Engage community beyond your Title I school
Low-cost, effective family and community engagement strategies for Title I districts and schools may be only as far away as your local police department. In St. Louis, for instance, police recruits show up at Woerner Elementary School to read and write with students during their weekly Books and Badges session.
The program was developed by a local community activist in late 2002 as a partnership between St. Louis Public Schools and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. And every year, several local elementary schools participate, according to Woerner Principal Peggy Meyer. It requires little to no funding to start a Books and Badges program, Meyer said, but collaboration must be a top priority.
Books and Badges program buddies up cops, kids
Principal Peggy Meyer’s favorite days are when the police show up at Woerner Elementary in St. Louis. The hallways fill with laughter and smiles as police recruits read and write with students during their weekly Books and Badges session.
The program was developed by local community activist Karen Kalish in late 2002 as a partnership between St. Louis Public Schools and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Each year, several local elementary schools participate, Meyer said.
Depending on the current size of the police academy’s recruit class, the 25 to 40 police recruits visit their assigned school once a week for an hour to volunteer as reading partners, Kalish said.
It requires little to no funding to start a Books and Badges program; however, collaboration is a must. You need a police chief who sees the value of the recruits getting into the community and into the schools specifically, as well as willing principals, teachers, and someone to provide recruits with an overview of the program and some practical pointers on building literacy skills, she said.
Multiple evaluations of the program by St. Louis University found recruits value and enjoy the experience as do schools. “Every school would like to have all the recruits to themselves,” she said. At one school, a mother came in and cried as she told of how after the weekly visits with a police recruit, her son’s behavior at school and home transformed in a dramatically positive way, Kalish recalled.
Kalish and Meyer, along with Police Officer Brad Roy and SLPS Principals Cameron Coleman and Jeanine Zitta, shared with Title I Report how they think communities might benefit from the program.
● Police recruits: Recruits see the community they’ll be serving in a new light as they get to know students and hear about their lives. They learn about the effects of poverty and educational inequities. It helps them practice positive, face-to-face communication with those they serve, and reinforces the core values of service, integrity, leadership, and fair treatment, Roy said. “The police recruits realize that maybe if they work with kids now, they won’t see them on the streets later,” Kalish added.
● Schools: Recruits provide a helping hands in the classroom, reinforce literacy skills, and act as mentors to students who need positive role models. Teachers also learn new things about their students as they overhear conversations with recruits. “The recruits truly become a part of our school family,” said Zitta.
● Students: The program improves students’ literacy skills, builds their confidence and self-esteem, and changes how they view police officers. “The program is especially meaningful and effective for our students who have a fear or dislike of police officers or who have a parent or other relative who is incarcerated,” Meyer said. “They learn that police officers are real people who care about the community and want to serve others.”
This advantage can’t be overstated for your Title I students, Coleman said. “Police represent in some students’ minds who their parents have the most difficulty with for reasons they can’t figure out,” he said. Changing that dynamic improves any community.
“It is important to illustrate to the young boys and girls that police are not the enemy, but the total opposite; we are their friend, teacher, and role model,” Roy said.
Toward the end of the program, students take a field trip to the police academy where they scope out the police library and gym, see target practice, experience a simulation of driving fast through the city to follow a suspect, and watch recruits tackle and handcuff a “perp.”
“It is truly inspiring to see the joy and excitement when those students get to walk through the academy doors and see their recruit with whom they have built a special bond,” Roy said.
For Meyers, the only thing better than a visit to her school by police recruits is when they return as sworn police officers. When that happens, there are smiles, hugs and laughter in her school’s hallways as students swell up with pride for their officers.
For more information, email Kalish at email@example.com. ■
Checklist: Launch a police-school partnership
Below is a guide for creating a Books and Badges program, which pairs police recruits with students for weekly, one-hour visits during which recruits build positive relationships with students and help improve students’ literacy skills.
This checklist is based on the work of Karen Kalish, who designed the program, which is used by the St. Louis Public Schools and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Lay the groundwork
__ Work at the school level to gain support from the principal and teachers in the grades in which you’d like to implement the program.
__ Contact the local police chief and set up a meeting.
During the meeting:
• Focus on building a relationship.
• Be honest and forthright about the needs of your student population, the effects of poverty, and how academic failure ultimately can lead students into the criminal justice system.
• Provide data about your district or school, including the number of students not reading on grade level.
• Ask whether the police department is willing to support the effort by encouraging police officers to participate or by making it a requirement for police recruits.
• If the police chief is supportive, request a “go-to” person at the department whom you can connect with to arrange details.
__ Begin working with your police department contact to:
• Determine the format of your program. For example, will you use a one-to-one or small group model?
• Build support among teachers and police recruits.
• Set a training date for police recruits.
Training and support
__ Determine the content of the training and who will present. Kalish strongly encourages that Title I principals and a police officer present the information. In St. Louis, Police Chief Sam Dotson also stops by to speak to recruits.
Topics covered might include:
• Research on the importance of literacy skills;
• Impacts of poverty;
• Educational inequities found among minority students;
• The purpose and goals of the program and how the experience adds to a recruit’s level of knowledge and expertise about the community;
• Practical tips on interacting with children and building literacy skills; and
• Logistical details on when and where the program will be held.
__ Provide principals with an introductory letter that includes:
• Details to help teachers select students to participate in the program. Kalish recommends selecting students who are reading below grade level, have limited reading comprehension skills, have a family member who is incarcerated, and/or need a positive relationship.
• Expectations that the principal provide a brief orientation on the first day that recruits arrive to volunteer.
Kalish recommends that during the orientation, principals warmly welcome and thank the recruits, and review the school’s demographics, including student reading levels, free/reduced-price lunch rates, number of single parent households, and mobility rates. Allow time for introductions, questions, show the school’s process for signing in, and have some students give recruits a tour of the school.
• Details on what teachers should expect/not expect recruits to do and how teachers can support recruits.
• Expectations that students write a thank-you letter to their recruits at the end of the program.
__ Provide recruits with supplies (especially for one-to-one mentoring). Kalish provides recruits with a reading kit that includes:
• A letter a recruit can provide the student to take home regarding the program and a request to meet the parents, if possible;
• “Getting to know you” interviews for recruits and students to complete;
• A list of general reading comprehension questions;
• Reading partner tips, including a suggested schedule and activities;
• A sight word list;
• Index cards for writing down vocabulary and sight words;
• A journal for writing;
• A list of phrases to praise kids;
• Stickers, post-it notes, crayons, and pencils; and
• Recruits and students can also keep their current book in the kit.
__ Work with your police department contact to pair recruits and determine classroom assignments. Kalish recommends that you consider diversity when pairing recruits because it’s important that children see themselves in the recruits.
__ Arrange a field trip to the police academy or police department.
__ All participating students should write a thank you letter to their recruits.
__ Conduct surveys with students, principals, teachers, and recruits to evaluate the program.
__ Use feedback to improve your program for next school year. ■