At City Connects, we don’t just connect students to services, we connect them to a customized set of services and enrichment opportunities that meet their individual needs.
At the heart of this work is a core task: building trust with families.
Coordinators use this combination of customization and trust to help families through challenging times. This means learning how best to engage and support kids; cutting through bureaucratic red tape; and sharing insights and resources with parents. Coordinators might help a family get beds or guide immigrants who don’t speak English through the healthcare system. Our goal is to strengthen families so that students have everything they need to thrive.
This work starts early. And it continues for as long as students are at school.
“It takes time to warm the parents up to the fact that I and everyone in the school is supporting the family and not attacking parents for not parenting perfectly,” says Julie Vogel, the coordinator at the Paul A. Dever Elementary School.
Part of Vogel’s strategy is to reach out to parents about positive things. It might be getting clothes from Cradles to Crayons or sharing other information. “I get to be a positive person reaching out to them, and that usually starts a positive relationship.”
Vogel works with the school nurse and teachers to understand students’ needs and address their problems. Teachers also let her know when they are meeting with parents, so that she can come at the end and introduce herself. And Vogel’s open door policy means that her colleagues know that they can always come see her.
So when the nurse brought a child to Vogel’s office who was worried about the fact that his parent was going to be incarcerated, Vogel acted quickly. She offered to refer the child to a therapist, and she asked if the child wanted to participate in a mentoring group staffed by students from Boston College High School, which is just down the street. The child said yes to the mentoring program, and Vogel is working with the child’s mother to set up counseling.
At the Thomas Edison K-8 School in Boston, 49 percent of the students are English Language Learners. And as we’ve blogged, some immigrant families at the school have struggled.
“With all that’s going on in our world, our families are very much affected by it,” Shelby Riley, the school’s coordinator said. “We had a lot of kids in fear of being deported.”
To build a sense of community, Riley worked with a team of teachers to organize a multicultural event to celebrate diversity. Rather than feeding into fear, “we wanted to do more of the positive, the celebrating, and letting kids be proud.”
Each classroom adopted a country that was represented by a student at the Edison.
“We had this around-the-world event where students ‘traveled’ to each classroom. They had passports and they explored the Edison world,” Riley said. “In some classrooms, everyone dressed up, and brought food, and they were so proud to share that food, and talk about their culture and what the country is like.”
It was a giant geography and culture lesson that emphasized students’ strengths, engaged English Language Learners, and drew families into the life of the school.
Our community partners also play an important role in building trust with families. At the Dever, for example, Vogel has brought in the local nonprofit Rosie’s Place. Each week a Rosie’s staff person runs a drop-in clinic for parents providing help with housing, utility assistance, food, and clothes.
Another partner, Catie’s Closet, a nonprofit organization based in Dracut, Mass., delivers clothes to the school that parents can have to build children’s wardrobes. Children can also go into the closet during the day to replace the clothes they’re wearing if they get dirty or torn.
One of our longstanding community partners, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, provides mentors to students also hold in-school meetings to help children whose parents have limited English skills.
The more we do this work, the more it pays off.
As Mary Callahan, a City Connects program manager who supervises the coordinators in four Ohio schools, explains, “the longer the coordinators are there, the more open families are to receiving services. City Connects becomes part of the culture of the school.”