teacher. The mentality of readiness…of children being ready needs to change. Testing? This is not the only way. This idea of readiness and testing causes anxiety for the child, family, teachers and administration. We need to think like this: educators and schools should be ready for children. We hope that after children leave our world of early education that our work continues not only through our children and families but from their new teachers. We pass on the torch. As an early childhood educator, we hope that children will be challenged, asked how they feel, asked open-ended questions, met where they are. Most of all, we hope they are cared for, supported, inspired and understood.

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Often we hear how children are misunderstood. This is not working well. Emerson stated, “To be misunderstood is to be great.” When misunderstandings happen we should seek to understand. We have the power to change this way of thinking. We can totally relate to children: at some point grown-ups were in fact children. Do you remember standards? Do you remember the one-dimensional testing? Do you remember the cookie cutter art? Do you remember being quiet during lunch? Do you remember not playing? What do you remember? What made you proud, confident, loved, inspired? What caused an a-ha kind of moment for you? What challenged and hurt that helped you grow not caused anxiety?

The reality is that too many children are labeled. We are talking about high quality and equity in education but how is this fair? Diagnosis: ADHD Answer: Medication. Diagnosis: Disruptive, hurtful and troubled. Answer: removed. Isolating and shaming children to “remove the problem” so we can continue teaching? We are educating children who will one day be grown ups. They are not grown ups yet so we shouldn’t treat them like grown ups but who they are: children.

Although we realize children are uniquely and amazingly different, have a plethora of experiences, personalities and skills coupled by our understanding of current research, DAP and being culturally responsive; there are still educators and leaders who settle on the maturationist point of view of children…knowing what we know we cannot sit passively and think a child will mature and grow based on a life cycle. This is where we work to help children build and learn. This is when we mold them.

If we know there is a five year range in children’s literacy in an average kindergarten classroom then there is not only one way to teach a subject such as reading. There also should not be a standard that all children must be at. Standards and goals are necessary but let’s use them to challenge each child in different ways by meeting him or her on his own unique level of understanding. Only then can we help a child grow, actively learn, and move forward in his development.

Children are not meant to be test takers but movers and shakers of this world. If we are to adequately challenge and promote 21st century skills, we must stick to our gut instincts as educators, families and leaders and do what is right and developmentally appropriate for children. Testing should not be the only method or option in seeing where children are. There are tons of other ways as well.

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Every child may not be good at test taking just as every child who scores high does not mean he knows or understands the subject he was taught. Learning is a lifelong activity, a hobby for some of us. It keeps us going, allows us to stay sharp and relevant. We want our children to love learning, right? We want them to try harder each time, to think that there is no limit for growth. There is no job that is impossible to get. With education, comes great opportunities. From meeting friends who continue as colleagues and or partners to high paying jobs or satisfying careers. Most important of all, we want them to be successful in every which way. How is this possible if we do not speak up for them, if we do not stand up for their needs and rights?

For each one of us there is at least one thing to do. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, administrators, doctors, policy makers… The list is long and there is always at least one thing for each one of these individuals to do to advocate for children. There is always a step each one of us can take when we see injustice, misuderstanding, maltreatment, unfairness… It is everyone’s job to protect the youngest citizens of this world. It is everyone’s responsibility to protect their interest and to pave the road to success. We reap what we sow and what we want to sow is the best seed that will grow and take his place in life. One day, they will continue the cycle and when that day comes they will be confident, happy, productive, thoughful, succesful, innovative, problem solvers and leaders… Be their voice, now.

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