Article by Urban Alliance staff. Photo courtesy of World Vision.
Dr. Frank T. Simpson-Waverly School sits on a quiet corner in Hartford's North End. Bright red bricks and quaint trees create somewhat of a facade to the reality of the struggles its students face each day. Many strive to be at or near grade level, compounded by the most disheartening challenges of poverty and brokenness.
But for the last two years, Principal Leanardo Watson has dedicated his all to bridging partnerships that focus on one thing: student success.
Last year, dozens of volunteers from four Wethersfield churches connected to Simpson-Waverly School through Urban Alliance's Next Generation initiative. They worked tirelessly throughout Labor Day weekend on a project called "Radiate" to beautify the school.
"I was really touched by the amount of people that were here and just how genuine everyone was. And you know, people tell me how much I've done to improve the school. But I will always be the one to say it really wasn't me. It was a collection of people," said Watson, "I spoke to one of the pastors and I asked him, 'How can we do more of this work? How can we have the true meaning of the church outside the four walls?'"
The answers to those questions have unfolded throughout this past school year.
With the shared goal of helping children and youth achieve academic success, develop character and receive support through healthy relationships, Urban Alliance has provided support to the partnerships that are unfolding between these Wethersfield churches and Simpson-Waverly School, through consultation, technical assistance, volunteer matching and supplies.
Tom Walsh from First Church of Christ Wethersfield, and Nancy Murphy and Cindy Nicewonger from Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church have been bridging relationships and supporting students through weekly volunteerism at Simpson-Waverly.
Murphy, who assists in a first-grade classroom, shared, "The students are always eager to see us and we both witnessed some 'light bulb' type learning. We encourage anyone with a love of elementary age children and a heart for developing relationships with them to explore this opportunity to volunteer."
Walsh has spearheaded the continued partnership between First Church of Christ Wethersfield and Simpson-Waverly, and has volunteered at the school every week for several months with one goal in mind: caring for the students.
He primarily works one-on-one with a fifth grade boy, assigned by Principal Watson.
"We've formed a good friendship. I spend a lot of time just listening," explained Walsh, "My ministry is the ministry of caring, of loving him and of just being there, and it means the world. I'm not a trained teacher or educator. I just spend time with him and that's very rich."
Just like this fifth grade boy, many of the students at Simpson-Waverly and throughout Harford's schools have a deep need for individual attention and a listening ear.
"They need someone who will just listen and spend time with them. Many of these kids have responsibilities at home that are adult-level responsibilities. They're taking care of siblings. They're walking themselves home, and they're taking care of things because their parental figures are out working hard. Just to have an adult pay attention to them and listen is invaluable. You don't have to have a degree in theology to just love a fifth grade kid. It's not hard. Just listen," said Walsh.
And, it's paying off.
"I have had less calls, less referrals. It may be directly related to Tom or not, but I know for a fact that especially with the young man that he's been working with there has been some improvement. So I'm happy about that," explained Watson.
And throughout Simpson-Waverly, even more positive impact is happening thanks to additional listening ears and helping hands.
Through Urban Alliance's Next Generation school partnership support, teachers at Simpson-Waverly have "shopped" for free supplies at World Vision's Teacher Resource Center in East Hartford. The brand new center, which is designed to allow teachers to browse and choose what their students need most, is continually stocked with items that have been donated by corporations like Target and Staples, and the Kids in Need Foundation.
"To see it come to fruition last fall and for the teachers to have the opportunity to go and shop for free was just really terrific. It was enlightening," shared Watson, "I heard fantastic feedback from all the teachers, even my instructional coach, just how much it meant to them. They were really impressed."
Fourth grade teacher Mrs. Martindale has been an educator for sixteen years and has never experienced anything like the Teacher Resource Center before.
“In all my years teaching, I have never experienced anything like it. There were tons of things that we really need, mainly school supplies because that’s one thing during the summer that I’m trying to do – to get everyone a notebook, and pencils, and crayons. I’m paying out of my pocket, so it’s nice to give everyone what they need and then if someone runs out I have something I can draw from and say, ‘Here you go, here’s another pencil.’ Used is nice because you can always recycle but it says something when we can say ‘I’m giving you something new and you’re the first person to use this,’” she said.
One of her students, Sophia Jordan, smiled shyly as she shared about the supplies she won as part of a weekly school-wide attendance raffle.
“I got a book, and a workbook, pencils, erasers, and highlighters. It made me feel good because I needed erasers,” she said.
Martindale has truly thought outside of the box to utilize the supplies she’s received from the Teacher Resource Center to help the students at Simpson-Waverly in the greatest way.
“We would ask kids if they needed a place to do their homework and so now the kids who don’t have furniture can use the trays we got at the Teacher Resource Center and pull them up to the corner of their bed and have a quiet study corner,” explained Martindale.
“We’re not just here to educate the kids. We help them outside of school, too,” she said, “A lot of the things we received helped the families, like food, clothing and even Crocs. We said, ‘maybe you didn’t have something to put on your feet, but now you do.’ And the kids want it. I don’t broadcast it but I tell them what’s here and if they need it to ask. They will come to me in their own time and ask. Whoever put it together put a lot of thought into the items they give out. There were a lot of different things that I wouldn’t expect, but they are all things that kids and families need. It was really nice. Somebody knows what we go through and somebody hears our struggle. Someone out there cares about us and wants to give us a helping hand.”
And this is what the school partnership is all about.
“We’re looking for the same outcome – student improvement, whether it is social-emotional or academic. That’s what the outcome is,” explained Watson, “Sometimes we build these barriers and it’s not beneficial to students. So if there is a way that I can work with people or an organization, I’m always going to do that.”
He added, “We have a lot of expertise within the churches that we attend. How do we tap into that? Tom has shared with me the way he feels when he comes into the school and the gratitude that he feels. I think, you all are really benefitting my students, and me personally, and he looks at me and says ‘Nah, Leo. It’s vice versa. It means even more to us.’ When I hear things like that it’s just really encouraging. It brings joy to me personally and I just know that we’re all moving in the right direction. We’re moving in the direction we need to go.”
You may also be interested in:
Fueled By Love and Support: Hartford After-School Program Helps Children Grow In Mind, Body and Spirit
A Sweet Idea To Savory Success: Hartford Youth Connect Neighbors to Resources
Scholarships Help Hartford Teens, Help, Grow, Serve
An Expanded Mission to Spread Joy in Hartford
Congratulations Next Generation YX Movement Grant Recipients
62 Gather, Grow at 2016 Youth Empowerment Institute
Youth Empowerment Institute: Fall 2016 Registration
Serving With a Smile: Hartford Teen Gains Job Skills Providing Meals For Kids
Congratulations Next Generations YX Movement Grant Recipients
Next Generation Scholarship Helps Local Teens Become Catalysts for Positive Impact Through THP