Ten to Teen: A System of Support

By Tanika Davis
Principal, November/December 2014

When Tetra Jackson took over of principal at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary/ Middle School, she knew her work would be challenging. The school is in a high-poverty area of East Baltimore, where vacant houses line the streets and 99.7 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Teacher and administrative turnover over the years contributed to instability, and in 2010, the school ranked 710th out of 848 elementary schools in the state, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

But even knowing all that, Jackson, now in her third year at the school, was unprepared for its condition. “When I inherited the school, there were rooms and offices that you couldn’t even open, because of all the junk, trash, outdated textbooks, outdated technology and broken furniture,” Jackson said. “It was a total mess.”

Add to that the challenges of managing the school’s middle-graders—a tough age group in any community—and Jackson wondered how she would make progress.

Fortunately, she had help. Thanks to a full-service community schools initiative called Elev8 Baltimore, Jackson found an able partner with skills, resources and, most importantly, helping hands: Alicia Thomas, whose title is officially Community School Coordinator/Site Manager, but whose role is much more. “I call her my A.P.” Jackson said. “I don’t know what I would do without her.” Community schools, generally, bring together a variety of community partners to provide social services and programming to students and families that supplement and enhance traditional academics. These can include health services, youth development activities, parent and community engagement, and after-school and summer instruction and enrichment. Elev8 Baltimore, a division of Humanim, Inc., is a part of a larger Elev8 network, which was launched in 2009 with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, specifically with middle-grades students in mind. The initiative has launched community-school partnerships in Baltimore, Chicago, New Mexico, and Oakland.

The Issues
Middle-school students in Baltimore, like adolescents everywhere, need particular guidance in such areas as self-esteem, goal-setting, and social interactions. But in Maryland’s largest city, youth come with bigger problems too, Jackson said.

“There are lots of vacant homes here; lots of transiency,” Jackson said. “Lots of our parents are unemployed or work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. A number of our parents have criminal records.”

Thomas and Elev8 Baltimore help Jackson with many crucial elements that directly align with her priorities for the school, such as attendance, climate, family and community engagement, and student achievement.

“Especially when it comes to attendance, Alicia [Thomas] really takes the lead, running reports, planning events, thinking about incentives—award ceremonies, banquets, trophies— identifying our loopholes, and working with the parents of students who are chronically absent,” Jackson said. “I work with the attendance committee of our School-Family Council to set the strategy for improving daily attendance. Alicia helps to execute that strategy.”

Student health also is an issue at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary/ Middle. Many parents lack health insurance or a primary care doctor, so student attendance is negatively affected by illness more often than in more well-off schools.

Thomas makes home visits to students who miss three consecutive days of school, Jackson said, and when illness is the cause, she helps connect families to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or other services.

“We have driven children to the clinic to get their immunizations,” Jackson said.

Empower Parents
Thomas hosts monthly “Parent Cafés” to brief them on issues such as understanding report cards, and preparing for parent-teacher conferences and statewide tests. She also provides seminars about financial literacy, workforce development, record expungement, and other practical services. She organizes food banks for families who struggle to buy food, plans advocacy rallies in the state capital of Annapolis, and helps parents apply for vouchers for free- or reduced-priced uniforms, which are mandatory in most Baltimore schools.

“Whatever the parents need, she does it,” Jackson said. “She empowers parents and helps them play a role in their children’s education.”

But there’s one single action that Thomas did for which Jackson will be forever grateful: She helped organize parents to lobby the school system to clean up the school building Jackson inherited.

“I had been sending emails for weeks to [the central office]. I was in here cleaning rooms myself,” Jackson said. “Alicia organized the PAC (Parent Advisory Committee) and prepped them on how to present to the CEO. They went and spoke on the school’s behalf, and within two weeks, I had a team of people from the district cleaning my school, purging old books, taking furniture out, and mopping, sweeping, and dusting.”

After the deep clean, Jackson was able to reorganize the school so that it is, in her words, “more conducive to learning.” She’s moved the middle graders to their own floor of the building, and afterschool programs— many of which are provided by Elev8 Baltimore—to a set of modular units on site.

“I’m so grateful that I had a partner in that effort,” Jackson said. “Things work so much more smoothly now.”

Principles for Principals
Jackson is sold that community schools partnerships can work, if certain elements are in place. For example, Jackson believes principals should:

  • Have a strategic plan. “Make sure your needs are identified and prioritized.”
  • Be clear about your goals. “Let the partner know where you want to go and work together to collaborate and get there.”
  • Make them a real part of the school. “There’s no Elev8 over here and Dr. Rayner Browne over there. We function seamlessly.”
  • Participate in their activities. “When Elev8 went to Annapolis, I went with them. And when they needed a judge in one of their afterschool cooking classes, I was the judge.”
  • Establish a good relationship with the point person. “Alicia and I talk daily about the work. We plan weekly. And we celebrate the work together. She is totally immersed in everything we do.”

“This kind of partnership is invaluable,” Jackson said. “It helps to compensate for what the system lacks. It provides a resource that otherwise would not be provided to families. I don’t want to think about what I’d do if I had to do without it.”

Tanika Davis is a communications consultant with The Hatcher Group.


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