Vanessa Marrero prepared for an important job one Tuesday in January. In leopard kitten heels and a beige trench coat, she grabbed a folder and hopped into a waiting car outside of John O’Connell High School.
She was heading to a student’s home in the Bayview to talk to his mom. As a community school coordinator, Marrero had Carlos’ records in hand.
Half an hour later, inside a small apartment furnished with a light lime-green couch, two school certificates tacked to a wall and family pictures in heart-shaped frames, Marrero began the conversation with Carlos’ mom, Angela, in Spanish.
He isn’t in trouble, she reassured Angela. No, this was going be a different kind of visit.
Marrero was there with Jose Villalobos, the school’s parent liaison, to connect with Angela — to tell her about the resources available to her and her son, and to discuss Carlos’ grades and attendance.
Marrero’s job was created last year as part of several reforms at the city’s underperforming schools funded by a $45 million district-wide School Improvement Grant, which will continue through the end of the 2012-2013 school year. Six community school coordinators work in the Mission District, each earning about $60,000 a year.
A coordinator is responsible for a variety of parent and community engagement efforts, Kevin Rocap, the executive director of the School Improvement Grant, said in an email. This involves managing the work of various community-based organizations, including after-school and mental health partners that work at the schools.
The improvement plan aims to turn the school into a one-stop shop of sorts, more than just a place for academics. If students and families — even community members outside of the school — need food, there will be a food bank. If they need counseling, there will be counseling services.
It’s about rethinking how to build a school that supports students, parents and the community, said Brian Fox, the coordinator at Mission High School.
The coordinator is key, say many. Each plays a slightly different role, because every school is at a different stage when it comes to community engagement.
For Fox, formerly the director of strategic partnerships for the San Francisco Education Fund, the job means overseeing the curriculum of an advisory program for Mission High students preparing for college and careers. He also works directly with teachers: along with a college and career counselor and a coordinator from the college-prep program GEAR UP, Fox holds Monday meetings to review lesson plans and discuss common problems.
Carlo Solis, who is a coordinator at Cesar Chavez Elementary, attended Buena Vista Elementary School as a child and later worked as the director of an after-school program there. At Chavez he spends his time evaluating partnerships with community-based organizations. For example, he oversees workshops for anywhere from 20 to 60 parents on topics like enrollment and puberty. Solis also opens up the school to the community; recently he hosted a free haircut day for the neighborhood, organized by City College students.
And then there’s Marrero, a former social worker who worked at Horace Mann Middle School for five years. At John O’Connell, she runs a breakfast club every Tuesday morning, cooking omelets and other dishes for any student who’s at school half an hour before the bell rings.
Since she began working at John O’Connell last April, she has led a mentoring program for at-risk youth, hosts school tours and hangs flags in the atrium to represent students’ different cultural backgrounds. She also meets with families in their homes. Since the school year began, Marrero has visited more than half of the homes of the 91 ninth-graders.
Inside her apartment, Angela was nervous. She didn’t know what to expect from the visit, even though her son promised he hadn’t done anything wrong. That’s a normal reaction, Marrero said, because parents are used to seeing school staff only when there’s a problem. But meeting in a setting outside of school has benefits.
“It’s a positive outreach that’s about building trust and connections, getting away from the familiar idea of home visits,” said Carrie Rose, the executive director of the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project, based in Sacramento.
After hearing Marrero’s intentions, Angela opened up. She works a lot, she explained, and was under stress. That’s why she had missed an earlier meeting at the school about Carlos’ low attendance.
That type of dialogue is an eye-opener for Marrero. It helps her stay in touch with the parents’ concerns, and it makes her more sympathetic. She sometimes calculates how long it takes her to get to their homes by car, then wonders how long it takes students when they travel by bus or BART. Could that be why some are always late?
Grades, of course, are always a subject of conversation.
Carlos’ have never been the best, his mother explained. He’s shy and doesn’t like to ask questions. But during his first year at John O’Connell, he’s become increasingly comfortable and has been doing better in his classes. That was true, but only to a certain extent, Marrero gently reminded Angela. Carlos’ grade in College and Career dropped from an A at the start of the semester to an F.
Why? Did he lose motivation?
Angela knew. They had gone to Nicaragua for three weeks during his final exams. She hadn’t paid attention to the school calendar when she booked the flights, and when she realized the error, didn’t want to disappoint him.
Angela sent a letter to the school requesting makeup work, but Carlos never received any.
His absence probably wasn’t approved, Marrero later said, because that type of request is only for emergencies. Missing 10 days of school because of a vacation is never OK.
Making such connections that get to the why of a student’s past behavior is crucial, said Rose from the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project.
Villalobos, the parent liaison who works with Marrero, remembered one student who was chronically absent. It turned out that she had a medical condition and was undergoing surgical procedures. The school had no idea, but once Marrero found out, she offered help.
The student now tells Marrero when she has medical appointments and takes part in school activities such as a mentoring group. That’s the sort of engagement that Marrero is trying to foster — getting disinterested students involved — and she credits the community school model for that.
“You offer a service to kids three times and it’s like ‘OK, they don’t get it,’” she said. “And some people don’t do anything. But we don’t want to do that. We want to keep exploring ways to get them engaged.” Handing out perfect attendance awards, like gift certificates to Game Stop, the video game store, is one way. If kids have something to look forward to at school, they’re going to come, Marrero said.
As with all relationships, a good one between student and school, and parent and school, should go both ways. During the meeting, Marrero encouraged Angela to visit the school to see what was happening on the inside. Angela said Carlos tells her not to, because he’s embarrassed. It’s OK to give him space, Marrero replied, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting involved.
Sometimes it’s the parents who are embarrassed, especially by their economic situation. Last year, more than 60 percent of students in the district were on the free or reduced lunch plan. Some request family conferences at the school because they live in a studio where there’s not enough room to meet. Marrero can’t reach others because their phones have been disconnected.
Being sensitive to cultural differences as well as economic status is critical. Marrero remembers one Asian father who offered her a specialty tea when she met with him at his home in the Bayview. During that visit, Marrero learned of custody disputes between the boy’s parents, who were separating. The boy was often late to school when he stayed in the Richmond with his mom. Without the home visit, Marrero said, she might never have learned this, because the Asian community is one group the school doesn’t reach as well as it should. In the Mission, the emphasis often is on Latino outreach.
Back at Angela’s apartment, the conversation continued, turning to school ambience. Angela said Carlos had been offered marijuana.
He can talk to counselors when that happens, Marrero said. It’s important to maintain the school’s security, despite the stigma attached to snitching, Villalobos added.
Angela agreed. Carlos promised her that he hadn’t accepted the offer; he knows the consequences of engaging in that type of behavior, she said.
All of this goes back to another of Marrero’s goals: creating an atmosphere of trust and respect for students, parents and staff.
When Marrero reminded Angela about a college night that was coming up and the different parent groups that she could join, Angela said that would be difficult, because she works every day until 5 p.m.
The exchange was similar to many others Marrero and Villalobos have had during home visits.
“Sometimes you get frustrated,” Villalobos said. “Is anything achieved after that meeting?”
Community school coordinators face other challenges. Marrero said that because the community school strategy is new, some people are having a hard time understanding both her job and their role in the undertaking. She frequently finds herself explaining her duties to parents and to John O’Connell staff. Some school positions have been restructured since she came into the picture, Marrero said, and others, like school social workers, will look at the community school strategy and ask, “Where am I in all this?”
Fox, the coordinator at Mission High, faces a balancing act between promoting internal and external efforts. It’s tough to decide between spending time directly with students and teachers, and building relationships with outside organizations.
Any progress is slow. Students aren’t going to start getting A’s in class after one home visit, Villalobos said — that sort of immediate turnaround isn’t realistic.
But once families feel engaged and respected, they come through in new ways, said Rose.
For the first time, Villalobos has noticed some inactive John O’Connell parents attending events and showing up at school in search of resources.
Angela thanked Marrero and Villalobos for coming. “I try to guess what’s happening, but work is stressful, and it’s hard to find a way to visit,” she said. “I’ll try more.”
On the way back to John O’Connell, Marrero was happy with how the session had gone.
“If what we want to do is engage the community, then we’ve got to go into the community,” she said. “This strategy starts on the ground, knocking door to door.”
“I haven’t had anyone chase me out of their house just yet.”