South Baltimore School Helps Students, Young Parents Graduate and Thrive

Posted July 7, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Mom holds baby in classroom setting

For years, teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors at South Baltimore’s Ben­jamin Franklin High School strug­gled to improve out­comes for their stu­dents, see­ing low­er grad­u­a­tion rates and read­ing and math scores com­pared to schools in wealth­i­er areas. In 2010, an assess­ment of com­mu­ni­ty needs found that: 

  • atten­dance rates at the school were low, affect­ing grad­u­a­tion rates; 
  • trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences impact­ed stu­dents’ suc­cess in school;
  • inse­cure hous­ing was a major bar­ri­er to stu­dents com­plet­ing school; and 
  • stu­dent par­ents lacked the sup­port they need­ed to graduate. 

That’s why, in 2014, Unit­ed Way of Cen­tral Mary­land estab­lished what it now calls the Neigh­bor­hood Zone in Brook­lyn (for­mer­ly known as the Unit­ed Way Ben Franklin Cen­ter at Brooklyn/​Curtis Bay, or the Ben Cen­ter). Based at Ben­jamin Franklin High School, the Neigh­bor­hood Zone uses a com­mu­ni­ty school mod­el, coor­di­nat­ing a net­work of part­ners that works to meet the needs of stu­dents and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty. These orga­ni­za­tions offer ser­vices that go far beyond sup­port­ing aca­d­e­mics, pro­vid­ing access to child care, men­tal health sup­ports, hous­ing and finan­cial assis­tance and work­force devel­op­ment programs.

The Neigh­bor­hood Zone — which is sup­port­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and oth­er pri­vate and pub­lic fun­ders — also runs a food pantry, acts as an event space, hosts after-school pro­grams, con­nects fam­i­lies to free com­put­ers and inter­net ser­vice and offers trans­porta­tion to stu­dent par­ents and their chil­dren to and from school. 

Stu­dents thrive with a healthy, strong com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ing them,” says Gena O’Keefe, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. The Unit­ed Way of Cen­tral Mary­land lis­tened to stu­dents and the com­mu­ni­ty near Ben­jamin Franklin High School and now offers com­pre­hen­sive resources to meet the needs of stu­dents and fam­i­lies in the area.”

Here are some of the ways the Neigh­bor­hood Zone sup­ports stu­dents and fam­i­lies in its South Bal­ti­more community:

Child care and par­ent­ing supports

In 2014, the Neigh­bor­hood Zone estab­lished its 1,200-foot Fam­i­ly Cen­ter and play­ground at Ben­jamin Franklin High School. At the cen­ter, a full-time social work­er and a team of interns pro­vides a host of sup­ports for stu­dent par­ents and young peo­ple (up to age 24) with chil­dren in the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty. This includes free day-care ser­vices and evi­dence-based ear­ly edu­ca­tion for par­tic­i­pants’ chil­dren. The Fam­i­ly Center’s goal is for all infants and tod­dlers to join a Head Start or pre‑K pro­gram on track or ahead of their peers.

The team also pro­vides par­ent­ing cours­es that help young par­ents build bonds with their chil­dren as well as sup­port­ive ser­vices to help them stay on track to grad­u­ate. Since June 2015, the Fam­i­ly Cen­ter has helped 46 teen par­ents grad­u­ate high school. Out of those grad­u­ates, 21 enrolled direct­ly in a col­lege or voca­tion­al pro­gram and 19 entered the workforce.

Men­tal health services

The Cen­ter employs anoth­er full-time social work­er and a team of interns from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land School of Social Work to pro­vide coun­sel­ing for all stu­dents at the school. Over sev­er­al years, the team has served hun­dreds of stu­dents through indi­vid­ual and group ses­sions, as well as cri­sis inter­ven­tions and mediations. 

In 20192020, some 66% of stu­dents who received men­tal health ser­vices report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing a decrease in symp­toms asso­ci­at­ed with depres­sion (data and sur­veys for 20202021 are still being analyzed.) 

Hous­ing assistance

The Neigh­bor­hood Zone hosts one of the Unit­ed Way of Cen­tral Maryland’s 15 Home­less­ness Pre­ven­tion Pro­grams in the region, which pro­vides fam­i­lies with school-aged chil­dren fac­ing hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty with finan­cial assis­tance and tools that help them remain in a home. Near­ly all of the fam­i­lies who have used hous­ing ser­vices at Ben­jamin Franklin High School have avoid­ed home­less­ness. For those who have had to move due to unfore­seen cir­cum­stances, almost none of their chil­dren have had to trans­fer schools, which can often dis­rupt learning. 

Com­mu­ni­ty supports

A com­mu­ni­ty school coor­di­na­tor at Ben­jamin Franklin High School con­nects stu­dents and fam­i­lies to var­i­ous sup­ports they may need, includ­ing help­ing them access resources for food, finan­cial assis­tance, tech­nol­o­gy, edu­ca­tion­al sup­ports, after-school pro­grams and career ser­vices. The Unit­ed Way of Cen­tral Mary­land also runs a 24-hour infor­ma­tion and refer­ral ser­vice that con­nects fam­i­lies and indi­vid­u­als to these impor­tant resources. 

We will con­tin­ue to expand our work sup­port­ing stu­dents and fam­i­lies in our South Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ty and across the cen­tral region,” says Heather Chap­man, vice pres­i­dent of Unit­ed Way Neigh­bor­hood Zones at the Unit­ed Way of Cen­tral Mary­land. The Neigh­bor­hood Zone’s work is vital­ly impor­tant and pro­vides a strong mod­el for Bal­ti­more schools that are tran­si­tion­ing to a com­mu­ni­ty school model.”

The growth of com­mu­ni­ty schools in Baltimore

In recent years, Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools has dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand­ed the num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty school sites like the one at Ben­jamin Franklin High School. From 2019 to 2021, the num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty schools in Bal­ti­more grew from 50 to 128 — or 77% of the district’s schools — large­ly due to increased state fund­ing from the pas­sage of the Blue­print for Maryland’s Future Act,” an edu­ca­tion reform bill passed in 2020 that seeks to fos­ter equi­table out­comes for Mary­land students.

Usu­al­ly, Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ty schools fol­low a sim­i­lar mod­el to Ben­jamin Franklin’s. A coor­di­na­tor works with stu­dents, school staff and fam­i­lies to con­duct a com­mu­ni­ty needs assess­ment to deter­mine which part­ners and ser­vices are need­ed at a site. Ser­vices often include aca­d­e­m­ic enrich­ment pro­grams; career and tech­nol­o­gy cours­es; recre­ation­al activ­i­ties; and assis­tance for fam­i­lies fac­ing basic needs, such as hous­ing and food assistance.

We are very hap­py to see the expan­sion of the com­mu­ni­ty schools mod­el into more high schools in Bal­ti­more City,” O’Keefe says. The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has high­light­ed how impor­tant it can be to have com­pre­hen­sive sup­ports from a cen­tral com­mu­ni­ty hub — and we hope that actors in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors take notice of how com­mu­ni­ty schools can serve that function.”

Learn more about the Casey Foundation’s sup­port for equi­table out­comes in education

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