How Do You Create Relationships?

Jennie Carey knows everyone. At least it seems that way. She’s been the L.A. Education Partnership’s Community School Coordinator at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies since the school’s beginning in 2011; before that, she did the same job at nearby Sylmar High. “The overarching idea is that my job is to find out what are the barriers to student success and come up with strategies to try to overcome them,” she tells me as we talk in her office, an empty classroom whose walls are covered with giant post-its scrawled with notes from meetings. “I very much view my job as a strategy creator.”

Jennie started as a teacher, but after four years in the classroom, went to Harvard for a Master’s in School Leadership. “I liked the idea of studying leadership from the place of being a non-authority,” she says, a view that permeates her role here, where her main job is to connect people, listen and create infrastructures that allow constructive conversations. “My question is, how do you create relationships?

Social class in Los Angeles has complex and subtle variations. The largely Latino community around the Cesar Chavez school complex, located in the northeast San Fernando Valley where the urban sprawl meets the desert near the intersection of the 5 and the 118, could probably best be described as working poor. 80% of students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, average for the LAUSD. The nearby town is small and quiet, its old-fashioned main street anchored by a JC Penney’s that is now closed. A large swap meet sometimes occupies the lot next to the school.

“We have the constantly working parents,” Jennie tells me. When I interviewed several students as part of their career day, all of them mentioned that their parents had not completed high school. This year, out of a graduating class of 100, 73 students were eligible for a four-year college, an impressive percentage for a high-poverty community.

Part of the reason four-year-college applications are so numerous is the partnership Jennie coordinates between the school and College Summit, a non-profit that provides college and career curriculum along with a peer leadership program to develop a college-going culture. According to College Summit’s website, students in underserved communities who participate in the program are 25% more likely to enroll in college and significantly more likely to stay, perhaps due to College Summit’s emphasis on developing persistence.

“Jennie’s been fabulous,” says Kevin Sully, who taught at Locke for five years before becoming a College Summit School Partnership Manager. “She makes sure everything’s taken care of, she really knows the kids. There’s something about having that small degree of separation, it really helps. If we need volunteers, there’s no redundancy. She knows the principal, she knows the school, she knows what they need. I think that’s why our program there has been so successful,” he says, adding that at other schools without good communication, he finds that “sometimes there’s a disconnect,” making the program less effective.

College Summit is only one of up to 20 partnerships Jennie coordinates on campus at any given time.  She maintains the school’s connection with youth and family counseling services, a part-time health and wellness professional on campus, a youth council, academic intervention, tutoring programs and after-school arts programs. After several incidents of girl-girl bullying, she now coordinates a partnership with a group called the Womyn’s Circle, where girls can learn to air their feelings constructively. To make sure programming is not overlapping, she runs a monthly “30-minute meeting” where representatives from various agencies use a kind of speed-meeting protocol to keep everyone up to date and ask for help as needed.

All of the programming is in response to student needs, which Jennie monitors continually through student surveys and conversations with teachers. One of her most successful experiences was at Sylmar, when the assistant principal saw a sharp escalation in the number of students caught with drugs on campus. “He said, drug use has doubled, we have to do something. We had a meeting with the community, parents, kids, teachers, the police, our community partner for rehab. The kids sat in a fishbowl” (a teacher term for a small inner circle observed by others) “and talked about what was going on. We realized we were over-referring to rehab when what we really needed was to create a strategy on campus.” Drug use went down and partnership money was spent more efficiently.

The benefits to students from programs like this are obvious, but partnerships of this kind are also enormously beneficial to teachers because these days, with staffing at a minimum, this kind of work is generally offloaded onto teachers on top of their already-packed schedules, leaving us to attempt to provide what our students desperately need. At my former school, for example, the college counselors each had a caseload of 275 on top of handling all scheduling; they were also the de facto therapists on campus. Though they were often heroic—Leti Reyes made home visits and would march into the admissions office of a campus that had failed to appreciate one of her students, sometimes staying until they changed their minds—much of the workload by necessity spilled onto the teachers, who crammed it into advisory classes and struggled to meet the needs of every student.

Inevitably, despite everyone’s best efforts, students fell through the cracks. I can say for myself that having an SAT class added to my three existing “preps,” or class preparations, nearly put me over the edge. At some charter schools I visit, teachers are required to lead after-school enrichment activities in addition to teaching a full day, which may also be related to the 50% annual burnout rate in city charter high schools. The idea of having these services and activities come to campus and having an expert staff member to coordinate all of it is, I think, essential; otherwise, we put schools in the position of having to choose between teacher retention and meeting the needs of their students.

I leave my interview with Jennie feeling hopeful. There are no magic answers, but at least the pervasive, deep, non-academic needs of students in poverty are being addressed, not just here but in the national conversation about education. I’m dying of curiosity to see Youth Policy Institute’s model in action next week to see what it looks like when a massive influx of federal money creates new social programs around a school.

All I can say is that over and over, whenever I encounter a successful classroom, school, staff member or teacher, the word that comes up most often is “conversation.” Systems work, but only when they’re a response to the real needs of the people in the room, who change from institution to institution and, individually, from year to year and even day to day. How can we create a system strong enough to meet the needs of thousands of students, but flexible enough to adjust to the changing lives of the real people in it?

 

 

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