Fighting Poverty with Passion
I write this field report – my first – the week after Hurricane Isaac shut down the city for nearly a week. As always, we continue on. And so I begin my sixth week as the K-8 VISTA Community Outreach Coordinator at FirstLine Schools.
It began with an orientation and tour of the schools from David Durand, the Director of Community Partnerships and my supervisor. FirstLine Schools currently operates four K-8 schools and one 9-12 (Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School). Its mission is to create and inspire great open admissions public schools in New Orleans. While each campus maintains its own unique culture, they all share the primary objective of preparing every student for college and a fulfilling career.
Samuel J. Green Charter School, located in the Freret neighborhood, was oneof the first to be operated by FLS. It is also the birthplace of The Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA), which is a flagship program being developed at each of the FirstLine campuses.
Arthur Ashe Charter School opened in 2007 with fewer than 50 students. Now, the school serves over 400 at a brand new, state-of-the-art campus in Gentilly.
Langston Hughes Academy came under management of FLS in 2010, but officially became a FirstLine school this year. The LHA campus was the first newly constructed school building to open its doors since 2003, and boasts a thriving ESYNOLA program in the back yard.
John Dibert Community School became a part of the FLS network that same year in 2010, by request from the community. The Dibert Family Organization is the strongest parent group among the FLS K-8 schools, a fact I hope to take advantage of as I work with parents from the other campuses.
That was week one: becoming familiar with the four schools I would be working with. I was also provided a desk at the FLS Main Office on Canal St. I share an office with Rebekah Cain, Director of Development & Communication, and Darcy McKinnon. Darcy was one of FirstLine’s earliest employees, and she fills a number of roles, including branding.
I will admit, my job is confusing.
FirstLine is a large, thriving organization with many employees. Finding my place – being both productive and not stepping on toes – is a challenge. I already ran into one boundary with grant writing. David had tipped me off about a potential grant opportunity, so I began to investigate. I contacted the granter, had multiple conversations, but made the mistake of not notifying Rebekah. As it turns out, that is her job and she was already working on that particular grant application. Lesson learned.
Another part of my VAD is to help plan events for and make use of a large literacy grant just awarded to some of the FLS schools. I quickly discovered that FLS already has a full-time Family Literacy Coordinator, Donnica Conway. She is also on board the Literacy Grant Team charged with taking advantage of the funds. So, my role there must also be limited.
Furthermore, I was finding it difficult to build relationships with the individual schools. Not only are they in different parts of the city, they were busy in their first couple weeks of school. The administration either didn’t know me or at least didn’t know why I was there.
Finally, while I do technically have a predecessor, he remains a mystery to me. His position was only at Green, so it was a fundamentally different job. There is no sustainability binder from that position, so far as I know. Luckily, the VISTA who was placed at Clark last year left behind a plethora of valuable resources in Dropbox.
Now for the good news.
I have come to the conclusion that my role should be focused more on the individual campuses rather than the network main office. In VISTA terms, that office appears to be at capacity. So, I have been making an effort to connect with school leaders and parents, and to get a sense for their goals and needs. While the balance between direct and indirect service seems a blur sometimes, I feel the need to take on enough responsibilities to warrant interns or other sustainability measures. This will take time.
I have two specific projects right now: newsletters and parent organization.
Each K-8 should have a quarterly newsletter, starting this month. One thing my predecessor did leave behind was a newsletter template for Green. The other schools also have similar templates. Kathleen and I are on-boarding an intern this week to handle a few jobs, including the K-8 newsletter production.
Before Isaac, I had managed to nail down a parent liaison from each school, and soon I will organize a meeting between them, Donnica, and David. We need to seek out parent leaders who are not employed by FLS – ironically, ¾ are – and formulate a strategy to grow parent involvement through training and outreach.
My VAD includes many other goals throughout the year, and I look forward to the challenge. For now, I will continue to reach out and build bridges as best I can.