In 21st century America, our public education system is constantly under scrutiny, as many feel that the current structure and priorities of our school system are no longer leading students to become successful members of society. There is an unprecedented number of solutions, criticisms and methods that varying experts believe might effect change.
What about an independent organization, not monetarily or politically intertwined with the local school system, that was created solely to support and assist schools, staff and their students? Well, Worcester just happens to have one.
Jennifer Davis Carey is the executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative (WEC), and a longtime Worcester resident who has lived in the Columbus Park neighborhood for the past 30 years. With the challenges the public education system and our students are facing, Carey is part of a growing movement that seeks to support students in and out of school, and provide resources and hope for local education through a nonprofit model.
There is no question that many of our public schools in America are struggling. In the national media, we hear stories about lack of appropriate funding and resources for teachers, and students who come from extremely diverse backgrounds and have increasingly complex needs.
That’s where Carey comes in.
The mission of the WEC, founded in 2010, is to engage the community in fulfilling its responsibility to assure that each student in the Worcester Public Schools is prepared for college, career and life. Its work falls into three broad areas: community education and capacity building, advocacy, and a small program portfolio.
“We are a catalyst for change — at times we identify issues and work with others to resolve them. The best example of this is our work to address gaps in third-grade reading achievement and to cultivate a culture of reading among our students,” Carey said during a recent interview at BirchTree Bread Co. “This work led to our involvement in the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Worcester’s One City, One Library program.”
It may be that, because our students’ and our communities’ lives, and their needs, are evolving, organizations such as the WEC could become absolutely critical to a thriving and successful modern public school system.
“I remain tremendously concerned about the ongoing achievement gap that impacts not only students of color, but low-income students. I also worry that we have narrowed the aims of education and minimized the hard work to develop the whole child,” Carey said. “Also, as for the emphasis on accountability, I am encouraged that educators are once again talking seriously about student growth over the long term and not just what is revealed in the snapshot of a high-stakes test.”
There are currently three staff members at the WEC. How does this small organization find success with such a large and seemingly daunting mission?
“We are a small, but nimble organization and often partner with other groups to do our work,” Carey said. “We regard ourselves as a critical friend of the schools and of the community — offering praise and support where it is due and constructive criticism when there is an opportunity for improvement.”
Indeed, a key to the success the WEC seems to have established is engaging the right community partners to help do its work. “We always look for partners with similar interests,” Carey noted. “Often we will work to raise an issue and catalyze action in that area, knowing we may not be the actual ones to carry out all of the work.
“As an example, take the reading work we’ve been doing. We have a very small focus program in four schools, but a lot of the other work in the city is really carried out by other partners. We were able to raise the importance of kids being able to read at proficiency at Grade 3, and really catalyze the movement.
“Another identified area is school suspension. We identified it as an area of concern with the Worcester Public Schools, but in order to effect change, they needed the support of the community and needed an approach. So we helped them to get a grant from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts to address student trauma in schools.” That pilot program is the school system’s Worcester HEARS (Healthy Environments and Resilience in Schools).
The WEC website, with a few quick clicks, offers free downloadable resources for parents, teachers and community members, including information about the importance of reading for students; a guide to the K-6 curriculum; and also important information about local, state and federal education policies.
WEC’s website also features a blog, with the most recent post describing Worcester HEARS, which trains school staff members in the science behind trauma in kids, and how to help these students in the classroom. According to a blog post written by Daun Kauffman on childhood trauma in schools, “most school districts do not train or fund or allocate staff to recognize and respond to the devastating impacts of developmental trauma. … School-based staff, given insufficient training and resources, can fail to connect children’s developmental trauma to social behaviors, to academic learning, to life decisions. Meanwhile, schools must fight to include [even] a single counselor in each school? And so, the crisis continues.”
Carey said of students who have experienced trauma, “Teaching and learning at its best is about the hand, the heart and the head. We have focused so much on the head that we have shortchanged the work in the other areas.
“I am heartened to see more attention to the area of social and emotional learning and a growing emphasis on individual and personalized learning.”
When students who have experienced trauma act out in the classroom, it hinders other students’ abilities to learn. And without the proper training and support, it hinders the teacher’s ability to provide a safe and effective classroom. At this point, many frustrated parents and family members, even staff, might lose trust in their school. This is where public confidence in public education begins to dissolve, and eventually, so does the willingness to invest in public education, both financially and emotionally.
Finally, asked about the future of public education, Carey said, “Many of the public schools across the nation are in trouble. Also, public schools and public education are in transition, and there have been changes at a federal level, in terms of accountability, and also changes in composition of student body, in terms of what the students bring to the classroom.
“There’s also been a transition in how teaching and learning is done. We have much more opportunity and options for innovation, in terms of how content is delivered, social and emotional learning, and the role of technology.”
So, what is the role of the community and its citizens regarding public education? Carey believes that the very definition of the system holds the answer: “Public schools mean that they are our schools, so we have to support them and take responsibility. We can’t, as a community, say, ‘Do your work and call us later.’ It has to be a meaningful partnership.”
That belief, and the mission of the organization she leads, go hand-in-hand, and offer hope and inspiration to the Worcester community.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Carey said. “We need a renewed commitment to education at all levels. … We need to recognize that the needs of the children have to be primary in all of our conversations.”