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The Importance of Educators: Meet the Team Behind Project REACH

Imagine if all children could read.  Imagine if all students had housing stability, food in their refrigerators, clean clothes that fit, and grew up in the same community, with the same school and the same friends.

Luckily, many of you have run into teachers who give their all for their students.  Whether it is daily academic tools like paper and pencils, color crayons and art materials, gym clothes, or even iPads and computer access, often the expenses these teachers incur to help their students come out of their personal bank accounts.

As we kick off the month to celebrate Women’s History, we honor teachers and education staff and their relentless fight to be stronger than this tumultuous time in history.

Heather Alden, licensed school social worker and supervisor for Project RE2 educators unboxing hats and mittens for children experiencing homelessnessACH (Realizing the Educational Achievement of Children experiencing Homelessness) and Fostering Connections at St. Paul Public Schools wears many hats these days.  Not only does she lead staff to help our YWCA St. Paul families experiencing homelessness get to school every day; she even finds herself in the classrooms in St. Paul Public Schools substituting for teachers out ill.  Lately, it has been several days a week she is asked to sub, and it can be anything from kindergarten to a classroom of seniors in honors biology. “Schools are in such dire straits right now, because of the lack of subs and teachers out with COVID-19,” Alden said.

Teachers are not out only because of this virus; they are out because they are tired.  They have been thrown into a new teaching expectation with no training.  Teaching remotely to classrooms of students with diverse learning styles and diverse needs can stress even the most resilient educators.

Alden says she believes the reality of the education system today is this:  society as a whole undervalues the work teachers do. She thinks that we are not honoring teachers’ work and the work that is being done. “If it were not for teachers, kids would not know how to read.  They would not know how to become citizens and learn critical thinking skills that support lifelong learning.”

As the supervisor for Project REACH under Title 1, Alden and her team support students experiencing homelessness to find stable housing, remain in their school of origin by providing transportation year-round, provide academic needs like homework support and credit recovery to keep these students on track to graduation and beyond.

But Alden credits her staff for the real work being done. Lily Tharoor, Licensed School Social Worker, and part of Alden’s team, work directly with participants in YW housing, supporting their educational needs, mental health, basic needs, and beyond.

Tharoor recently got a request from one of the teachers she works with.  This teacher was working with a student who was in the program at Project REACH.  She told Tharoor she got a request from one of her student’s families.  The teacher had asked Tharoor if she had any clothes to fit a ‘husky boy who wears a size 18.’  She said she did not, but this teacher wasn’t going to stop there.  She went out and bought him some clothes and some other personal items herself. “This is what our teachers do, “said Tharoor. “Supporting students not only academically, but with other needs like mental health, food, and other basic needs, it’s the teachers who should be celebrated. They do so much for our kids.”

Cindy McGowan, a Licensed School Social Worker, and part of Alden’s team says the pandemic has been extremely difficult on the families she works with.  As the pandemic has continued, she says that families left during COVID-19 and (we’re) St. Paul Public Schools are not getting them back. They fall through the cracks but are not showing up at different schools.  Usually, when students leave, other schools request their records as they enroll, but she just isn’t seeing this.  “Some of our homeless and highly mobile students couch-hop or stay in hotels while homeless; we’re just concerned about these kids and their education,” said McGowan.

The good news: there are wonderful people in St. Paul’s education system who care.  They are the ones who go the extra mile, stay later after school to help with homework, and often times provide clothing and food for their students out of their own pockets.

This week we encourage you to thank a teacher who’s had an impact on your student(s). They do the deep work of caring about your kids way past the 40 hours a week they see them in school. They worry about them at night, on weekends, holidays, and during the summer.  They worry about their health, their home lives, if they are eating ok, and about their social well-being when they are forced to learn from home. They are our frontline workers.  They are exhausted and they deserve all the love we have.

At YWCA St. Paul, our mission to empower girls and women includes supporting education and partnering with PROJECT REACH has been a foundational system for our families in transition.  From the words of Michelle Obama, “Every girl, no matter where she lives, deserves the opportunity to develop the promise inside of her.”