When I first saw West Side Story, a moment took me back to my high school principal’s office. The Jets sang, “We’re not delinquents, we’re misunderstood. Deep inside us, there is good!
I could have said the same thing when my principal suspended me for truancy. He told me that I would never achieve anything.
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But he never understood why I missed school. I had to be home to take care of my younger brothers when my mother was hospitalized with her permanent mental illness and my father was working in construction.
And the same way the Jets sang about Officer Krupke behind his back, I could never say that to my manager across the street.
Although much has changed since Stephen Sondheim penned these lyrics nearly 60 years ago, too often the police, school officials and even dedicated youth-serving professionals fail to understand that most teenagers try to give the best of themselves, even in the most difficult circumstances. .
What they lack are safe and supportive environments in which to learn, play, work and grow.
The need is greater than ever. Up to 3 million children have had minimal or no access to school since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of them may never return. Nearly 200,000 children have lost a parent to the pandemic. At any given time, 1 in 30 American children is homeless. Nearly half a million children are in foster care and few of them will ever live in stable homes.
To find out how to meet these needs, the Forum for Youth Investment and our partners asked young adults who have been in the child welfare system how to improve the experiences of children today.
We’ve heard what researchers have been saying for decades: young people’s learning and development are shaped by the interactions they have with adults in all contexts of their lives. That’s why our organization is forging common agendas to bring about systemic change at the federal, state and local levels. No agency, organization or public sector can provide young people with everything they need to succeed. But an approach that connects all systems – education, workforce development, government, nonprofits, philanthropy, business, health and social services, and youth justice – can improve outcomes for young people. .
Related: ‘All their heavens have fallen’: 1 in 450 young people have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID
Our country must transform youth services so that adolescents are valued for their strengths, not criticized for their deficits; empowered to realize their full potential, unrelated to their parents’ poverty or other challenges; judged by their character, not rejected by the style of their clothes, the color of their skin or the way they speak.
Natasha Jones, now a grad student who had been in foster homes as a child, told us, “You may sound like a system, but what I need is a relationship.” The child welfare system can step in in a crisis, she said, but it didn’t meet her most basic need: to connect to the community, where she could find mentors in schools, faith-based organizations and employers.
Jodi Harper, a native Hawaiian who lived in foster homes from birth, found such a connection in school, where she succeeded on her own and learned that her “experiences in the field of child protection were not my fault”.
Our conclusion was that young people need an ecosystem. In other words, the systems created and funded to support them must align and coordinate to shape learning and development, to enable adults to form positive relationships with young people, and to provide them with the dignity, tools and the training they deserve.
This work will be difficult. But we have already seen collaborations during the pandemic integrating education, health care and social services across government and nonprofits.
At the height of COVID-19, schools and community partners relied on each other more than ever to meet the most pressing needs of students and their families. Community organizations have provided safe environments for children of essential workers to connect to virtual classrooms. Schools worked with community and health and social service agencies to create mobile hotspots for internet connectivity and provided services including nutritious meals, masks and other healthcare supplies to families who could not afford or access these vital resources.
Today, they’re working together to reinvent summer learning and inspire teens to develop skills for the job of today and tomorrow. And perhaps, more importantly, show young people how to defend themselves and help adults understand how to meet their needs.
Extending this work even further will require an investment of time, energy and funding. As with any investment, it will pay dividends in the future, as these changes prepare struggling youth to thrive as community leaders and contribute to the economy. Without these changes, lifetime costs will put further strain on corrections, unemployment and other public services.
In this new ecosystem, Officer Krupke deserves a makeover. Instead of being a cop, he is a well-trained community police officer who listens to young people, connects with the community and understands their needs. He has relationships to coordinate with teachers, extracurricular professionals, counselors, mentors, and others who can support young people in all aspects of their lives.
I’m living proof that these kinds of relationships matter. My high school principal didn’t believe in me, but many others in my hometown school community did. They treated my family with dignity and respect, provided me with the supports, connections and opportunities to stay connected at school, and launched me into a career where I can now help build the system that will do the same. for millions of young people today.
Mishaela Durán is President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, a national nonprofit “action tank” that helps state and local leaders leverage research, policy and practice so that all children and youth are ready for college, work and life.
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