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As told by Dr. Mark Klaisner, Executive Director of West40 and President of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools

“About 37 years ago, my career in education had humble beginnings. I was teaching in a basement classroom in rural Indiana. Now I’m helping to have an impact on the 1,700 kids in our West40 programs and another two million kids throughout the state of Illinois. But regardless of that difference in scale, my approach is the same. My work has always been about giving people personal attention and helping them one person at a time. Success at a small scale creates success at a large scale.

I’ve seen the power of this approach over and over again, but a few moments stand out to me.

We had a family who had a tough time after the Covid-19 outbreak. The parents were some of the first people we knew who lost their jobs because of the crisis. Now, at West40, we don’t usually give people money without other forms of support. But this time, we were able to reallocate funds from other programs. We ended up giving this family some gift cards that really helped them change their lives that month. We know that helping even an individual family can have long-lasting impact on the community.

Next, I always think how our Safe School students have had the chance to speak in front of legislators in Springfield. These are formerly “troubled kids” who are now eye-to-eye with some of the most powerful people in Illinois. When our students speak in front of those legislators, they tell extremely personal stories. They use language like, ‘If not for the Safe School, I’d be in a gang. Or I’d be dead.’ These are individual stories, but they create a broad impact. They end the speech with ‘Thank you for supporting the students of Illinois.’ These individual stories lead to changes that affect millions of people.

Then there’s Sam, a student at the Safe School, who does a daily appraisal of my ties. I’ll walk in and he’ll say, ‘Great tie today,’ or ‘Not a big fan of that one.’ I’ve been able to build a personal relationship with Sam where he doesn’t see me as the leader of West40. I’m the guy who he saw wrapping presents at the holiday party. Or the guy who did a puzzle with him once at an after-school event. Sam and the other students see our faculty as people who serve them, not people who are above them. And that started with treating each of them as individuals.

For anyone in the traditional educational system, they might hear these stories and think, ‘I agree with this approach, but how can I serve one person at a time when I have a class of 35 students?’ It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the need, but there is an answer. And I think that answer is in the parable of the starfish.

A boy and his father are walking along the beach when they see thousands of starfish stranded in the sand. One by one, the boy starts picking up the starfish and placing them back in the ocean. The father says, “You can’t possibly save all of these starfish. Does this really matter?’ After the boy places another starfish in the water, he says, ‘It mattered to that one.’

Even if you were only able to really impact one student per year, at the end of a career that’s 35 people who you helped save. And each of those people would go on to influence other people.

We need to create more love, trust and safety in the world. And like our West40 mission statement says, we’re going to do that by meeting people where they are. It’s about being deliberate and showing up. And that makes all the difference—one person at a time.”


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