Coordinator Spotlight

Name: Erin Velez
School: Rosa Parks Elementary
Location: Tulsa, OK
Grades: PK-5 / 850 Students / 95% FRL
Years as coordinator: 7

1. Tell us about your community school.

Rosa Parks Elementary opened as a community school in August of 2006. After seeing their success of the community school pilot at Roy Clark Elementary, the district adopted that model for our school. The building was designed with a community health clinic in place. Teachers and administrators were hired that had a passion for working with students in Title I schools. Partnerships were formed before the building even opened. In a community school, you must focus on the whole child, knowing that all of the pieces have to fit together for the child to be successful. Rosa Parks Elementary had a head start because we opened with that vision.

Does that mean that it's easy? I wish! We work every day to confront the challenges that arise. We are constantly holding up the mirror to find out how we can improve or change to connect with students and families. We believe that we must work with families and communities to ensure every child reaches his or her full potential. It is a partnership.

2. Why do you do what you do?

I do what I do because every child deserves a fair shot to succeed. Have you seen the graphic with three children trying to see over a fence? One child is tall enough to not need a box. One child needs one box to see over the fence. The last child needs two boxes to see over that fence. Part of what we do as coordinators is to put those support boxes in place, and it looks different for every child. Some need to be connected with a counselor or therapist, some need to be paired with a mentor, some need to be placed in an afterschool program that sparks their interest, and some need food on the weekends. Different combinations help each child get to a place where they can truly learn, and the needs are always changing. However, part of the problem is the fence itself. How do we tear down the fence so that all children can be successful no matter what?

I vividly remember the first time our principal asked this question to the staff at Rosa Parks. Over 50 teachers and support staff gathered in the art room one morning. Our principal stood in front of the room and asked, "What barriers are we putting up?" We often think of the barriers that exist, but thinking about what barriers we were putting up was new.

Sometimes the fence is built long before a student gets to school. Poverty and life circumstances can make it hard for a child to see over it. Last week, I stood with a father who was trying to figure out how he was going to pay his rent to avoid eviction when his paycheck was coming after the deadline his apartment complex gave him. He had taken hamburgers from his fast food job to feed his second grade daughter dinner that night. He said to me, “I don’t like to ask for help, but she’s my first priority. I’m doing this for her.”

We can't control so much of what we are up against, so let's look at what we can control and make sure that we are doing everything it takes to help a child succeed. This child is now enrolled in afterschool programs so that the dad doesn’t have to leave his hourly job early to pick her up every day. She is also taking food from our backpack program home every night to lessen the burden of the cost of food. If we keep working together, the fence begins to come down.

3. What is the most rewarding part of being a coordinator?

The most rewarding part of being a coordinator is seeing a former student graduate. We host a graduation party for students who attended our elementary school. You should see the smiles on their faces when they walk back into the building. They are so proud of themselves, and we are too. Many of them have fought hard to get there.

4. What are your biggest challenges?

My challenges as a coordinator have changed over time, but the one challenge that remains constant is helping families get and stay out of poverty. Resources are scattered and change often. Organizations that offer help are often only open while families are at work. Families are working long hours for minimal pay and are struggling to survive, let alone thrive.

I work to connect families with the resources they need in a place where there isn't public transportation and getting what you need quickly is tough. Every community and every school has their own unique challenges. Our school works because we (parents, teachers, and support staff) have a common understanding: we love these kids and will do whatever it takes to help them reach their full potential.

5. If you could have one wish granted that would make your job easier, what would it be? 

One wish is hard. There are so many things that could tear down barriers. Pay everyone (including teachers) a livable wage, improve access to health and mental health care, provide high quality early education to every child, offer extended learning opportunities to all children (regardless of their ability to pay). I could go on. I guess my one wish is only to be able to coordinate these efforts, not fight for them.

6. What is the one thing you want to accomplish the most by the end of the school year?

By the end of the school year, I want to create a mentoring program that allows companies to adopt a classroom. This will better connect our community with the students in our school and it will give students additional role models. We will be piloting this project with our Partner in Education in January 2017. Departments within their organization will work with one classroom to provide support to students and teachers. We are fortunate to have a partner who believes not only in financial support, but also in supporting students and teachers through positive relationships.

7. What’s one piece of advice you would give to other coordinators?

I'm a recovering perfectionist. When I first started this job, the stress of it all was overwhelming. I remember being so worried about everything. Do we have enough food for this event? Will anyone show up? Is it enough? Am I enough?

I have a great leader to thank for noticing this about me and helping me understand that the only thing I can control is myself. You don't know how many people will show up to your literacy night, so take comfort in the fact that the right ones will be there. You cannot pay the rent for every family who is late on their payment. Mistakes will happen, but you can't make a mistake that someone else hasn't already lived through...and survived. So my advice is to love students, families, and yourself. A little bit of grace goes a long way in this career.

Views: 221

Comment by Janice Scott on November 15, 2016 at 10:10am

Thank you Erin for sharing your advice, everything doesn't always go as planned. I have learned that being able to roll with the unexpected and problem solve on the spot is essential. I love the idea of businesses adopting a classroom. I may look in to that.

Comment by Damion J. Morgan on November 16, 2016 at 2:33pm

Great spotlight Erin.

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