Rising Star Award Winner: Debbie Collier - We're All Friends Together
– May 31, 2018
This article was written by Haley Freeman, Contributing Writer for After School Elevated Magazine.
In the late 1980s, when Debbie Collier was an associate professor at Amarillo College, she began to examine emerging data surrounding "latchkey kids," children with working parents who were going home after school to an empty house. "Research showed that these kids were lonely and isolated, and social-emotional learning was not happening for them," Collier explains.
A woman of action, Collier went to the curriculum director at Canyon Independent School District in her home town of Canyon, Texas with her concerns, and she was given the green light to pilot an after school program. What resulted was a true community enterprise, run as a non-profit funded by a United Way grant and supervised by a board composed of church friends. Collier began the program in August 1989 with only 26 kids and three employees, including herself. She grew the program over 26 years to more than 600 kids.
The program was adopted by Canyon ISD in 2015, after Texas Senator Royce West introduced Senate Bill 503, making provision for expanded learning opportunities for public school students. His model included community partnerships, collaboration with schools and a focus on STEM activities. "I knew it was time to change," Collier says. "I went to our curriculum director and said, 'The district needs to take this over.'” That summer, Canyon ISD Kids launched. In the 2017-2018 school year, Canyon ISD Kids provided 827 kids with a safe and happy after school experience.
Accustomed to running the program as a grass-roots initiative -- operating out of her car in lieu of spending precious funds on an office -- Collier has embraced the opportunity to become part of the district. With it, she has welcomed fresh ideas and resources aimed at enhancing kids' opportunities for learning and fun.
"It's been wonderful. For one thing, we're able to collaborate with community partners now. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has developed a program just for us, for 4-H and Clover Kids. Our local Randall County Extension Office just received an award in Austin for implementing and writing the curriculum for that outreach program. We also have a partnership with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Now, with the communication we have with teachers, administrators and the community, we can do what's best for our kids. We all could have continued the way it was forever, but I saw that Senator Royce West had something better in mind for kids in Texas. It wasn't easy, but we had to do it, and I'm so glad we did."
The city of Canyon is home to over 15,000 people, but the district covers a staggering 732 square miles. Situated near both West Texas A&M University and Amarillo College, Canyon ISD Kids has no trouble recruiting the staff it needs among the campus populations. The program also recruits local high school students, many of whom are former participants. An energetic Collier remains the only administrator.
During a typical day, kids begin with a snack and then settle down for homework hour, during which time many classroom teachers stay on site to help. "I've seen a wonderful increase in grades going up, and the kids' social-emotional development is amazing," Collier says. Homework is followed by a series of 20-minute activity rotations that include arts and crafts, STEM activities, drama club, book club, gym and outdoor time. "I've found in all my years, that you keep kids occupied if you keep it experiential. There is no paper and pencil in after school. It's just laughing, sharing and talking. If we're not having fun, it's not happening."
The program engages an ongoing schedule of training for its staff on an array of topics. "We're bringing in a counselor this year who is a specialist in ADHD behavior and juvenile narcissism. Juvenile narcissism is becoming vivid. We need to help kids learn how to get along as a group and make good choices. The counselors give us tools for how to help kids with special challenges learn to be part of the world. I'm not a mental health professional, but I've been in the business for 30 years, and it seems like there is an urgent need for helping kids learn to self-regulate. Programs like ours are so important to social-emotional development. Kids are having fun, with the learning thrown in."
Collier continues to advocate with officials at the state and federal level on the importance of quality after school care. "The data is everywhere proving that it makes a difference, and with so many working parents, after school is just getting more important."
Recently, Collier volunteered to conduct mock job interviews with graduating high school seniors in her district. Many were formerly students in her after school program. "I asked them, 'What did I teach you?' And pretty much every time they said, 'You taught us that we're all friends together.' I was so happy to hear them say that. 'We're all friends together.' That's our motto. Everyone in our program has the name friend. We say to kids, 'Is that the way you want to act to your friend? You hurt your friend's feelings. Go talk to your friend.' We teach camaraderie amongst kids. We believe if they feel happy and loved it will carry over to the rest of the world. I think people in education over-think it. It's really pretty simple."