As the founding principal of Riverdale Avenue Community School in Brooklyn, Meghan Dunn had to consider the challenges of the neighborhood when designing a program that could last. All but 2% of Riverdale students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 94% are black or Latino. About 25% of kids qualify for special education services.
Riverdale’s building had been home to other schools in the past, before the New York City Department of Education hired Dunn to lead this new public school. She wanted to do things differently and develop partnerships that could really meet the needs of the students and parents in the community. One of the things she did was sign a contract with Partnership With Children, a social service agency that provides mental health services to children and professional training for staff members while also engaging families and coordinating external supports.
The partnership brings three highly trained social workers into Riverdale Avenue Community School full-time. It’s expensive, Dunn says, but worth it.
“As an administrator, you really need to think deeply about the needs of your building and your community and organize around those needs,” Dunn said. “I do commit a lot of money to this so this does mean there are things other schools have that we don’t have money for.”
Riverdale doesn’t have a comprehensive after-school program or a computer lab, but its students have the social-emotional supports they need to get through the school day and address the traumas that can get in the way of their learning.
Dunn estimates 30-40% of Riverdale’s 375 students get served directly by Partnership social workers on staff whether it’s through one-on-one sessions, play therapy or group work. From there students across the school reap the positive rewards of teacher training and improved behavior among students who otherwise disrupt classes.
Dunn recalls Partnership’s success with a kindergartner who had violent outbursts when things did not go his way. His behavior impacted kids in his class, the teacher and, in some ways, the feel of the entire school. Partnership’s social workers developed relationships with the boy’s parents, helped them access mental health and medical services and assigned a crisis paraprofessional to his case during the school day.
It took about a year to address everything the student needed, but as he enters second grade this year, he does so with the right supports in place. And this means his teachers will have more bandwidth to assess the needs of other students — perhaps those going through internal crises of their own
“If we can address the problem of the kid who is in visible crisis, teachers have more energy to look at kids who are suffering in silence and who might not be as much on our radar,” Dunn said.
Partnership works in 30 high-poverty schools across New York City, spread through all five boroughs. Executive Director Margaret Crotty says schools have seen impressive gains in attendance rates as well as in the number of students who get promoted to the next grade level. This, in turn, improves graduation rates. While it doesn’t happen right away, Crotty says the schools Partnership serves also see growth in the number of students achieving proficiency on standardized tests.
Robin Veenstra-VanderWeele, chief strategy officer at Partnership With Children, says the principals they work with recognize the importance of social and emotional regulation skills as well as their impact on academics.
“The best possible partnership is a principal who can come to the table with an already clear understanding that a student’s social skills and psychological skills are as important as their numeracy skills or their literacy skills,” Veenstra-VanderWeele said. “Not only for the likelihood that they will be successful in their current grade level but, frankly, in life.”
For 30 years Partnership has hired only master’s level social workers, recognizing a need for highly skilled clinicians in the city’s poorest schools. This summer, everyone got additional training in trauma-informed practices, which they will, in turn, bring to schools. Teachers will be asked to consider what contributed to student behavior, beyond simply a lack of understanding of expectations or a challenge to authority.
At Riverdale Avenue Community School, Dunn has come to see the Partnership social workers’ expertise as critical to mitigating the challenges of the neighborhood.
“They approach parents in a different way, they help the school in a different way,” Dunn said. “It is a lot of money but it is worth it. The money is here for kids and we should be putting it toward making sure parents and families have what they need.”