Role of the community school coordinator
The role of the community coordinator is that – is to help the community, and that means all the stakeholders. That means, you know, the teachers, parents, community members, leadership, look at the school kind of from a bird’s–eye view and identify those barriers to learning.
Any barriers to learning in any area that might be holding the children at our school back, and figure out how we can reach out into this very kind of vibrant and exciting city that is Baltimore and pull in partners who’d be able to kind of help us fill the holes.
And so in a way, this job is very project-based, right, but it’s a whole variety of different areas where you can work to support the family and work to support the teachers. So it’s extremely varied and very collaborative. It only works really if you are looking around and seeing what are the resources that the city has to offer.
What are the resources that our own parents have to offer for all of this? What are the resources that the teachers already have? You know, what teacher can teach an after–school chess club? What teacher could coach the soccer team? What parent could make sure that there’s, the newsletter is translated, for example?
There’s a whole wealth of talent and ability already inherent in the community itself, that – so that’s the school community and outside, and then in Baltimore more broadly – and a whole lot of people who really want to help and be involved, so I love being the person that helps to kind of bring that all together and make it happen, and you can do it just by literally being a coordinator, by helping to kind of work out the details, talk to people, encourage people, make sure that the committees exist and meet frequently in which all these ideas are generated and the details are worked out.
So it’s really – it’s actually a lot of fun being able to work on a whole variety of projects at the same time with people from vastly different backgrounds, many of whom can’t even converse with each other, right, and who share with you and the school their talents and their excitement and their optimism about improving whatever it is.
Building the community school took time
Change in the culture of an organization takes time. So we if we had had to create a community school in a couple of years, we would not have been able to do that. It took time in the beginning in order to, I guess, win the trust of the parents, to build the PTO.
It took time to garner the number of partners that we needed to fill in the different holes that the community school process was showing was, you know, the barriers to learning that our children were facing. It took time to be able to kind of build a web, and so every step of the process has been gradual.
Challenges with small space
Probably our biggest challenge is, the building we are in is small for our needs now. Our success has meant that we now have more students every year, which is wonderful. But it’s very difficult to really do all the community programming that we need to do in the space that we have.
Our library is way too small. You can’t bring a whole class into the library. We don’t have a parent education area, which we would like to have, like say with computers or a good space where we could do adult classes. We can only do adult classes late in the evening, which is not very good for families, right? But because we – the after-school program goes until about 6:00 and we use every nook and cranny here.
We have had to cancel some celebrations that we’ve had done in the past because so many people come that it’s not safe. So we would definitely like more space in order to do more community activities.
We also don’t have a gymnasium, and that’s very difficult on the kids and on the gym teacher on days like today when it’s raining especially. We have been really rich in terms of partners and community involvement and parent involvement, but we are constrained, really, by the building.
Addressing food scarcity
When the Great Recession hit, a lot of our families started to have difficulty with a lack of food at home and an inability to buy groceries, and they would come to the school and say, “I don’t have anything for tonight or for this weekend.”
And so we started a program with the Maryland Food Bank where they do deliveries about quarterly, and we have an emergency, you know, closet or two in order to have food if parents come to us and say, “We have nothing for tonight.” They can fill up a couple of bags of food.
And then about three times a year we do distributions like this where people get a couple bags of food, including meat and vegetables and starches and so forth. It really is just to help people kind of make ends meet with grocery money.
A more significant way that we deal with food scarcity, though, is in helping people sign up for food stamps. So when the Recession hit and our families, many of whom were working construction, started to get laid off, we discovered that many of our families were not signed up for food stamps, really probably because of language and cultural barriers, even though at least the children were eligible. And so we reached out to DSS, and they came and signed up about 50 of our families for food stamps.
And then the last piece is, we have a partner, Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, which, every Christmas, garners donations of food cards, like $25 grocery store cards, and I keep those, and if a parent comes and says, “We have nothing for the weekend,” they can get the food bag and a couple of grocery cards.
And so those are kind of the variety of ways that we help to make sure that our children have enough to eat.
Addressing children’s dental problems
So about 10 years ago, it was identified really that the children – there are – had a lot of children with dental problems who were unable to get in to see a dentist, and if you went, say, especially to the younger grades and just looked in children’s mouths, you would see a lot of brown and black teeth.
And so it was something that the teachers were noticing a lot, that the children were complaining about dental pain, and they would complain about dental pain over a long period of time without, apparently, the parents being able to resolve the issue. So I work for the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and we reached out to the University of Maryland Dental School to help us kind of get an idea of how broad the problem was.
We knew various individual children were having dental problems, and we wanted to see how deep the problem was. So they came probably in 2007, started doing a screening for all of our kids, just to make sure that we could identify those children who needed dental care.
Some of the families, the children were also undocumented, and they needed special help in finding dental services that they could access. So after we did that first screening, we found that we had a whole cohort of children who were not eligible for medical assistance who had severe dental problems, so the University of Maryland Dental School applied for and received a grant to cover the dental care for those children.
At that time, there was also a great lack of pediatric dentists in the city, and so Clemencia Vargas from the Dental School helped steer our children through the dental school system and have them seen by the senior students there. So it gave us a place to refer children to.
Because otherwise, there were – there was a huge backlog, really, in appointments. It gave us an ability to make sure that the children who were not eligible for medical assistance had a way to be seen, and it also allowed us – myself and social work students to link our families in general who didn’t have dentists with dental care.
And so they’ve come every year since then and done the screening. They also do a presentation for parents, a bilingual presentation for parents on oral health care. They do presentations in the classrooms about oral health care for children. And then they also do something called Healthy Smiles, which is an eight-week, like one hour a week, after-school program for usually the younger kids, the kindergarteners, to teach them about oral health care through games and activities.
So once again, that’s been kind of a multi–pronged approach that we’ve used, and it has greatly improved the oral health in our building. So, and the first year we had a large cohort of children who needed immediate dental care, and now it’s usually one or two, and it’s not as serious as it was before.
Immigration status of families
We have no answer, really, for the documentation status issues of our families. We work with CASA of Maryland, and they come and they do presentations and help organize the parents, but that is kind of a – an area that we don’t have any control over, and that causes a lot of constant poverty and insecurity.
Some of our parents are taken into custody by ICE every year, and so that is an area of instability and fear and trauma that our families face every year, and there’s really little that we can do to kind of make any changes. It’s outside of our purview. So the only thing that we can do is make this as safe and welcoming and inclusive a space as possible.
Creating a soccer league from scratch
In the beginning, we did not have the sports at all in the school. We didn’t have gym or after-school sports programs, for example. So we had to create that ourselves. The – one of the great demands among our children and families was a soccer program. And we – so we went out and got a grant from the Ravens for a soccer program.
But then we discovered there was nowhere for us to play in the area, so instead of kind of shipping the kids by bus out to other areas, we used the same grant money in order to fund coaches for – at a couple of other schools in the area, so we created our own soccer league from scratch.
Also because the fields in Patterson Park during the after-school hours were basically empty, and they were only being used by adults like after 6:00. So that didn’t seem to make much sense. So we started our own league of area elementary schools, which is now five elementary schools, about 150 children.
And so each of the areas of need that we identified, we’ve kind of had to look around and find the partners that would help us, to some degree, and also build it from scratch ourselves. And I would say that the soccer league – and there’s now a baseball league as well and a tennis league – all of those things are kind of part of the culture of Southeast now in Patterson Park and will continue. But that took a lot of time and patience and organizing from the ground up.
Our charter school operator now runs the after-school program, and we have been able to kind of create a seamless process from the day school into the after-school, make sure that the funds for the after-school program are well-used, that there’s high-quality after-school staff, that there’s high-quality after-school programming. And that there’s enough real activities for the children that makes – that makes their time in the after-school program worthwhile instead of a babysitting program.
What makes a partnership successful
A partnership is successful, I guess, if it meets both the interests and expectations of those that it’s serving, say, the children and the parents usually, or someone in the school, and those who are volunteering or providing the service.
So it’s kind of a meeting of mutual interests. And usually what happens is that you have people who are very enthusiastic about helping children, and it can be in a variety of ways. It can be in terms of funding. It can be in terms of creating a tutoring program at Hopkins and organizing your fellow Hopkins students to tutor.
It can be in terms of just allowing us to use your space for an event. So whatever the – that partner has to offer, they are usually very enthusiastic about the idea of helping the community and helping children and need kind of an entree, a way of connecting with some – with a school who can make it happen.
And so if we’re able to make kind of a smooth connection between the partner and those who need the service, then that’s a successful partnership.
Some partnerships aren’t a good fit
So there are some partnerships where everyone is very well meaning but that the abilities of the partner and the needs of the school just don’t match, and one example was that there are some people who were willing to mentor students at their own businesses, but they are only able to do it during their own lunchtimes, and that’s when their businesses allow them to do it.
And of course here in the middle of the day, we have instruction going on, so we were kind of able to offer after-school time, but that doesn’t work for them. And so we talk about it, and we kind of say, “Well, in the future, if you’re able to do this during after-school hours, then we’d be very interested in talking again and that sort of thing.”
That’s how it works. Frequently those things then, as long as it’s handled pleasantly, do turn into other types of relationships down the line.
Helping a younger sibling get eyeglasses
This year we have interns again from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and they work a lot on helping families connect with services, especially health care services and mental health care services. So there was one of our interns who was – who was completely bilingual, and she was working with a mom on making sure that her daughter, who is a student here, was able to get a new eye exam and to get glasses.
And she noticed during her interactions with the mother that there was a younger child who seemed to have vision difficulties. And so she just – she had already kind of formed a relationship with this parent, so she started asking kind of gentle questions about the younger child and whether he’d ever been to pre-K or Head Start or anything like that.
And she found out that he had never been to school and was not receiving any services and had gotten basically disconnected from his medical care for his vision problems. And so through that identification, she was able to kind of bring the situation to me and to our IEP chair, our special education chair.
And we started a process of reconnecting them with his doctors, of finding out the extent of the vision difficulties, and next week he will have an IEP meeting in order to determine whether or not he needs kind of early intervention services to help him get ready for – to be in school. And it is so much better that that happens before the child is school age, you know?
There’s so much learning that happens in young children, and for them to be isolated from the services that the school system could offer, the services that the broader community could offer, would really set him back in terms of his future learning abilities. So we feel really positive about the fact that, through the daily interactions that we have with the families, we’re able to identify needs of also younger siblings or other children in the neighborhood who are disconnected from services frequently because of language and cultural barriers.
What we want to give our kids
What is it that, as parents for example, we would want our children to have in their lives? Of course we would want them to be healthy. Of course we would want them to have access then to doctors, to be able to see a therapist if necessary. We’d want them to come to school with their bellies full, right?
We’d also, though, want them to be able to be participating in sports and have the opportunity to kind of develop their talents as well, be they musical talents, instruments, theater, to kind of enrich their soul as well as keep their body healthy and have the home life that allows them to be able to come to school ready to learn.
And then of course there’s – if our own child would be behind in any given subject, we would want them to be able to get a little extra help, right, from a tutor, or extra academics or something like that. So all of those things is what we would like to provide for our children at Wolfe Street Academy as well.
And we are able to look at all that as a kind of a community school team with all the stakeholders involved and choose a couple of areas every year that we would like to work on in order to improve the services or the – and improve the quality of life for our students in those areas.