A Public Service Program for All Seasons
By Marjorie Howard
A coordinated, collaborative approach to helping low-income kids in Somerville
Imagine a single program that would meet the needs of city youngsters all the way into adulthood: pre-natal care, all-day pre-kindergarten, extended-day schools, health clinics, community centers and youth violence prevention, as well as job training, job creation and mental health services. In fact, that kind of program exists now in New York, in a 100-block area called the Harlem Children’s Zone, and President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign proposed establishing 20 such zones around the country. Somerville is now leading an effort to run a similar program that will begin in one neighborhood and may eventually involve the entire city. The initiative, dubbed SomerPromise, will coordinate what is being described as a “conveyor belt” of services for the area around the Mystic Housing Development, which, with 450 units, is the largest public housing project in Massachusetts. Several Tufts groups are serving as partners with the city, including the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development in the School of Arts and Sciences, Tisch College and the graduate Department of Urban and Environmental Policy. The housing project is adjacent to the Arthur Healey School, a kindergarten-through-grade 8 school that serves a neighborhood where more than half the residents are under the age of 19 and the majority of families with children are headed by a single parent. Some 60 percent of the population earns less than $30,000 a year. Out in the Community The Somerville program comes at a fortuitous time for the Department of Child Development, says its chair, Jayanthi Mistry. She explains that the department has recently decided to “improve our training and teacher preparation so that our students are better prepared to work with diverse populations.” In keeping with these revised aims, the department has hired Christine McWayne as its new director of early childhood education. McWayne came to Tufts in January from New York University, where she forged strong connections with the federal Head Start program and other community-based efforts. The Mystic neighborhood program fits right in with this new emphasis. One of its aims is to eliminate the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers, helping them successfully complete high school and enter college or the workforce. “The idea is if low-income children have the same services that middle- and upper-income children have, the achievement gap will disappear,” says McWayne. She is liaison to the Somerville project, a role first held by Moncrieff Cochran, professor emeritus from Cornell University and a visiting professor at Eliot-Pearson. He says the strategy “is to carve out a specific geographic space and to work with the families within that space. This is unlike the traditional human services approach, which is to offer a service and expect people to come to you for that service. The idea is that you learn from the families what’s needed and you provide that.” Tufts students already involved in the project range from sophomores to Ph.D. candidates. Tisch College’s Project PERIS (Partnering for Economic Recovery in Somerville) is funding summer fellowships that will place Tufts graduates and undergraduates in positions with the Healey School and the SomerPromise project. Abby Copeman, a doctoral student in child development, will work with teachers from the Healey School to run a program for children entering kindergarten who have not attended pre-school. There will also be a program for children entering first grade who need additional school support. Another fellowship will place UEP’s Laura Tolkoff, G11, in the Somerville mayor’s office as an assistant in the Mystic program. A third fellowship will put a student in charge of recruiting, training and supervising a team of Mystic teenagers and adults who will canvas the neighborhood, provide residents with information about the project and gather information about the characteristics and interests of the families. McWayne says Eliot-Pearson is continuing to develop a strong partnership with the Healey School. She will begin serving on the school council this fall and she and Mistry participated in a recent search for a new principal. The department is working to develop a program that would have student teachers from Tufts train at the Healey and Healey teachers interact with Tufts faculty. “This is a very exciting project,” says McWayne, speaking of the SomerPromise program. “Somerville is starting with so much momentum already that I think it will be successful.” Marjorie Howard can be reached at email@example.com.