The Spirit of Boston: St. Stephen’s Youth Programs

ststephlogo-150x150I’ve visited St. Stephen’s Youth Programs twice in the last two weeks. Each time, I’ve arrived sweaty and frazzled from biking through the maze of one way streets that is Boston’s South End. And each time, Meg McDermott–St. Stephen’s School and Community Partnership Organizer–has warmly welcomed me, happy to share the work her parish is doing in the neighborhood. During my visits to the Blackstone School and St. Stephen’s B-READY after school program, Meg immediately encouraged me not just to stand by, but to jump in and participate. Her trust and spirit of giving parallels that of all the staff and volunteers I encountered during my visits. Their spirit is emblematic of a greater ideology of community and care that motivates this partnership between St. Stephen’s and the youth and families in the South End.

History of the Blackstone Partnership
Though it is located in one of Boston’s most diverse and resource-filled neighborhoods, 94% of the students at the Blackstone School are low income. The school was designated a “turnaround” school by the city in 2010, and in the years following continued to experience hasty staffing changes and low test scores. St. Stephen’s staff–including Director of Youth Programs, Rev. Liz Steinhauser–had sustained interest in partnering with school for many years, but it wasn’t until the turnaround decision that the administration began to reach out to the neighborhood–including the nearby parish. Today, both clergy and lay people have assisted in the administration and neighborhood-wide effort to utilize community resources to uplift the school. Blackstone is now a designated “Innovation School”, allowing staff greater autonomy and flexibility to develop innovative curriculum and instruction to meet student needs. The school continues to work with numerous partners including St. Stephens, CityYear, Playworks, and multiple other local non-profits as it succeeds and grows.

In 2011, volunteers from Episcopal congregations across the region helped to open a library at the Blackstone for the first time in over 20 years. It is now staffed five days a week by volunteers and library science graduate students. St. Stephens also coordinates bi-annual days of service for school renovations, and hosts a flourishing ‘adopt-a-classroom’ program for businesses, non-profits, and far away churches to send supplies, learning materials, and monetary support to teachers and classrooms at the Blackstone.

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St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, hosted on-site in the South End and in other neighborhoods throughout the city, has had equal success developing sustained relationships with students and supporting them throughout their K-12 experience. At the South End program site, elementary and middle school students have a nurturing place to learn and play from 2:30-6:00pm each day. High schoolers, employed by St. Stephen’s, assist younger kids and have their own focused programming in the evening hours. All students are given a wide range of emotional and academic support, including one-on-one tutoring, hands-on learning opportunities, service projects, career exploration, and leadership programs catered to students’ developmental needs.

I was only able to see a small part of the projects St. Stephen’s has spearheaded throughout the city. To understand the full scope of their work, I encourage you to visit their website. There you can learn about their various programming sites: including extensive summer opportunities for youth in six Boston neighborhoods, their teen employment program, and partnerships like that with Trinity Counseling Center, among other offerings.

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Witnessing A Community of Learners in the South End
library-360x270My first day at the Blackstone, I read to a class of eager first graders. As I turned page after page, the students pointed at things they noticed in the pictures, asked me to read every caption or flip back to a picture or sentence they enjoyed. One girl scooted close to my knees so she could read the text and mouth the words along with me. It was clear that these young people had developed a connection and relationship not only with reading, but with the library too.  By the time I was halfway through the book, all of the students were chiming in and chanting the repeated phrases throughout the story. There was no denying the tangible spirit this community of learners had–it was a spirit so indicative of the greater work performed by Blackstone’s dedicated teachers, staff, and volunteers who support them.

Ten days later, I joined a group of first and second grade students for snack down the road at St. Stephen’s B-READY after school program. As I took a seat, a girl popped out of her chair saying, “You! You read to our class!” After snack, she held my hand to make sure I found their homework-help classroom before she scampered off to find her favorite tutor–a Wellesley College student. I thought to myself, this “circle of care” Meg McDermott so often talked about could not be more aptly illustrated.

There are many students who volunteers and staff see not only at the Blackstone Library, but also after school at St. Stephen’s, during the summer, and at church on Sunday. According to McDermott, it’s about 20% of the total students that overlap in this way–thirty or so families each year. To McDermott, it’s important to know the students in all facets of life–”as people and as students.” But the organization values all its enrollments equally, and in total enrolls 75-80 elementary schoolers, 30 middle schoolers, and 36 high school students in their South End after-school program alone.

All Our Children, All Our Neighbors

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St. Stephen’s cares deeply about serving not only the students in its parish, but also the neighborhood as a whole. Their mission speaks to the greater relevance of church-to-school partnerships both inside and out of the Church. Many involved in a church-school partnership feel that their work is part of the larger mission and calling of the Episcopal Church–that we have a greater responsibility to our neighborhood, and to all our neighbors and neighborhoods.

McDermott says the work of school partnerships “makes the church relevant…it’s more than sitting in a pew.” She is personally encouraged to see volunteers from all over the greater metropolitan area engaging with the history and reality of Boston’s schools, and is particularly excited to bring young people to this work. She sees church-to-school partnerships as a way to direct church resources, like educated, energetic young people, to under-resourced schools. “The world we live in is so much broader,” she says, “and a new generation of young people are moved by faith and can participate in school partnerships as a way to make this issue more public, while still maintaining separation of church and state.”

It is clear that more and more young people are moved by St. Stephen’s work–for example, 35 Wellesley College students are involved with St. Stephen’s as in-classroom and after-school aides, a program that has grown significantly in the last few years. They are one of the many partners in what St. Stephens calls their “partnership of partners.” And from what I experienced in my few short hours with the program–St. Stephen’s Youth Programs truly is a broad partnership and a community-wide effort on behalf of all involved. From the student in the library, to the volunteer tutor, to the After School programs director–the effort and energy in the room to support this school, this community, and this city is a coming together of children, of neighbors, and of communities caring for each other and their futures.