America’s education system has been disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis. As a result of the new normal, underserved students and their families are heavily relying on educators, family support specialists, and agencies for educational support and access to basic essentials.
Crittenton Services of Greater Washington is a 132-year-old organization that supports 600 girls in the Washington metropolitan area. The organization’s mission is to empower teens to overcome obstacles, make positive choices, and achieve their goals through strategic programming and resources. The organization houses a team of researchers that focuses on equity for young women of color within the education system. In their latest study, The Declare Equity Report, the organization highlighted the disparities that young women living in vulnerable communities face like safety concerns within the household, and being distracted at school because of the need to assume adult responsibilities, and push out.
Amid the current health crisis, we spoke with Siobhan Davenport, president and executive director of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, about how she and her team are finding ways to engage program participants, creating digital communities/safe spaces during social distancing, and partnering with parents to help their children continue their education during this time of uncertainty.
Siobhan Davenport, President and Executive Director of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington
Showing up for the community
How are school closures impacting the young women that Crittenton serves?
During this COVID-19 pandemic shut down, we are specifically concerned about the young ladies that we serve and keeping them engaged in school. March 13th is when our schools were closed suddenly. And one of our funders reached out to us and we had a conversation about what role we can play just besides delivering our programs. We talked about some of the factors that we knew our teen girls face in their family, so they gifted us a $5,000 grant called The Emergency COVID-19 Funds. And immediately on that Friday, our girls were reaching out to us.
They wanted to ensure that we were still going to have programs because in some cases our program leaders are their trusted adult. They meet with them weekly throughout the entire school year in groups of about 15 to 18 teen girls. So, there’s a lot of trust in built up in those groups. And of course, it’s a safe space for our teen girls.
We immediately said, Yes, we will continue to deliver programs, we’re just going to have to do it a little bit differently and be creative in that way.
The COVID-19 crisis adds another layer of trauma and anxiety for many underserved communities. How is your team responding to the young women and their families who are facing new insecurities because of the school closures?
The girls were reaching out and were concerned about food insecurity. We had three girls who lost their jobs. Restaurants were closed and a lot of our girls work in entry-level jobs. And for our girls, those part-time jobs actually contribute to the well-being of their household. So, this is a major blow to the family.
Parents have reported to us job loss as well and reached out to say, ‘can we get emergency food and essential supplies,’ which we were able to do and thus far we’ve helped 40 families and 181 parents, children, and babies.
Our young ladies have reported inadequate Wi-Fi access or just simply not having a device computer in the home. Both of our school districts are looking at ways in which to distribute tablets, but we had to kind of fill in the gap and we let one of our families borrow a Chromebook because the dad needed to apply for unemployment benefits and didn’t have access to that.
Creating safe spaces
School is a safe haven for many students and a reliable resource for parents as they work. What are some of the ways that the organization is helping students and their families adapt to being home together?
We have a very structured curriculum, and it just so happened that part of the curriculum currently is on what is a healthy relationship, and that means your family, your friends, and of course significant others. Our program leaders are putting a heavy emphasis on that.
We’re really focusing on healthy relationships and communication. The program is steeped in social-emotional learning core competencies. We talk about identifying emotions. We’re all at high emotion at this point in time. We’re intentionally starting each session with self-awareness check-ins.
Our program leaders are helping our students with self-meditation, deep breathing exercises, and challenging them to continue to practice that throughout the week and then report in through the group chat or when they’re on a Zoom call to talk about how they’re managing their stress in a positive, productive way.
Family support is critical during this time as parents and guardians adjust their lives to become substitute teachers, providers, and everything in between. How can organizations like Crittenton support families during these times?
A big concern for parents is that the school structure is being lost. Parents are depending upon teachers to be the source of help for their children. And now all of a sudden, they’re thrust in that role.
We have parents who have English as a second language. They’ve actually come to our program leaders to have them translate how to access information for their children. There’s a lot of responsibilities that parents are taking on. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to go in learning what the schools are doing, what our school systems are asking for, and be able to help parents and guide them as they try to navigate the website and access the work that their daughters are doing. We’ve been on multiple fronts trying to anticipate and be a source of trusted information. For our families and our teen girls.
Staying connected during isolation
At Crittenton, young women are able to build community. How is the organization maintaining that sense of connectedness during social distancing?
Part of positive youth development principles is letting the youth lead. When we initially started conversations with our girls, we talked to them about how they want groups to meet. We were experiential and just tried different methodologies of reaching the girls.
Some program leaders said, ‘I’m just going to switch my platform to Zoom whereas other program leaders have said, the girls said they don’t want to download anything else taking up more memory on their phone and they’re already on Instagram Live and we’ve had a great response reaching them there.
As it relates to social-emotional learning, how is Crittenton helping the young woman understand this national moment of crisis, with all of the different layers of trauma that are experienced?
Our program leaders have been having conversations with our girls so that they get a sense that this [the pandemic] is bigger than their community. That part of social awareness of social-emotional learning is key in building empathy.
It is our obligation to follow those social distancing rules. I know it’s inconvenient and it’s not how they want to communicate. They actually want to be in school. They are reporting that they are bored, want structure, and want to be able to see their friends face to face.
We’re trying to help them understand that we are actually doing each other a great service by maintaining the social distance.
If you are interested in learning more about the resources offered by Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, visit its website for free tools and resources.