1. Tell us about your community school. How has the community school strategy impacted your students, families, and community?

The Renaissance Academy High School community has been through many ups and downs but through it all, our central vision of student empowerment and social justice leadership has remained ever strong. Principal Rowe and the staff at Renaissance believe in the transformative nature of deep and lasting relationships between caring adults and students. We believe that students must feel a sense of belonging and safety at school before they can begin to unpack their personal histories in a way that enables healing. Then, academic success and future planning may flow naturally with the support of a carefully curated menu of programming and supports.

The Community School Team at Renaissance manages over 40 partnerships in order to leverage resources to serve students, families, and community members in six key impact categories: health and social supports, academic enrichment, community development, youth development, college and career, and family engagement.

Every community school is tailored to the unique needs of a specific group of people; at Renaissance it’s about creating and maintaining a family vibe where each students knows that he or she can be him or herself and seek help when needed.

2. Why do you do what you do?

All people deserve the feeling and the reality of self-determination in their lives. People should be able to exercise informed consent in all things. We all know that there are many historical and contemporary man-made reasons why this is not the case for so many people. I work as a Community School Coordinator to help create the conditions through which every individual can build the life he or she wishes to lead.

3. Congratulations! You will be receiving the inaugural Coordinator Leadership Award at the upcoming Community Schools National Forum! One of the main reasons why you were selected was because of your leadership and perseverance to keep your school open when the school board announced Renaissance Academy would close in 2016. Tell us about that experience and how you worked with your families and student to keep the school open.

First I would just like to acknowledge that I am simply part of an amazing team. I could not support students if it weren’t for my lead agency team, Promise Heights, or my school team, Renaissance Academy. I am just one of many fierce change agents working for equity in community schools every day – and I never forget it. I am honored to be receiving this award.

Our fight to keep Renaissance Academy High School open was so important to us because we believe that we serve a very specific high-need student population that is not served many other places in Baltimore City. For us, it was truly a question of equity and access to education. We prioritized providing opportunities for students, family members, and community members to tell their own individual stories about how Renaissance Academy and Promise Heights had changed their lives at community meetings, faculty meetings, school board meetings, and in written petitions, letters, and posters.

The stories were diverse – some students mentioned special exposure field trips or emergency mental health counseling; some family members mentioned support after deaths or house fires or the individualized attention given to their child with special education needs; some community members mentioned the community food pantry or the opportunities to build relationships with young people.

Many people ignore the realities of our students’ lives. Denial is a powerful tool in sustaining the status quo of inequity. The power of the truth in our students’ stories made it impossible for the School Board Members to deny the power in the community school strategy at Renaissance. I am so grateful for all of the students, family members, and community members that chose to share personal stories in order to sustain our school community; they created an irrefutable narrative of love, family, and growth that made it impossible to close our school.

4. In 2015, Renaissance Academy lost a couple of students due to violence in the community. What partnerships did you coordinate provide the necessary supports and services to students dealing with trauma and to bring healing to the school?

In the wake of each of these losses, the school community was devastated and angry. Our first response was always to listen to and to just be with each other. At Renaissance, we used Restorative Practices to create safe spaces for students and school staff to support each other in processing each loss with the support and guidance from mental health professionals.

We leaned on partnerships with mental health providers: Contemporary Services and Villa Maria as well as grief support specialists at Roberta’s House. We were also lucky enough to be able to access the support of Safe Streets Baltimore to promote mediation and reduce the risk of retaliation. We also planned several art expression opportunities to assist students to process the losses in a nonverbal way.

I relied on my amazing team of Promise Heights social workers to assist my creation of school-based trauma response plans and to ensure that they were always based in trauma research and trauma responsive interventions. We aimed to provide support not only to students but also to teachers, who were grieving but also in charge of absorbing the grief from their students. 

Most importantly, though, at Renaissance we always try to teach students to understand the current condition of their neighborhoods, and Baltimore City at large, within a historical, social, and political context. We try to teach students to connect the micro to the macro when it comes to social change. We tell the truth to our students about why their lives are the way they are, acknowledge that it is not fair, and then to empower them to change it in the future.

5. What self-care tips would you give other coordinators to make sure they’re taking care of themselves as they work through trauma alongside their school community?

Oh my goodness, this is one of the most important considerations if you want to last as a direct service professional in an area with a high level of trauma, which is many community school communities.

Tip 1: Create a home that you love with people that you love. Find people, spaces, and activities that can help to fill you back up after a hard draining day and make time for them, every single day.
Tip 2: Go home. Do not work all the time – it will never be finished. Give it absolutely everything you have each work day and then go home and give those you love the time and attention that they deserve.
Tip 3: Understand and accept your sphere of influence and focus on that.
Tip 4: Never take it personally.

6. You’ll be presenting at the upcoming Forum in Baltimore at the roundtable “’But what is it really?’ On-boarding staff, families, and partners to the Community School strategy.” Can you give us a little teaser about what people will learn during that session? What else are you looking forward to at the Forum?

The Promise Heights team would like to showcase how true change happens from the ground up. Students, families, and teachers must be the catalyst for lasting change at their schools and in their communities. We view a large part of our job to be teaching individuals the skills and tactics necessary for advocacy, organizing, and for transforming personal stories into power. This task requires more listening than speaking, more planning than doing, and more behind the scenes grunt work than glory. It is humbling collaborative process.

I am looking forward to meeting high school students from across the country from other community schools and learning from them. I would like to know what they value most about their school’s strategy – especially when it comes to college and career transitions for graduating seniors-- so that I can continue improving the work at Renaissance.

7. Can you tell us a story about a student, family or community that you directly impacted as a coordinator?

There have been many students in my tenure at Renaissance that I will carry in my heart forever and that have reshaped the way I view the world. The student that jumps to mind today is one that I have grown to know over this school year. Let’s call her Kiley. She is always smiling and kind and is a loving mother to her four-year-old daughter. Kiley participates in our mom’s club and has taken our Circle of Security parenting class through which she learned how to create positive attachment. She entered Renaissance behind on her credits but is diligently taking online courses and extended day courses and is now on track to graduate this June.

Last week, she broke down in my office and disclosed some previously unreported and very serious abuse. I remained with her for the day, talking with her about her experience and providing emotional support. I explained my reporting duties and what could potentially come from the report. We discussed common reactions and thought patterns that can result in young women following this type of abuse. She agreed that she would like to be connected to long term therapy services to help her process the abuse.

I took her to her first trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy appointment. I waited in the waiting room during her appointment and drove her home afterwards. She explained that she felt like a weight had been lifted off of her chest for the first time since she could remember. She also texted me that night to tell me that she had woken up in tears, which was a nightly occurrence for her, but that she has tried her new “box breathing” technique and had been able to calm herself down and to get back to sleep in under an hour. She was proud of this little example of progress and she deserves to be proud.

So many of the students we serve are up against unbelievable odds, myriad obstacles that stem from pervasive poverty – physical things like being hungry, or cold, or tired. And then again, so many students are also survivors of non-physical odds like emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to love and protect them and teach them about what they should expect from the world. And still, many of them manage to wake up every day and get themselves and their siblings to school. It is our responsibility to listen to their hints and to pick up on their cues so that we can remind them that this is not OK and that they deserve safety and support and that we can help them find it. There are so many factors that we cannot change about our students’ lives. We cannot change where they live or with whom they live or the dangers of where they walk but we can change how they feel when they are around us. We should aim to create respite from and contrast to the world they experience outside of school.

8. What’s one quote that you live by?

Sorry, I can’t pick just one! These are the ones I use to reframe most often.

“Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”  ― Eleanor Brownn

Of course, self-care is extremely important in all positions of service. Community School Coordinators are working for the school as a whole, the lead agency as a whole, the community as some whole, individual teachers, students, and families all at the same time. You will constantly be succeeding and failing and that can be exhausting. The work will never be finished. Saying ‘no’ is the ultimate path to self-preservation. Find what fills you back up and make time for at least 30 minutes of it every day.

“While washing dishes, you might be thinking about the tea you’re going to drink afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means that you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

So much of what we do as coordinators is prep work or behind the scenes organization. We all know that it takes 10 fold more time to plan an event than it does to execute it. We have to remember to enjoy all of the stages for what they are. Where ever we are, whatever we are doing – that is all there is.

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Comment by Damion J. Morgan on April 17, 2018 at 4:48pm

Congratulations Hallie on doing exceptional community schools work. I look forward to meeting you in Baltimore.

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