How do you improve education in a community? That is a vast, nuanced question, the answers to which are not always obvious. Throughout various communities in Coastal Virginia, children face a variety of barriers to learning. For some, it is a lack of a safe learning environment. For others, it might be the absence of appropriate medical care or adequate nutrition.
Addressing these broad and widely varied issues is a challenge, but United for Children is bringing community partners together to do just that. The organization, an initiative of United Way, specifically seeks out barriers to learning, with the goal of leveraging the most resources to help address the highest needs in the community.
“United for Children uses a systematic approach to create tools of change that bring people together and change the odds for local children,” says Dr. Jarrett Brunny, director of United for Children.
This approach often means thinking outside the box to find and address barriers to learning throughout the community. One issue the organization identified was the difficulty some high school students faced in accessing medical care. Challenges related to health and wellness make it more difficult for students to reach graduation, and many students in South Hampton Roads have needs that cannot be fully met by a traditional school nurse role. This was true of many students in the St. Paul’s area of Norfolk, the community that feeds into Booker T. Washington High School.
To help meet students’ need for medical care, UfC partnered with Optima Health to establish the Student Care Center at the high school. Opened in 2015, the center offers the comprehensive services of a physician’s office and is located in a clinical space inside the school. The center is staffed by EVMS physicians and other medical professionals.
The Student Care Center has become a safe place where students can address specific health needs, both physical and mental. Students can take care of basic needs, such as getting a physical done so they can play sports, that might otherwise be difficult for them to obtain.
Looking ahead, UfC is working with its partners to determine the future direction of the clinic. As with everything the organization does, they want to assess the results, determine any other peripheral needs that are not yet being met and adjust the program accordingly to ensure they are impacting the community as effectively as possible.
“Today, we are at the table adapting to the past couple of years of service and making sure that as the students’ needs change, we change with them in an informed, engaged and useful way,” says Brunny.
Because so much of a child’s education success hinges on their formative years, United for Children also focuses on helping to create strong environments for the youngest learners in the community. Last year, the Hampton Roads Community Action Program (HRCAP) informed UfC about a unique education need for its Head Start program at the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception. The building needed significant upgrades to provide the children with a safe and fit environment for learning. Additionally, the facility was lacking a playground for the children. UfC got right to work assessing the need and creating a plan to fill this gap for the children of the Head Start program.
“This program is a perfect example of how needs you might not have thought of before can come to light, when you get the right partners together doing collective impact,” says Brunny.
Upgrades on the building are currently in progress, and volunteers will break ground for the playground in early March. The Basilica was built in 1858, so the improvements include sealing windows, installing blinds and various other repairs that will make the environment more suitable for children in the program.
“When you are able to change a child’s environment for the better, the child will be in a much better position to learn. This in turn benefits the child’s family and the community as a whole,” says Brunny.
This concept carries over into another important new program, the Student Needs Funds. While UfC’s larger, community-wide programs have proven impact on learning, the organization also understands that there are individual barriers to learning that can be best addressed by the teachers who interact with their students every day.
This program focuses on helping teachers and administrators immediately address a student’s specific need. For instance, if a teacher notices that a child is having trouble seeing in class, they can use the funds to purchase a pair of glasses for the child. Or if a child does not have appropriate shoes for P.E., the funds could be used to buy that student some gym shoes. These individual acts can have an immediate impact on the child’s ability to learn.
Looking into the future, UfC will continue to build its model for success in childhood that carries forward throughout life. The organization is constantly seeking out ways to work with various community partners to create the best possible solutions for children and their families.
“We are constantly in a learning phase,” says Brunny. “By constantly assessing emerging challenges and then developing responses in a coordinated and purposeful way, we are changing our approach to success in childhood and increasing our ability to be where we need to be, at the right time, to support children and their families."