Community Schools teams work to make students safe

For many people, gun violence is something they only see in the news. But for others, these senseless tragedies can happen in their city or in their neighborhood, maybe hitting so close to home that they lose a family member or a friend.

A prominent goal of the Community Schools programs that Catholic Charities offers in three Hartford’s public schools is to keep the students distant from the violence that plagues many urban areas. Our staffers seek to offer safe places for students to be during the vulnerable afternoon hours, while providing opportunities for them to discover alternatives to the dangerous activities that often lead to violence.

Some of the students in our program at Milner Middle School in Hartford with Patrick Williams (rear), the Community School Director at Milner, and Meshach Smith (right), the Afterschool Program Coordinator. Catholic Charities has Community Schools teams in three Hartford public schools.

Sitting in his office with windows looking out at the homes of the city’s North End, Patrick Williams, the Community School Director at Milner Middle School, peppers a discussion of his team’s work with the word “conversation.” The Catholic Charities staff spends a lot of time having conversations with students, much of it in a mentor role as they provide positive examples. They have conversations about school and classes, about homes and families, and about the grim issues like gun violence that exist in their environment.

Williams said living in that environment means a lot of the students are “adultified” at a young age and forced to make adult decisions and deal with adult realities. He acknowledges the paradox the reality presents — maturing at a young age is admirable but unfortunate due to the regrettable circumstances that force them to grow up sooner than they should.

“It’s good and bad,” he said. “Because they’re supposed to know what’s going on but it’s like … are they supposed to know what’s going on? We want to shelter them but if they already know what’s going on, let’s at least have a positive conversation about it.”

The We Lead program was started at Milner as an avenue to have conversations, create safe spaces, and encourage students to be in the safe spaces. We Lead teaches students about leadership and how to become leaders, it includes a block party on National Night Out in August and a visit to police stations so they can see the officers as humans and vice versa, Williams said.

Another key part of We Lead is having the students create public service announcements (PSAs) about important issues in their lives and topics the videos have covered in the past include gun violence and rape. One video tells a story, using crayon drawings, of a boy wants to bring a handgun to school because he has been bullied. Another features the students discussing rape and that paradox of the “adultified” child is striking. Their body language and behavior portrays children: fidgeting in their chairs; nervously smiling; soft, shy voices; and struggles to find words and phrases to explain their feelings like an adult. Yet, you realize these children are talking about rape and the traumatic emotions that victims experience.

Catholic Charities also operates Community Schools afterschool programs at McDonough Middle School and Parkville Community School that aren’t just places for the students to hang around in the afternoons. They are productive blocks of the day with classes to choose from like Creative Art, Violin, Graphic Design, Strategic Gaming, or Cheerleading. 

Patrick Williams, the Community School Director at Milner Middle School, says his team is fully entrenched in what the school does.

The lessons include “disguised learning,” a teaching method that weaves educational content into an activity. For example, using algorithms to teach a student how to solve a Rubik’s Cube helps them improve their patience, confidence, and problem-solving and planning abilities — all useful skills for adults in leadership positions in a community.

“I firmly believe that the responsibility to protect our communities rests not only with the law enforcement but also with collective efforts from every citizen,” said Nick Lebron, Director of the Community Schools program at Catholic Charities. “That’s why we prioritize violence prevention by introducing innovative strategies aimed at curbing such incidents.”

The programs operate 44 weeks out of the year, which includes summer activities and weekend events that involve the students’ families. Last school year, a group of students took a bus trip to visit a college in Virginia and tour Washington, D.C. 

“One of the things that sets us apart is that we are not just an afterschool program,” Williams said. “We are fully entrenched in what the school does. We are part of committees and part of teams that deal with attendance, climate, culture and engagement.”