Bear Creek Middle School Learns Important Lessons: Improving Academics Through Giving Back

I wrote a blog yesterday to introduce the Salwen family and their decision to sell their beautiful house, downsize to a house half the size, and donate half of the proceeds to the Hunger Project to help two villages in Ghana. Their amazing story, spurred by, at the time, 14-year old Hannah Salwen, was recorded in a book Kevin and Hannah wrote together called The Power of Half.


When they made these significant changes to their lifestyle in 2007, Hannah explained that it was a personal choice they made; they didn’t expect that their actions might influence others to follow in their footsteps. Yet, that is exactly what is happening in a school just outside Atlanta; a school made up of students who do not come from affluent homes.

How can this be, you may ask? Meet Bear Creek Middle School, a school just outside Atlanta, where over 80% of the student population is impoverished. Dr. Ed Morris, a social worker, works in this school which has had some huge academic challenges, and he teaches a new message to the students, one that you will not find in textbooks.

Morris told CNN, “The government is not going to solve your problems. The school system is not going to solve your problems. Our leaders are not going to solve our problems. So the solution for healing your communities, to heal your homes, and to heal your schools lies within yourself.”

Morris invited Kevin Salwen, philanthropist, father of Hannah, and co-writer of The Power of Half, to join him in a new way of teaching students in this school. In his novel approach Morris leads students through a two-step process. 

“If you’re going to achieve academic excellence in these schools,” he explains, “then you first have to focus on the problem.”

Therefore, the first step requires just that; talk about your problems. Kevin Salwen explained to CNN some of the huge issues that these students are talking about with other students in this first step, “Kids who are talking about being raped or molested, or, you know, kids who are growing up in poverty, or kids who are growing up with no dads, or with moms who are involved in crack.”

Then comes step two; teaching the students that it is in the power of giving back that they will be able to move forward. It was due to Salwen’s adventure with his own family to give half of what they had to people in need, and the family’s account of that adventure in their book, that caught Morris’ attention and inspired him to recruit Salwen to help in his educational endeavor.

Salwen told CNN, “Ed approached me and said, hey, Mr. Salwen, I know you wrote this book for white soccer moms, but let me tell you, you know, it’s the inner city kid, the poor inner city kid.”

Destiny Fulcher, a ninth grade student at Bear Creek Middle School, confessed to CNN that before the program she was extremely low. “I didn’t really care about my school work. I didn’t really care to come to school every day.”

But things began to change for her when she began talking about bullying at school and issues at home with her fellow students; it was the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She began volunteering in her neighborhood by cleaning up trash and doing community service.

“I was distant from people before,” Destiny explained. “And then I grasped how much people needed someone, and not just money or things.”

Destiny began to realize that you don’t have to have a lot of money to give back. Salwen said, “All of the sudden, kids who have always lived their lives recognizing the things they don’t have, start to recognize the things that they do have.”

Sounds great, but does it make a difference academically? Well, Salwen told CNN that changing these kids’ attitudes has also changed their academic performance. “Of the three hundred and thirty some odd kids, one hundred and fifty of them had two F’s or more. That one hundred and fifty went down to fifty-one by the end of the school year.”

Students from this school report that the unlikely pairing of Dr. Ed Morris and Kevin Salwen is a winning combination for their school. Destiny said, “Who wants to give that much money away? Or who wants to help people the way they do, like, it’s not, oh, I’m going to give this money to them. No…they give theirself.”

Salwen concludes that it is about giving and believing. “We believe that you can, that you have power to succeed. Do you believe it; cause we believe it.”

CNN also interviewed Hannah Salwen about the unlikely direction her family’s experience and book have taken in the lives of these impoverished students at Bear Creek. When the reporter told Hannah that the book and its message have “taken on a life of its own” which seems never ending, Hannah expressed their desire to move this program to the seventh grade at Bear Creek and to other schools in the Atlanta area.

“I mean, everyone has something to give, and that’s really…our motto: Everyone has the power to give…It doesn’t have to be money; it could be time, it could be talent. You know, if you spend twelve hours a week online, which a lot of us do, maybe you could cut that in half and only use six hours online, and maybe use the other six hours maybe volunteering at a cancer clinic, maybe reading stories to kids with cancer. I mean, there are hundreds of ideas out there. Just kind of finding what you have too much of and cutting that into half.”

What an awesome and inspirational approach to working with kids! Kids aren’t by nature very willing to give of themselves. They need to be taught. What if all schools adopted this policy?

First, students seem to develop a sense of pride in themselves and their talents which builds self-esteem. There is a sense that their contribution is important, therefore, I matter. And that seems to translate to academic pursuits; if I matter, what I do in school matters, too.

So, schools would be teaching three valuable lessons. First, we all have something of value to share with those around us. Second, by helping others, we help ourselves because we begin to feel that our lives matter. Third, if my life matters, I better make the most of it in school, as well as in my community.

Does it grab you? Does it make you stop and think? Can we all learn from this simple but radical approach to living?

What do you have a lot of or spend a lot of time doing that you could cut in half to help others? If eighth grade students can do it, can’t we?

Snip, snip, snip…

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