How My School Turned Tragedy Into an Opportunity for Student and Family...

Voices | Leadership

How My School Turned Tragedy Into an Opportunity for Student and Family Engagement

By Keely Sutton     Aug 30, 2023

How My School Turned Tragedy Into an Opportunity for Student and Family Engagement

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

Imagine not only waking up to a pandemic, forced into an isolated space without the physical and emotional support you need for learning, but also discovering that the place you call home has been deemed unlivable. This was the reality for many of the students and their families at Luther J. Price Middle School (LJPMS) families after the city of Atlanta condemned property in the Forest Cove neighborhood in 2021.

There were over 300 families that resided in Forest Cove, and many of the children from these households attended our school. Even worse, we were still in the midst of a pandemic; not only did we have to create innovative ways to teach and reach our children virtually, but we also had to ensure that our children and families were physically safe, nourished and mentally and emotionally sound to cope with the trauma they just experienced.

The irony here was not poor property management that condemned the properties in this community – the homes had been unlivable for many years prior. If anything, the issue shed light on the lack of investment in the local communities where our students live and exposed the gap in mental health resources for students and their families.

As a school, we knew that if our students and families didn’t have the support they needed, student learning and engagement would be severely impacted. Over the last two years, I worked with fellow educators and administrators at LPJMS to strategize ways to put social-emotional learning at the forefront of our curriculum and student and family engagement plan. What started as a daunting task became a mission to reignite the passion and engagement of our students while strengthening our local community.

Developing a Framework for Student Engagement

As the School and Community Engagement Manager and Parent Liaison, I worked with a team of LJPMS teachers and administrators to adopt a framework to re-engage students and families and restore a sense of love and belonging within the surrounding community. We decided that implementing a framework incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) would help our students and families cope and heal from the inside out. SEL is defined as the process of developing self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success. When individuals are equipped with these skills, they can better cope with everyday challenges and positively improve all aspects of their lives, and given the situation that we were in, there was no better time than the present.

Once our school identified the need for SEL, we were able to re-channel our energy and focus on the inputs that would get our students back on track. Our educational spaces transformed into sessions and platforms where students and their leaders could authentically be themselves and thrive in safe and supportive spaces. Specifically, every classroom included spaces where students could decompress, take a break, or meditate to be productive in the classroom setting. Those spaces included things such as therapeutic herbal diffusers, earphones to listen to calming sounds, books and journals to write their thoughts. Students appreciated these spaces and were able to utilize them to self-regulate their emotions, find healthy ways to process trauma and become more productive and present learners in the classroom setting.

After we reached the pandemic's peak and students could return to the classroom, we also knew it would be important to help them identify the significance of their place in the community. We wanted them to identify positive attributes about themselves and then leverage these attributes to build personal, social and academic goals. Teachers began building lessons centered on identity formation, and soon after, students began to embrace their identity and individuality which transformed our classroom and community culture.
One of the most impactful ways our students exhibited their newfound confidence was by advocating for a new nutrition program in the school. Over the span of a few months, students captured pictures, videos and feedback from fellow students to build their case. When students presented their findings to our district leaders, the data revealed that over 70 percent of the students within the school were not eating breakfast and lunch. Students made the connection between healthy eating habits and student performance and identified choices district leaders and teachers could make to build a better nutrition program for students.

This presentation resulted in the district adopting a new food program for our district that was culturally appropriate, appealing, and good for students. When students saw the results of the work they had done, this affirmed how identity, advocacy and doing the work yields positive results.

For me, it was heartwarming to see students find their confidence after such a tragic event and I’m glad I took advantage of the opportunity to make connections and build trust with students so that we could grow into the community we sought.

Family Engagement and Support

Just as we knew we could not instruct from a one-size-fits-all mentality, we also had to apply that same philosophy to student families. Our parents yearned to build upon their knowledge to support their children's learning journey. Witnessing firsthand the stressors many of our families experienced allowed our teachers and leaders in the learning community to understand how we could better support our children and the families we serve.

This was the beginning of my transition from the classroom to a role as a family engagement liaison. I asked to be a conduit to engage with our families to re-establish trust, ensure families feel welcomed and build a stronger connection between our school community and families in the Forest Cove neighborhood.

First, I started by establishing Parent University, a place where parents could come and access resources to create better conditions for themselves and their children. Parents can access resources such as GED coursework, resume writing, financial literacy and individual and family therapy. During this time, I also leveraged our in-house partnership relationship with Communities in Schools who provided a team of liaisons in LJPMS that could work with students and families one-on-one to understand basic needs and help them secure housing, medical assistance and meals.

We also made it a point to improve our relationship with our external community partners including COR, a non-profit organization that I worked with to provide programming and support to trauma-impacted students and families who are marginalized by poverty and race-based educational inequities. Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation has been a viable resource to our families displaced by the demolition of Forest Cove, in addition to families who are dealing with landlord/legal issues, or those who are survivors of intimate partner violence. Last but not least, Chris 180 – one of the premier mental health, child welfare and family organizations in the Southeast – has been readily available on-site to meet the mental and emotional needs of our students and staff.

A Community That Heals Together Stays Together

Through this process, we learned to relinquish what power we thought we had in this space and become vulnerable. We depended on one another, loved on one another, and supported each other at a time when so much was uncertain for us all.

This community exemplified resilience at a time when most would have given up. We tapped into our creativity and learned to work outside of the box. We became foot soldiers and fought for the social-emotional learning of our students and the well-being of our families. If they would not come to us, then we came to them. While we celebrate the impact of the work we have done, we know must continue to heal and build our community to keep our students and families engaged.

Of course, things will never be what they once were, but we are building a better school and community – more importantly, we are building leaders. Shifting from a role as an instructional leader to a school and community engagement leader was a blessing. In this role, I am able to do work that creates a bridge from the classroom to students’ homes and communities. While the displacement of our students and families tested our resolve, I am grateful to work with colleagues and peers who care about improving our students’ circumstances just as much as I do.

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