A Year in the Life: Community Services
We are releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them.
Over the past year, the functions of school and community have merged like never before. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the role that schools play as community hubs, providing a range of essential services beyond learning (such as nutritious food and wellness checks). Additionally, with homes serving as de facto classrooms during an extended period of remote learning, the pandemic brought renewed attention to how family and community members work together to support the learning process. Both of these elements—schools’ increased role in delivering community services and family/community members’ increased roles in assisting learning—emphasized the need for consistent and clear communication among the diverse individuals and institutions that play a part in supporting students.
Understanding the past year, especially in light of the inequities exposed by the pandemic, requires examining how district and school leaders engaged with the community at large—including families, community organizations, and other city departments—and what lessons can be drawn from this time. These latest dispatches in our “Year in the Life” series examine two key components of community-school connections: communications and community services. They are grounded in a series of conversations with stakeholders from Somerville, but they are meant to elevate themes and ideas relevant to all schools and districts during this most unusual school year—and to point a way forward for the summer and beyond.
To write this dispatch, we developed targeted interview and focus group questions for various stakeholders and conducted a series of virtual interviews and focus groups over the course of several weeks. These conversations included interviews with five members of the Multilingual Learner Parent Advisory Council, five other district leaders, two school committee members, two City of Somerville staff members, and five out-of-school-time providers/community partners. We spoke with two parents to gather additional context, and we reviewed 44 responses from a parent survey conducted last month in English and Spanish. Following these conversations, we analyzed the responses to identify common themes.
Key Themes on Community-School Connections
The section below highlights our findings on community services in Somerville amid the pandemic. In this and our companion piece on communications, two key themes appear that came up consistently throughout all of the interviews we conducted: trust and coordination.
The pandemic brought inequities into sharper focus everywhere, and Somerville was no exception. School district and community partners were particularly intent to address inequitable access to information and resources for historically marginalized families, including immigrant families, lower-income families, and families of color. In order to build connections with these families, it was critical to have a baseline level of trust in place: much of the information that flowed out to families, as well as connections to essential resources, came through pre-existing relationships with other parents, school-based liaisons, the district’s Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC), and community-based providers. The SFLC had been empowering parents to step into leadership roles (such as parent leaders in English language classes) prior to the pandemic, and these individuals served as connectors and community liaisons over the past year, encouraging other parents to increase their presence and voice in their student’s education. The SFLC itself was also able to leverage a strong foundation of community involvement to serve as a central hub for parents looking for translation of district news, information on where to pick up food, and other critical connections.
Distributing information and resources to address family needs required not only trust, but also coordination between stakeholders. The old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” was extremely apparent in Somerville’s story over the past year. Collaboration was vital to meet the needs of a range of community members, especially given the added obstacle of not being able to gather in person. Leaders from the City and school district, as well as a wide variety of community partners, all had a role in Somerville’s response to COVID. Schools offered remote learning services, while out-of-school-time providers created enriching summer and after-school programming for students. Community partners provided anything from grocery gift cards to diapers to art supplies and toys for families. Streamlining the provision of services required significant behind-the-scenes organization, along with a commitment to leveraging the strengths of each partner in service of the whole.
Read on to see how these core themes of trust and coordination played out through the provision of community services in Somerville during the pandemic.
Somerville is home to many community-based organizations that have been serving the city since long before the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, the resulting crisis energized these organizations and the district to come together to problem-solve across sectors. Having built strong relationships and trust over the years, stakeholders were able to work together efficiently to relay information about Somerville’s response to COVID and provide necessary services to residents. Coordinating in a time of urgency represented a massive administrative and logistical challenge, but community organizations stepped up to support families and students, while city and district officials helped fill in gaps with services and messaging to the community.
Without preexisting relationships and a plan for leveraging the connections and strengths of multiple agencies, the flow of information and resources would have been much more limited, leaving many residents to face the ramifications of the pandemic—such as food and housing insecurity—by themselves. Beyond providing these essential services, the community also came together to develop and offer beneficial programming for young people and adults alike, including out-of-school-time (OST) opportunities for students, professional development for educators, and English classes for parents/guardians. This intricate web of programs and services required trust and coordination among stakeholders across the city, and it offers important lessons learned for Somerville and other districts across the state.
Internal Coordination across City Departments
Responding to a universal crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic requires a universal response. Rather than working on its own to support students and families in accessing essential services, Somerville Public Schools worked in close collaboration with other City of Somerville departments to plan and execute a coordinated response to community needs. In some cities, cross-sector work might lead to conflicts or territorialism between departments, but city and district leaders emphasized that there was “no turf war with cross-sector work in Somerville.” Instead, multiple offices worked together to support families—particularly immigrant families and those facing significant challenges with access to food, rental assistance, and other basic needs.
One key organizing body within the city was the Children’s Cabinet, which the city’s cradle-to-career alliance SomerPromise has been convening since 2017. Support for forming a Children’s Cabinet came from the By All Means initiative, out of Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab (which was established by the Rennie Center’s founder and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville). By All Means works with communities across the country, including Somerville, to implement and study a Children’s Cabinet approach, in which city leaders bring together the heads of child-serving agencies in order to build systems that better support vulnerable communities. Somerville’s mayor has been a strong advocate for this work over the past half-decade, while SomerPromise has served as the backbone organization to promote consistent communication among members. This investment in internal collaboration produced strong relationships across departments that predated the pandemic, allowing leaders to pivot and meet community needs more effectively once the pandemic struck.
Shortly after schools shut down last March, the city began convening another group as part of the city’s emergency COVID response, the Immigrant Services Unit (ISU). Multiple district leaders and community partners noted how essential the ISU has been to help coordinate service delivery for immigrant families around the city. As one leader noted, there might be five people from different city departments (e.g., SomerViva: Office of Immigrant Affairs, Health and Human Services, Somerville Office of Housing Stability, Somerville Public Schools) working with the same family, so the ISU served as a critical forum for cross-referencing where and how services would be delivered. The group of 16 core ISU members and up to 20 additional members continue to meet twice weekly to discuss and coordinate responses on overcoming vaccine hesitancy, ongoing basic needs support, and other topics.
One of the most necessary and effective arenas for internal coordination was early childhood. This field naturally involves significant crossover between public and private entities, as early learners may participate in Somerville Public Schools preK programs, Head Start, private preschool programs, community/family child care, or some combination of those services. As part of the city’s coordinated response to COVID, district-wide listservs were established for families with children under age five, and city service providers aimed to connect with families in multiple ways: SomerBaby virtual home visits to welcome and support families (including a drop-off of materials such as an infant first-aid kit and resource information), distribution of literacy materials to homes, online play-groups, deliveries of protective equipment for caregivers, and more. As a city official noted, “Because we’re working so closely on the birth-to-school entry pipeline, there are no clear limits between which parents the schools and the city should be serving.”
- Make it a regular practice to convene department heads working on issues related to children and families, as through a Children’s Cabinet. Use these meetings to build relationships and develop a stronger sense of buy-in between members.
- Ensure that collaboration between offices does not just occur at the top levels; front-line staff in multiple offices benefit from opportunities to meet with and learn from each other, and this can surface opportunities for streamlining services.
- Speak with families to learn about their interactions with various departments and agencies. Use these conversations as data collection opportunities to help identify areas for improvement.
Supporting Essential Needs
It is well known that schools serve as more than just a space for academic learning. Schools and the staff within them provide a multitude of services outside of learning, such as transportation, food security, enrichment, and health services, all critical for a child’s ability to thrive. Thankfully, despite the closure of schools due to COVID-19, many of those resources were not lost for Somerville families and students. The district was able to coordinate both the drop-off and pick-up of basic supplies like food and clothing, as well as stimulating resources such as art supplies and toys, meeting a range of needs and illustrating the central role of the school system in providing essential services.
Food insecurity was exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was an issue that was present in the community beforehand, as seen in pre-existing programs such as Food for Free’s Backpack Program (where a local nonprofit partnered with Somerville schools to send students home with food for the weekend). Once the pandemic hit, one of the district’s first responses was to set up distribution sites where families could pick up three days’ worth of meals at a time. Staff from the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC), the district’s office of family and community engagement, partnered with groups such as The Welcome Project, Food for Free, and the Somerville Food Security Coalition to increase access to food throughout the week.
Together, these groups supported physical food distribution, connected families to the city’s food pantry, and offered grocery store gift cards to families for whom individual meals were not enough. School-based family liaisons worked relentlessly to connect with families to help them access these and other resources; this level of access made them one of the most important bridges to food security efforts across the city. Liaisons also partnered with the state Department of Transitional Assistance to provide targeted outreach to families in need and make sure they were aware of what was available to them, such as federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) benefits (which help families purchase food using pre-loaded payment cards).
Access to clothing was another significant need in the community, particularly when the winter rolled around. The SFLC and dedicated community volunteers oversee a Community Clothing Closet that has continued to take in donations throughout the pandemic to provide clothes to high-needs families. This initiative draws on the efforts of individuals and leaders across the city (in fact, one School Committee member had arranged for a clothing donation to be dropped off at her home during our interview with her).
Community organizations were also invaluable to supporting clothing access in the city over the past year. In particular, a local nonprofit called The Beautiful Stuff Project (in collaboration with the SFLC, Cradles to Crayons, the city’s SomerPromise alliance, and community volunteers) organized an intricate system for providing diapers to families in need. Community members could drop off donations of diapers at the Beautiful Stuff Project’s storefront, where staff packaged the diapers and prepared them for distribution. These diapers were provided to families at food distribution sites every Wednesday throughout the year—as the founder of The Beautiful Stuff Project noted, “We never missed a week, and we’re still going.” Staff and volunteers also did door-drop deliveries to those in quarantine or wary of going out to public places. Between on-site pick-up and home deliveries, hundreds of thousands of diapers have been made accessible to families across the city throughout the pandemic, and the diaper distribution has become a well-known staple in the community.
Somerville Public Schools (particularly the SFLC) also helped share information about resources available through community partners such as The Welcome Project (TWP). Based in Somerville but with reach to four surrounding communities, TWP offers a variety of programming and resources, particularly for immigrant families. Last year, with many community members unable to pay for basic needs, TWP developed an immigrant assistance fund to support families financially by covering utility payments, offering rental assistance, and providing food gift cards. Due to years of building relationships within the community, parent leaders from the SFLC were able to help spread the word about this fund, maximizing awareness and access to critical financial support.
- Identify and catalog community partners and seek to leverage each one’s individual strengths for supporting basic needs.
- Use school spaces in new ways to integrate existing services such as a clothing closet or food pantry within the school building. Make sure these services are offered in discrete ways that students can access without drawing attention, especially in the upper grades.
- Regularly convene student support teams to review individual students in order to identify key needs and opportunities for enrichment, then follow up on this review by linking students and their families with community resources.
Providing Out-of-School-Time Programming
Over the past year, community partners have played a critical role in coordinating and providing out-of-school-time (OST) programming for students. While much of this work took place outside of the school or district context, Somerville Public Schools staff are seeking to deepen the partnerships with OST providers in new ways as they look to this summer and beyond.
During the pandemic, community partners were eager to jump in and provide whatever services they could to support Somerville youth and families. One such organization, the Somerville Media Center (SMC), sought to use its skills with media and technology to connect with families and support schools in doing so. Prior to the pandemic, SMC offered youth media programs teaching filmmaking and photography; when the pandemic hit, the gap in digital literacy in the community and the need to continue supporting youth development became clear. Along with providing professional development for teachers on using Zoom, assisting with virtual graduation ceremonies, and creating videos for asynchronous learning, SMC staff also focused on providing online OST opportunities for young people.
SMC organized check-ins, tutorials, and movie and game nights in the spring, providing students with regular chances to connect and learn. Then, shortly before last summer, the Somerville Education Foundation granted SMC $30,000 to offer summer programming for students, and staff (particularly the then-Youth Media Program Director) ran with the opportunity. They called upon community contacts and leveraged their strong relationships from the city’s Out-of-School-Time Task Force and the Youth Workers Network to identify partners to help develop curriculum for summer engagement and learning. Community partners like Parts and Crafts, Somerville Arts for Youth, Parkour Generations, the Center for Teen Empowerment, and many more came together as part of a team of 16 providers to offer a summer catalogue of virtual activities. The district sent out robocalls to get the word out, partners conducted outreach through social media and email, and SomerCamp 2020 was off.
Over the course of six weeks, more than 350 students took advantage of this free opportunity to pursue their interests, whether in arts and crafts, journalism, filmmaking, robotics, coding, boxing, animals, or other fields. Courses were easy to access, with a simple registration form and kid-friendly menu of options to choose from. Families received weekly emails regarding their student’s schedule and activities they were engaging in, as well as a feedback form seeking their (and their students’) perspectives on the previous week’s programming. Somerville teachers and parents also had the chance to lead some of the SomerCamp activities, as did a group of teenagers who were hired and trained to lead online workshops on topics ranging from mythology to comedy to cooking.
SomerCamp2020 was a success in various ways. Students were actively engaged (and kept their cameras on), getting to explore their passions or spark new ones while continuing to develop relationships with one another. Morning meetings were a strong draw for many, offering the chance to participate in community-building sessions across all ages. The free, virtual nature of the programming allowed students to drop in at their convenience. It also increased accessibility for students across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and ability lines, allowing for students from various backgrounds to come together when they might not otherwise have had this opportunity. Teen staff were able to earn money while planning and leading sessions to share their interests with younger students. On weekly surveys, families frequently expressed gratitude for feeling connected to the community in ways that they had not since the pandemic began. At the close of the summer, parents and caretakers attended an end-of-summer showcase that highlighted students’ summer accomplishments, including their own films and photos.
During the school year, from October to April, a smaller group of six community partners continued to offer online after-school programming for students in grades K-8, though “Zoom fatigue” meant that the number of participants tended to be lower than over the summer. While some parents argued that the schools and district could have done more to provide in-person enrichment opportunities (e.g., outdoor classes), the ongoing courses coordinated and hosted by community partners meant that students could at least access virtual spaces to explore their interests and engage with peers in new ways outside the school day.
Somerville Public Schools staff (including the brand-new OST Director, who was formerly Youth Media Program Director at SMC) are currently preparing a variety of learning experiences for this summer. One program, the “Summer of YES,” will build on last year’s SomerCamp by working in close partnership with community providers—in-person sessions will be hosted at Somerville’s Argenziano school, and the district is hiring some core staff, but community-based OST partners will develop and provide hands-on, project-based STEAM activities. Beyond the summer, district staff are seeking to continue investing in and formalizing connections with community organizations. Other priorities include amplifying youth voice in the planning and execution of these programs and bridging OST activities to what’s being learned during the school day.
Beyond these summer and school-year opportunities, city, district, and OST providers consistently come together in other ways to build a supportive ecosystem for student development and wellbeing. For example, the STAR (Science, Teacher support, Access, Readiness) Initiative supports students interested in STEM subjects—and their teachers—in order to address disparities in STEM learning experiences and empower young people of color to enter that field. Funded by the Biogen Foundation, the STAR Initiative regularly convenes school and district staff along with representatives from six grantees (Breakthrough Greater Boston, EnRoot, Citizen Schools, uAspire, the Young People’s Project, and Lesley University).
Participants jointly design activities to strengthen student engagement aligned with district priorities, share resources, and collect and analyze data. For instance, over the past year, STAR grantees offered professional development modules for educators to support the transition to remote teaching and helped create relevant, real-world curriculum on STEM topics (e.g., statistics lessons regarding the most recent election, math lessons connected with epidemiology and public health). They also expanded virtual academic support, enrichment programming, and college/career preparation to students in additional schools across the district. The partnership between the STAR Initiative and Somerville Public Schools has been strong from the start, allowing the work to be scaled and shared.
- Create spaces and networks where community organizations and district/city officials can build relationships with one another and increase opportunities to elevate OST programming. Ensure there are multiple connection points (between city and district leaders, with direct service providers, among youth workers, etc.) so that relationships are broad-based rather than held by a small group.
- Seek to integrate OST programs and partners into the school day via collaboration and data sharing agreements, bridging what is being learned during the day with out-of-school learning and engagement (and combatting stigmas that undervalue the learning taking place during OST programming). Where possible, encourage the shared examination of data to see where students are thriving and where they need additional support.
- Continue to offer virtual OST programming options, leveraging the accessibility of online spaces to break down barriers for students to engage with new activities and peers.
Supporting Adult Learning and Connection
Offering opportunities for adult learning and engagement—particularly among immigrant families hard-hit by the effects of the pandemic—has also been a priority in Somerville over the past year. In particular, Parent/Guardian English Classes (offered in partnership between the SFLC and The Welcome Project) continued to be available in a virtual form. These classes serve not just as a space for adults to learn English, but also for parents and caregivers to build collective power and learn how to navigate systems to better support their student’s education. As one parent leader put it, “In English class, I tell families your voice is important in school. You can learn and support yourself and then when you know more you can support other families and talk with the teacher.” These classes have been an effective tool to empower parents to step into more active advocacy roles for themselves, their families, and their community, amplifying their voices within the school system. Virtual classes allowed some family members to participate more consistently, even while working outside of the home.
Beyond English classes, SFLC also offers several other opportunities for immigrant parents to come together and build a shared sense of community, such as play-groups and New Parent Support Groups. Another weekly group that started before the pandemic brought together immigrant parents for art projects and conversation. These sessions have continued in virtual form, with The Beautiful Stuff Project dropping off supply packs to participants for activities like jewelry making and soap making; through these conversations and activities, parents can feel connected to one another in this isolating time. Recognizing that this pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, efforts by the district and community partners to prioritize the wellbeing of marginalized parents has been beneficial for them and their families.
- Provide spaces for parents and family members to come together and build community in order to promote healing and wellbeing for themselves and their students at home. These spaces can vary in focus, from general conversation and mental health support to advocacy and organizing.
- Use existing or new parent networks to share information that helps parents navigate the educational system.
- Seek opportunities to build parent networks while offering learning opportunities for children, for example by encouraging parents to connect with each other during play-groups and school events.
Schools have always been a space for more than just academic learning. As the pandemic has highlighted just how critical schools are to supporting the basic needs of students and families, it also increased the need for strong community partnerships to supplement what schools can offer by way of services and enrichment opportunities. Somerville demonstrates how strong relationships and coordination among school, district, city, and community partners can support students and families in a time of crisis.
Yet, thinking about next steps post-pandemic, a number of open questions remain: What should be the role of schools in meeting basic needs? How can communities best leverage the strengths of schools as well as out-of-school providers in order to address the holistic needs of all students? How does adult learning and enrichment fit into this broader system and enable better outcomes for both parents/guardians and their children? Somerville’s story from the past year cannot necessarily answer these questions, but it does point to some interesting opportunities for other cities and towns to explore as they look ahead to this summer and beyond.
Check out this month’s companion piece on communications in Somerville. Also, stay tuned for the third and final dispatch in our “Year in the Life” series, to be released in June, in which we will examine students’ transition to a new phase of learning (particularly for 2021 graduates).