Mentoring a City

Tufts graduate students are helping Somerville kids reach their potential

Watching her mother provide foster care to a number of children over the years, Abby Copeman, G14, learned at an early age that when it comes to opportunity, not all children are dealt the same hand.

As she pursues a doctoral degree in child development at Tufts, Copeman is doing her part to close that opportunity gap. She spent the summer working on a new initiative called SomerPromise, which is helping Somerville's youngest residents reach their potential by setting them up to succeed in school and engaging their parents more fully in the education system.

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Elizabeth Pufall Jones,  Ph.D. candidate in child development from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences this spring and Laura Tolkoff , G12, a graduate student in urban and environmental policy and planning, also took part.

Similar to the Harlem Children's Zone project, a program designed to end the cycle of generational poverty for thousands of children in New York City, SomerPromise is piloting several initiatives for families in the Mystic Housing Development, one of the largest public housing projects in Massachusetts, through the neighboring Arthur Healey School. A number of groups at Tufts are contributing to SomerPromise, including the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning in the School of Arts and Sciences and Tisch College, which has so far supported three Child Development and UEP courses as well as these summer fellowships, through their Project PERIS (Partnering for Economic Recovery Impact through Service).

This summer's programming is just the beginning of what the city hopes will eventually be the integration of many social services, giving families a single, accessible site where they can get a full range of services from education to health to jobs.

"Whether the end goal is going to college or vocational training for a career, we want to help community members accomplish that," says Tolkoff, who worked as project coordinator in Mayor Joseph Curtatone's office. "There are a ton of services in Somerville," she says, "but there are also a lot of gaps in terms of who is being covered and who is not, and it is being reflected in student achievement" in the city's public schools.

"People living in public housing can often be the hardest population to reach due to language barriers and other issues, so the Mystic Housing Development is a good starting point for a program that we eventually hope to expand into greater Somerville," says Tolkoff. The program's focus is on the children, since "we have them for at least six hours a day in school," she adds.

A Summer of Promise

Copeman led a kindergarten transition project at the Healey School, focusing on social and emotional skills like sitting in a circle and standing in line, as well as academic skills like basic counting and writing. Jones worked with The Welcome Project, a community based group that works with the city's immigrant population, to learn directly from parents in the Mystic Housing Development about their challenges and successes with the Somerville school system.

"We heard from the principal and from others in the community that they had a lot of kids who came into the kindergarten who were really well prepared after coming from private pre-schools and other pre-kindergarten programs," Copeman says. "But then they had a lot of kids, particularly from the Mystic, lower-income and immigrant families, who hadn't had the pre-school experience and were already behind coming into kindergarten."

The transition project Copeman worked on sought to make sure all students from the Mystic development would enter kindergarten at about the same level as their peers. While the number of participants was small, Copeman says the program gave parents tangible results. "I hope through this experience the parents feel more comfortable coming into the school, now that they've seen what it's like and know there are people here to help them," Copeman says.

Jones worked on building relationships with parents, holding focus groups and meeting with individual parents, learning more about their experiences in Somerville and how those compared to their own education in their home countries. With the help of local, multi-lingual teens trained as interpreters by The Welcome Project, Jones was able to collect data on the greatest needs of the community.

"The biggest thing that has come across is that the residents here really care about their children and their children's education, but they struggle with finding ways to communicate that with the school, as well as having the school communicate with them effectively," Jones says. "The communication issues are both on a language level and a cultural level, as they try to understand the politics around education."

While Jones helped set the groundwork for this part of the initiative, The Welcome Project ultimately plans to use the information to set up an advisory board of parents in the Mystic Housing Development that would convene on a regular basis and advise the schools and city hall.

"It was really a grass roots sort of thing," Jones says. "It's letting the parents know there are these changes that are going on in their neighborhood and we want their voices to be heard."

As the coordinator for these summer initiatives, Tolkoff says she got to see how "all the moving pieces" come together.

"For students like me, it's easy to get trapped up in your ideas of what's right, how the world should run and all how these new programs that should be done," Tolkoff says. "In reality, there are a lot of constraints."

"Community development projects can be frustrating," says Copeman, "because it feels like things move really slowly while you're trying to get everyone on board and making sure people are comfortable that things are not getting rushed through. There is tension between making progress and making sure we are doing things in a thoughtful, careful way."

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