Katrena Perou

Six years ago, when my then boss, Richard Buery, sent me to the Children’s Aid Society’s Community School Practicum at Columbia University, I didn’t know anything about the Community Schools movement . Richard was interested in exploring the idea of opening up a community school in East New York, Brooklyn. At Richard’s behest, I joined educators from all over the world who were eager to learn more about this new approach to supporting children in their schools. The keynote speaker was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke passionately on his belief that the Community Schools model should shape the future of education in this country.

A Community School, I learned, is a powerful, holistic, vision for  positive change that manifests through strong partnerships between the school and a wide range of community resources. Community schools work to improve academic outcomes by engaging families, and improving the quality of students’ lives through increased access to healthcare, social services, and youth development opportunities. Community Schools become community centers; open to everyone – all day, every day, on both weekdays and weekends. The core belief of the Community Schools movement is that stronger families and healthier communities will lead to improved academic outcomes and higher graduation rates.

“Everything a student needed was right there in the same building. I was inspired.” 

As we know, its one thing to learn about the latest educational trend, and another to implement it successfully within a public school. During the Columbia University practicum we visited a public school in Washington Heights, one that was deemed a top notch example of a working Community school in New York. I was blown away when I walked in to find a family resource center in the lobby, a full service medical clinic, and enough social workers to provide each student with social and emotional support. Everything a student needed was right there in the same building. I was inspired. 

Shortly after my visit to the Community Schools Practicum at Columbia University, there was a major earthquake in Haiti. Thousands of children and families were suddenly injured, without food, water, shelter. Many had lost their family members. Many school buildings were destroyed. My two children are Haitian, and their father, who is a physician’s assistant, traveled to Haiti on an emergency visit to give medical attention to people in need. When he returned home, he described the overwhelming need, and his wish to do more. I immediately thought about my Community School experience, and thought “This is exactly what Haiti needs!” How could we expect Haitian students to go back to school without social workers to address their trauma, medical doctors to help heal their wounds, or a resource center to support their parents?

Soon after, I hosted a meeting at my house for people who also wanted to support Haiti. About five people showed up, one of them a woman that I had never met before. After sharing my vision of what a Community School might look like in Haiti, she told me that her non-profit organization was trying to build a school in Cabaret, Haiti. She invited me to visit Haiti with her to try to implement a Community School model within her school. Just like that, I had a school with approximately 150 children where I could direct my efforts. I resigned from my job, and committed myself to networking and building a Community School in Haiti. Former CEO of the Children’s Aid Society, Pete Moses, who I just happened to run into at an event at Carnegie Hall, loved the idea of the school and supported me for several months by accompanying me to high stake meetings, and connecting me to the right people. To read more about this journey click here.

A few years later, when I began working at UAP, I had no choice but to decrease the amount of time that I was investing in the Haiti project in order to redirect my energy to serving young people in New York. I was saddened to physically step away from the Haiti project, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to create Community Schools here in the five boroughs.

This year, I became Urban Arts Partnership’s Director of Programs. Coincidentally, the first school that I walked into upon this appointment was the very same building that I had visited six years before with the Children’s Aid Society.

Sometimes coincidence feels more like fate. 

I am happy to tell you that, UAP now has three community schools, the latest of which, Brooklyn Generations, will launch later this month.

Stay tuned for updates! 

Serendipity Footnote: On July 23-27, 2015, Urban Arts Partnership Community School staff will travel to Haiti to join students in painting a mural on the school wall and to distribute the donations from Brooklyn Generations High School. Who would have ever thought that a school tucked away in Brooklyn on Flatlands Avenue would have any interaction with a school hidden down a rocky, broken path 40 minutes away from Port Au Prince, Haiti?

.@UAPNYC Blog: http://tinyurl.com/lpb7cek