By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about some of the exciting and innovative programs our schools have undertaken to improve life opportunities and outcomes for Somerville’s young people. I also promised that I would devote a future column to SomerPromise, a new initiative to harness and coordinate all of our local programs and resources – both public and private – to give our kids the best possible start toward a healthy and successful life.
As is usually the case for major public-private initiatives, the idea behind SomerPromise is simple, but the implementation will be complex and time-consuming. For one thing, the number of partners in the venture is large and growing: a partial list includes the Somerville Public Schools (especially the Superintendent’s Office, the Healey School staff, the Family Learning Collaborative, the Parent/Child Home Program, and the Somerville High School Mediation program); the Boys and Girls Clubs of Middlesex County; the Community Action Agency of Somerville (including Project HeadStart); The Welcome Project; Tufts University; the Somerville Housing Authority; the Cambridge Health Alliance; Raising a Reader; the YMCA; the Elizabeth Peabody House; the Mystic Learning Center; Somerville Cares About Prevention; Teen Empowerment, the Somerville Public Library and the City’s Recreation Department. The full list is even longer (I apologize to the folks I missed), but you get the idea.
What do these groups have in common? All of them have the capacity to make a positive difference in the lives of Somerville’s at-risk and disadvantaged youth. As a result, that means that they also have the capacity to make a positive difference in the lives of every Somerville resident. After all, when more of our at-risk students get a good start in life, that change improves the learning environment and the pace of achievement for all our students. It improves the safety of our streets. It improves and strengthens our local economy.
That is why the city and its many partners are working together to emulate the coordination and the results achieved in the world-famous Harlem Children’s Zone: we want to coordinate the way we reach out to, and support, at-risk youth – and ultimately, all Somerville youth – and to measure the outcomes so that we know what works and what doesn’t. We want to introduce the same data-driven approach that we’ve applied in municipal government (with programs like SomerStat and 311) to enhancing opportunities and support programs for our young people.
It’s going to be even harder in an environment with many different agencies and many different funding sources, but it can still be done. And, as with almost everything we do in city government, we’re beginning with a narrowly-focused pilot effort that will us help understand what approaches work best and how to scale up over time.
For SomerPromise, the pilot effort is occurring at the Healey School and is focusing on at-risk kids from the Somerville Housing Authority’s Mystic View Development.
Initially, the pilot will look at two specific ways to help kids identified as at-risk. (The identification process includes all of our partner organizations.) The first way is the direct provision of services: in this case, the provision of tutoring outside the school day, but coordinated with the school curriculum, in order to improve academic engagement and performance. The second way is to improve coordination and communication between the various agencies that provide services to these children and their families. In the medical world, this concept is sometimes called “continuity of care:” here it means that each interaction with a teacher, coach, after-school program coordinator, or tutor is informed by, and reinforces the work of all the others, and that (to the greatest extent possible) parents are active, well-informed participants in the programs that are helping their children learn and develop outside the home.
As we work both to expand direct services and to explore better ways to coordinate those services over multiple providers, we’ll measure what works and what doesn’t. And then we will expand SomerPromise to other young people, other school populations and other neighborhoods. Like the kids it is designed to help, SomerPromise has boundless potential. Realizing that potential will take time, patience and hard work, but our kids, and our city’s future, are worth it.