THE BLOG
08/10/2016 10:20 am ET | Updated Aug 10, 2016

Listening to the Voices of Young People

"I just hope people see I'm not the only child that's like this," Khalil Bridges said. "There are more children that could use the help I received and actually take the opportunity to change."

Khalil Bridges is a student at Renaissance Academy High School in West Baltimore. This quote comes in a follow-up to a longer story about his challenging journey in The Washington Post. The follow-up story talked about the GoFundMe campaign that has now raised nearly $40,000 to further his education.

Khalil's is the story of too many young people of color in disinvested communities across the nation. He has expressed his great appreciation for the help he is receiving as an individual. His concern for others in his community tells us a great deal about his character, and I believe the character and potential of the vast majority of young people in his school and community and in similar circumstance across the country.

And yet our society often seems to focus only on the single individual - helping Khalil but overlooking the support that all of our young people deserve. We seem unwilling to look hard at the inequities that so many young people, particularly young men and women of color face.

At the Coalition for Community Schools we believe that "every child deserves every chance." That's why at Khalil's school, educators and community partners are working to tie the assets and resources of their community to their school.

At Renaissance, Khalil benefited from a principal, Nikkia Rowe, who understood that the lives of her students mattered when it came to their education. Through a partnership with the University of Maryland School of Social Work's Promise Heights initiative, which supports six community schools in West Baltimore, Rowe is mobilizing additional support for her students.

As she notes in a blog post for The Washington Post, "at Renaissance, every single day, we work to triage the trauma and to meet the basic needs of our students so they are able to learn. We love our students fiercely in the face of life-or-death circumstances."

At Renaissance a mentoring program called "Seeds of Promise: Transforming Black Boys into Men" brings four African American men from the community to work with groups of students. Mentors are available 24/7. This next school year, Principal Rowe is looking to do something similar for her female students through "Blooms of Promise."

Hallie Atwater, a licensed clinical social worker, assists individual students to meet their immediate personal and family needs - food, clothing, personal hygiene items, financial support, housing, and mental health supports.

Atwater also works with teachers and mentors to facilitate Restorative Practices with students as conflicts arise, often due to issues in the surrounding communities. Each day begins with a "circle" during which students and staff discuss any lingering issues from the previous day, or a current event, or maybe just their favorite song of the moment. It's a way for the school community to create and sustain an emotional bond, which in turn helps students feel safe in revealing their most urgent needs.

And Atwater involves other agencies and organizations to support Khalil, his classmates, and their families. She runs a bi-monthly food bank for the community with assistance from student and parent volunteers. She assists with a local university partnership through which five students per semester can receive dual credit in a college course on social justice issues in Baltimore.

Atwater makes referrals to other appropriate Promise Heights programs, including pregnancy supports, parenting education, or workforce development. A local community organizing coalition works with students to learn self-expression, self-advocacy, and principles of community organizing. She works with students to find the right post-graduate experience--whether community college, four-year college, work, or an internship.

Nikkia Rowe and her teachers and other staff, and Hallie Atwater and the leaders of the Promise Heights Initiative, are doing everything they can to address the many challenges that all students at Renaissance Academy are experiencing.

As we continue our work, partners in the Coalition for Community Schools will not forget Khalil Bridges admonition to not overlook everyone else. It's a matter of equity.

You can watch Khalil Bridges speak at the 2016 Community Schools National Forum.

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