I hope this finds you and your loved ones well.
I’m pained to start by sharing tragic news: We lost a young woman last week to suicide. Sina Ball was a sophomore at CRLS. Her family, friends, educators, and community are carrying profound grief while showing up for one another, learning and working. Sina’s death underscores the urgency of ensuring we have the relationships with students to know who is struggling and the adequate mental health resources they need.
This week, many students returned part-time to in-person learning for the first time in almost a year. And, many students continue to learn remotely. We must redouble our efforts to support the mental health of each and every child, regardless of where they are sitting.
With Principal Cook outside the Baldwin School
Concerned about the impacts isolation was having on our students, in late 2020 I stepped outside my policy-making role to see what a coalition might be able to provide for students who were struggling. A trusted Youth Resource Officer who had worked with My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge on outdoor programming last summer suggested offering safe, social opportunities. Building on this idea, I convened a small group of CPS educators, community partners, and parents* to consider how we could help children connect with peers and caring adults during this time. The group decided to focus on tenth and eleventh graders, believing they were less likely to be returning to in-person learning soon. We also knew that the most effective opportunities would be designed and led by the young people we wanted to reach. Those who worked directly with students (including School Committee colleague Ayesha Wilson, wearing her Work Force hat) recruited a small team of student designers. In a few short weeks, we were ready for an initial gathering. We were delighted that the staff of Starlight Square** was eager to collaborate with us. Working within the state guidelines for outdoors, on January 17 we welcomed 22 CRLS students to Starlight Square.
CRLS scholars at Starlight Square, writing reflections on their experiences during COVID.
At Starlight, students greeted friends, listened to music mixed by one of their peers, and responded to prompts about how they were feeling and what supports they wanted, both in writing and through art. The youth designers led a walk through the neighborhood and around Sennott Park, during which students reflected on the concepts of connection and caring. As the event came to a close, Mayor Siddiqui addressed the group, and each student shared their hopes for future gatherings. While some students suggested particular activities, others were explicit that it was the opportunity to be together safely that mattered to them most; the content of the event was mostly irrelevant.
The young designers are now planning monthly gatherings throughout the spring. All will be outdoors -- and participation limited to enable social distancing. Some will focus on the arts, and others group games or movement. The February gathering included a personal check-in, rounds of Pictionary and Heads Up!, and sharing reflections and requests with the Student School Committee Members and CRLS Principal Smith. My heart was truly warmed to see young people playing, laughing, and connecting.
Closing circle at Down with Design
While monthly gatherings are a small innovation, the students and adults in this emerging Cambridge Collaborative hope that we are creating a model for future youth-led, coalition-supported efforts in our school district and city. Transforming our children’s educational experiences will require us to break silos, risk failure, and work in different ways. In the meantime, we are grateful to be providing social connection for some of our wonderful students.
Coming soon: reflections on the search for an Interim Superintendent, which is just getting underway. Stay tuned!
As always, I welcome your ideas and questions.
* Extra thanks to Youth Designers Amarah, Elijah, Henry, Jaden, Rosie, Sara, Yossan, STARs teacher Sharon Lozada, district Design and Innovation Coach Angie UyHam, Co-Director of the Agenda for Children Khari Milner, Debbie Bonilla in her Friday Night Hype capacity, parent innovator Jeff Goldenson, CPD Youth Resource Officer Daniliuk, Tony Clark and Ty Bellitti from My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, as well as B Kim in the Mayor’s office, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and School Committee Member Ayesha Wilson.
** Starlight Square itself is the brainchild of a CPS graduate, Nina Berg, and the community coalition which is the Central Square BID. We are very grateful for their generous partnership.
Student School Committee Members Killian and Vera DeGraff with Member Wilson and myself at February’s gathering.