Category Archives: Volunteering

‘With technology, they’re right there with it’

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Frances Curry, first-grade teacher, trying out a device that will help her students learn to read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  – First-grade teacher Frances Curry had an iPod Touch in her fingers and a pair of headphones on her ears. She peered at the three-inch screen, her fingers tapping.

Then she paused. And smiled.

“The kid reads a word,” she said, “and then the program tells him to say the word. And then the kid hears it back, in his own voice.

“And then the program asks them, ‘Did you read that correctly?’ “ 

She sounded as if she had experienced a marvel.

Would her students benefit?

“Oh, my God, yes. They love technology!” she said. “When I talk to them, it’s just …”

She fluttered her fingers — an illustration of an attention span floating away into thin air.

“But with technology, they’re right there with it.”

Curry, who teaches at inner-city Sunland Park Elementary, was sampling an Innovations for Learning program that her young students will hold in their hands, a small package of creative software that vastly improves the teaching of reading.

She was among some 45 teachers, reading coaches and principals who gathered after school last week to train for a major initiative coming this month to six Broward County elementary schools. All located in low-income areas in and around Fort Lauderdale, the schools are newly equipped with $76,000 worth of laptops, iPod Touches and MP3 players and a resolve to try a new approach to teaching reading to beginners.

They are the first of 13 Broward schools scheduled to adopt Innovations’ TeacherMate system this year — a bet by the school district that smart technology in the hands of turned-on teachers will make a dramatic difference in the lives of children who badly need the boost.

For two afternoons last week, the Broward staffers gathered at North Fork Elementary School to learn how to get started with the system, scheduled to launch in classrooms the week of Sept. 9. They reviewed everything from how to turn on an iPod to how to roll up a clutch of power cords. And most important, how to use the lively software to create differentiated learning plans for each of their students.

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Carmen Valdez, teacher ambassador, with books beginning readers will use

Michele Pulver, Innovations’ director of teacher services, came down from Chicago to lead the sessions. She was joined by teacher ambassadors Jessica Nasset from Seattle, Melinda Cunningham from Chicago, and LaVonia Martin-Chambers, Kim Sanders and Carmen Valdez from Fort Lauderdale. (Teacher ambassadors are Innovation employees who are assigned to specific schools. They back up teachers to make sure TeacherMate runs smoothly, and monitor the whole process of literacy instruction by modeling best practices and giving guided support.)

“You are the pioneers for a digital approach to learning,” Michele Rivera, the school district’s director of literacy, told the group at the sessions’ outset. She said the partnership with Innovations was designed to lead “to our ultimate goal: to get kids ready for college and the real world. To get them to work independently, collaboratively, to problem-solve and be technologically competent.”

The teachers broke into small groups to become familiar with three “stations” they’ll be setting up in their classrooms. At one station, up to 10 students will work on interactive word-building lessons, using iPod Touches. In another, a second group of kids will listen to a story from a narrator over an MP3 player while reading along from a book. At the third station, the teacher will interact personally with a group of students, teaching them decoding and comprehension strategies and guiding their reading practice.

After sessions that last about half an hour, the student groups will rotate from station to station.

Each student’s progress will synch via the cloud to the teacher’s laptop computer, giving her a precise read on how quickly each kid is learning each concept and allowing her to adjust the next lessons accordingly.

The Broward staffers sounded enthusiastic about their first brush with the system.

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Broward teachers getting to know the “Listening Station”

“I love how it blocks out all the other sounds,” said Chris Carney, principal of Bennett Elementary, after hearing a story read over a headset. “That’s going to really help some of our guys” — children who are easily distracted.

“We know that as soon as reading scores go up, everything else — the science and the math, the writing — they all go up,” said LaFerne McLean-Cross, assistant principal at Sunland Park Academy, which was an F-rated school two years ago, but saw 88 percent of its students make learning gains last year and hopes to continue the momentum. “That’s why we’re putting so much focus on this.”

The next seven schools are scheduled to get going with TeacherMate in a few weeks. Training for that staff is scheduled for Sept. 27, assuming that Title I federal money arrives on time. Innovations for Learning laid out the $76,000 needed to equip the first six schools, in the interest of getting the program off the ground.

In October, if all goes according to schedule, the district will add Innovation’s program of virtual tutoring, called TutorMate. It will link volunteers from corporate workplaces with first-graders for one-and-one sessions via the Internet.

Broward County Public Schools is in the midst of a fundraising drive, looking for $500,000 to fully equip the 132 classrooms in the 13 schools with hardware and seeking 620 volunteers to tutor children, remotely by computer hook-up for half an hour a week. For more information, please click here.

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Michele Rivera, Broward County Public Schools’ director of literacy, welcomes the “pioneer” staff who will be the first to bring digital learning to first-grade reading education in the Fort Lauderdale-area district

Story and photos by Howard Goodman

Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

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Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 

Today: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

Hallmark, move over: A tutor says goodbye by greeting card

DSC_0013Some of the people who volunteered as tutors this year became pretty attached to the children they helped learn to read.

Take Lisa Mach. An engineer for the Port of Seattle, she tutored a first-grader named John at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Elementary School, speaking to him every week by phone from her desk at work, going over his lessons for a half an hour as each looked his reading assignment on their respective computer screens.

When it came time to meet John in person at an end-of-the-year party for tutors and students, however, Lisa had to be out of town. She felt badly about missing the chance. So she composed a card for John to be delivered in her stead.

She put a picture of herself on the cover. On the inside, she listed  a dozen suggested “Summer Books After First Grade” and wrote a message:

Hi John,

I can’t be there to visit you at school today because I am on a trip visiting my baby grandson.

I sent this card to tell you what a really GOOD reader you are. I liked that you sounded out every single word until you knew what it was. I also liked that you used your voice and gave the words feeling. If the story was fun, you made it sound happy. When a boy or a girl was scared, you made it sound a little scary. Soon you can read longer stories about people and their adventures.

I hope you can visit the library during the summer and get books to read so you will be a strong reader when you go back to school for second grade.

Have a fun summer!

Lisa

“I am really glad the card worked, though I sure would rather be there to meet him in person,” Lisa said last week in an email. “This is my first time with TutorMate. I have a small sense of what it might be like for teachers to say goodbye to their little ones at the end of each year.”

 

Tutor: ‘I am very proud to be part of it all’

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With the school year ending, many Innovations for Learning tutors are visiting the classrooms to meet in person the children whose progress in reading they’ve been guiding long distance, via telephone and computer.

Jacqui Howze, an administrative assistant at the law firm DLA Piper LLP in Chicago’s Loop, remotely tutored a young boy at Fiske Elementary on the city’s South Side. Her office is in a gleaming office tower created by famous architects. At Fiske, 95 percent of the children are classified as low-income.

She visited the classroom the other day for the first time — and loved it so much that she sent this note to the teacher:

Good morning Mrs. House,

I would like to thank you for allowing me and the Innovations For Learning tutors to visit your classroom yesterday.  It was the highlight of my day!

I enjoyed meeting Kavin and the other children. You have a wonderful group of students who display a passion for learning and who have respect for you, their fellow students and their school.  I am very proud to be a part of it all.

I would like to say Kudos to you for the way you handle your class and for all that you do for those lovely little minds.  You too are wonderful!

I look forward to tutoring next year and I would like nothing more than to continue to tutor Kavin, but in the event that I cannot, I know that whomever I tutor will be just as bright and eager as Kavin.  Thank you again Mrs. House for having us and I hope to visit your classroom again next year.

Have a wonderful Summer!

Jacqui Howze

The teacher replied:

Hello Jacqui,

What a beautiful note! I was very enthusiastic, as were my little ones, to meet you guys as well! With your support, my kindergartners have skyrocketed in their levels of reading and writing. I know because all of the skills that you worked on were revisited by me and I saw the major jumps.

It feels so great to know that all of the hard work is seen because I am working constantly to keep the kindergartners at a higher level than the  norms. I am so grateful to TeacherMate/Innovations for Learning and my students were eagerly waiting for your calls/sessions. I watched them go from dependent, curious minds to independent, conscientious thinkers, still curious (smiles).

I, too, agree that you should stick with Kavin and the other tutors should stay with their little ones. You can definitely track the growth by following. Thanks so much and talk to you soon…

Tenesia House

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— photos of Fiske Elementary by Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

Staff reflections: Seth Weinberger

DSC_0032 - Version 2In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Seth Weinberger, founder and CEO. A good account of Seth’s background and history with IFL can be found here. 

He wrote the following a few days ago, as an email to the rest of the staff. It stands so well as a statement of IFL’s potential and purpose, we wanted to share it with everyone:

 

Today I observed a Chicago south side first grade classroom in a school that is 97% African American, 75%+ low income, and on academic probation.  The teacher is a first year novice.  Two-thirds of the students entered her classroom below grade level literacy.

Against these enormous odds, here is what this teacher achieved:  the LOWEST group is near Level I (grade level).  The middle group is reading second and third grade chapter books, and the highest group is independently reading Charlotte’s Web, a classic TEACHER read-aloud book.

This teacher has enthusiastically embraced the TeacherMate System from the start of the school year, and credits it for much of her success.  She is also a natural teacher, and will be a star if she stays in the profession.

Not every teacher is a natural, and not everyone will embrace our system, but this teacher has demonstrated what is possible.  And what is possible ought to be what our goal is.

Every student reading, most students flying.

— Seth Weinberger

TutorMate makes splash in Seattle biz press

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Some 100 volunteers from 10 Seattle corporations and the Port of Seattle are helping impoverished children learn to read through Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program — and the Puget Sound  Business Journal has the story:

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To read the entire story requires a subscription.

It gives a good background on IFL’s programs (“the brainchild of Seth Weinberger, a former Chicago attorney. Two decades ago he decided to do something about illiteracy among children in disadvantaged communities. His idea: use technology that makes computer games so vivid and enticing to help young children read well from the get-go.”)

And it shows the enthusiasm with which volunteers embrace the tutor experience.

Introduced in Seattle this fall, TutorMate opens a door to community involvement for busy professionals who can carve out 30 minutes a week to tutor a student online but not the additional time needed to travel to a school.

“It’s very hard to break away from the desk and the building,” said Martin, a senior business analyst with Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser. “This really fits the bill for me.”

Thanks to writer Brad Broberg, for capturing the program so well.

 

 

IFL off to a high-altitude start in Denver

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At most Innovation for Learning end-of-the-year get-togethers, tutors travel to schools to finally meet the students they’ve been helping each week over the Internet.

Denver did it differently.

On Wednesday, buses delivered children from two elementary schools to the city’s Janus Capital Group headquarters for a rooftop party.

Some 40 first-graders from the two schools, College View Elementary and Cheltenham Elementary, lined up for fruit, cookies and a book  — and then sat down with the Janus employee who’s been helping them learn their ABC’s. Together, they started the kids’ summer reading.

Denver Public Schools used IFL’s offerings in five classrooms this year as a pilot. Plans are to expand to 20 classrooms next year, said Dan Weisberg,  national director for IFL’s TutorMate program.

All the volunteer tutors came from Janus. The Denver Public Schools Foundation provided invaluable help in setting everything up.

It’s clear from the pictures that a good time was had by all.

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Kids line up to receive a book. They could choose one of three that Janus made available to them.

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— photos by Dan Weisberg

Rich kid, poor kid — all must, and can, get an education

What’s wrong with public education in America? Is it the poor quality of teachers — or maybe the low pay offered to teachers? The inflexibility of unions? An insufficiency of charter schools?

We’ve heard all of these, time and again, to explain what is inevitably described as the crisis in U.S. education.

But a couple of recent essays argue that these usual explanations are entirely wrong.

Sean F. Reardon, a professor education and sociology at Stanford, rejects the notion that U.S. education as a whole is slipping. “In fact,” he writes in the New York Times, “average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called National Report Card have been rising  — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s.”

But progress is not occurring in an equal fashion, Reardon says. There is a growing gulf in grades, test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment and completion.

It’s not a racial gap; the differences between whites and blacks have been narrowing slowly over the past 20 years.

The most dramatic disparities are  between the rich … and everyone else.

“The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly,” Reardon writes. “The rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.”

Why?

“The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school,” Reardon writes. He continues:

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages….

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

Meantime, a former history professor and high-school teacher named John Tierney sees a revolution emerging in K-12 public education — a massive, grassroots rejection of the accountability-based reform movement of the last dozen years.

Writing in The Atlantic, he says the weaknesses of the reform movement are becoming increasingly obvious:

Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail…

Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail…

Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed.

What, then, is to be done?

We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

We at Innovations for Learning are acutely aware that too many poor children enter the school system unprepared to learn. That’s the very problem we were created to address.

But we disagree that we must first fix such monumental problems as poverty and inequality if we are to see gains in education.

The work we’re doing in primary grades all across America is showing that if we focus on improving teachers’ tools, content and teaching methods, and provide teachers with adequate training and support, they can help students achieve — even those from high-poverty communities.

“I don’t deny that kids from advantaged communities will have life long advantages,” says Seth Weinberger, IFL’s founder and CEO, “but a basic education should be achievable for everyone.”

— Howard Goodman

Tutors, sign up now to meet your students!

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It’s the time of year for Innovations for Learning tutors to be making plans for end-of-the-year get-togethers with the students they’re helping learn to read.

About 1,300 adults are devoting a half-hour each week to communicating, via telephone and the computer, with children in low-income neighborhood schools. From their desks in corporations like AT&T and agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard, the grownups are giving first-graders some precious personal attention and encouragement to get them started on a successful path through school.

To cap the experience, the volunteers will travel to the kids’ classrooms to read stories, play word games, enjoy story-building exercises, and — very often — bask in the glow of the kids’ appreciation.

dan's screen grabThis year, the process for signing up and planning for these school visits is streamlined, thanks to a new computer program on the IFL web page for tutors that allows tutors to sign up with a click on the “RSVP” button and to see instantly who else among their coworkers is planning to attend. The new tool also lets classroom teachers and TutorMate coordinators see how many visitors to expect.

The new system went active earlier this month, thanks to crucial help from IFL’s partner for technical matters, Photon, based in India.

Until now, organizing the end-of-year visits was rather haphazard. “We never knew who was going to come,” said Cary Zakon, IFL’s director of TutorMate operations. “Now, it gives us some foresight. If we see that registration is lagging, we can send out reminders to the coordinators. And if we get fewer than three people signed up, we’ll cancel the event.”

Hopefully, that won’t happen very often. Because one thing that tutors, teachers and students all have learned — these are great events.

As one tutor told us after a visit last year: “It was so great to have an opportunity to meet our students — we had an amazing time! The students were so excited to meet us in person and and they loved the books and our token gifts.”

For more information on the visits and registering for them, click here.

Photo: JP Morgan Chase employees at classroom party, 2011. From IFL video.

Staff reflections: Caryn Weiner

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In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Caryn Weiner, Co-editor, Publications.

I have known Seth Weinberger, Barb Goodman and their family for many years and had the pleasure of watching Seth’s wheels turning as he conceived and incubated what is now, 20 years later, Innovations for Learning. 

Our children were young, and Seth, Barb, and I helped to found a nonprofit preschool in Evanston, Ill., that focused on inclusion. For years after that, Barb and I worked as partners in a volunteer capacity to raise funds and awareness for our venture, all while raising our families.

I didn’t know 30 years ago how my work and personal life would intersect and come full circle.

My first job after completing my masters degree in social work was with a YWCA program in the Uptown neighborhood in the Chicago which housed an early childhood Title XX daycare program and an after-school program for school-age kids.

My next job was as a therapist with adolescents and families at Response Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I also worked closely with the schools in the area presenting programs and workshops for students and parents, as well as school staff.

I also had a stint for many years as a Roving Reader, a program founded by the Foster Reading Center in Evanston to promote literacy and now part of Child Care Center of Evanston. It was originally designed for school-age children, but by the time I joined, the program focused on early literacy skills — the building blocks for future success in school.

I visited a number of daycare homes twice each week. My job was to expose the kids and their daycare providers to quality literature and to offer stimulating and enriching experiences related to literacy.  

Over the years, I formed lovely relationships with the providers and watched as their charges grew up and moved on to kindergarten. My hope was always that I had left them with a love of books and reading.

Then, four years ago, I had the good fortune to join Seth and the amazing IFL staff, part time, as Barb’s work partner. Our mission then was to grow the online tutoring program, which today is known as TutorMate. That program grew, and as new full-time staff came onboard, Barb and I stepped back. 

To watch TutorMate develop into the program it is today has been amazing.

Back in the day, Barb and I did trainings in person with a slide show. The program itself was much less interactive and dynamic. There was no help desk, no online sign-up nor phone conference training, and there were way more bugs!

Still, each time we went out to talk with or train volunteers at their workplaces, it was quite clear that something wonderful was going on.

Tutors loved being part of their students’ lives each week, and their coworkers were hearing about it and wanted to participate, too. Heartwarming stories about tutoring and its rewards were being shared. And when Barb and I went out to visit classrooms and had the privilege of meeting the students and teachers, that was just further confirmation.

We spent lots of time online and on the phone with tutors and teachers: training, helping with scheduling, troubleshooting technical issues, and getting to know them personally. Many are still with the program. Compared with the scope and quality of today’s TutorMate, they were pioneers!

Today, my role is a bit in flux as Seth’s wheels continue to turn and new projects and ideas form. Barb and I are now working on communication projects and the annual report. I look forward to whatever my new role with IFL will be – and to watching the organization grow.

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