In defense of the Kiwanis Terrific Kids Program, Asheville Circle K Kiwanis President Arthur Wolfe has written that "All kids are potentially terrific." (ACT Commentary 4/4/98)
Of course they are. And at a young age, they are also potentially confused and hurt if the message they repeatedly hear is that they are not terrific. Imagine a six year old sitting five or six times over the course of a year in an assembly where his/her classmates receive certificates, pencils, and food coupons, and everyone is singing about being a Terrific Kid. Yet that child does not get the award.
The trouble with the Kiwanis Terrific Kids program is that it overlays an adult-type motivation program on young children, many of whom are not old enough to process the nuances of motivation expressed by Mr. Wolfe. Moreover, there are other problems dealing with early/late timing of the award, sibling issues, inconsistent criteria reducing it to a popularity contest, and the fact that the very children who need the encouragement most are often the last to get the award, if they get it at all. The result is the opposite of what well-intentioned Kiwanians wanted when the program was founded in Black Mountain the mid-1980s.
Recognizing these problems, the faculty of Black Mountain Primary School voted to eliminate the program in 1993 but were told to try to fix it instead. In 1995, parents began raising questions too.
In 1996 the Black Mountain Kiwanis Club set up a community Task Force comprised of Kiwanians, parents, teachers, and school administrators to study concerns raised by parents. The survey they carried out resulted in responses from 500 parents in 22 schools in western North Carolina. As a result, the four Swannanoa Valley schools using Terrific Kids suspended the program in the fall of 1996.
The results that led to the suspension were:
Thus, after waiting unsuccessfully for three years for Kiwanis to take action, the parents set up a web page March 1 at www.main.nc.us/wncceib/fixtk/ to alert families and schools across the country to the design problems and to urge Kiwanis International to carry out a professional evaluation of the program.
The web page and a nationally circulated Associated Press article (ACT March 30, 1998) have stimulated e-mails from around the country confirming what hundreds of parents here had expressed in the Task Force survey. For example, the mother of a one Fayetteville, NC kindergartner wrote, "And although we as her parents think she's great, it's very disheartening that her teacher can hold that much over her. A sticker. A certificate. A dad-blame Happy Meal! Her life is bleak thanks to this program supposedly designed to boost self-worth."
Wolfe and others say that we are against rewarding achievement or that we are trying to make everyone equal. That is wrong and simply misses the point of our concern about a program that is poorly designed and implemented.
No parents are complaining about middle and high school athletic or academic awards: the criteria for those awards are clear. Mr. Wolfe's contention that young children will understand and be motivated to do what they need to do to get the award sounds nice but isn't the experience of hundreds of parents and many teachers surveyed in the Kiwanis Task Force Report.
The denial of or indifference to these problems among Kiwanis officials is disappointing. Evaluation should be a built-in design component for any program serving over a million children in 50 states and 74 countries. But, from the Terrific Kids Program's inception over ten years ago, no professional evaluation has been carried out. Kiwanis has not even distributed the Black Mountain Kiwanis Task Force Report to its own Kiwanis Clubs.
Kiwanis International points to praise for Terrific Kids from the U.S. Department of Education, but when we contacted officials in that agency we learned that they had not studied the program but were only recounting what Kiwanis, itself, had told them.
Kiwanis International does much good work locally and around the world. Not to initiate a professional evaluation of the Terrific Kids program betrays that important work and short-changes the children and families the program is intended to serve.
(Gilmour is spokesperson for Parents Concerned With The Negative Impacts Of The Terrific Kids Program and may be reached at 828-669-6677 or via their web page at www.main.nc.us/wncceib/fixtk/ )