Phalon Carpenter knows a lot about kids, families and schools. After 10 years of working with tweens and teens incarcerated in Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Center, she is now an official “Friend” to eight kindergartners and first-graders on Chicago’s West Side, through Friends of the Children-Chicago.
These aren’t just any old kindergartners and first-graders, though. Like all the Friends, Phalon spent six weeks working as a teacher’s aide in two West Side elementary schools. She was looking for kids who needed her. “We look for the kids who don’t come, are late, are shy or detached, are getting in trouble,” she said. “We’re trying to find out what support they have at home.”
Especially, they’re looking for the kids with the weakest families, and building rapport with them, said Taal Hasak-Lowry. As executive director of Friends of the Children-Chicago, she’s Phalon’s top boss. “We’re not looking for kids who get in trouble but have a strong mom, dad or grandma. We’re trying to get the families who would rather not have anyone in their business.”
But what they offer children from these families is unique: long-haul mentoring, from kindergarten through 12th grade and even beyond. Although Friends of the Children is new to Chicago, it has a track record of success in other cities: 83% of its young friends graduate from high school, less than 10% enter the criminal justice system, and almost none have become teen parents. [You can read more about the program here.]
Let me offer an aside. I’m here to give a reminder that this kind of family is not the majority in those neighborhoods. But a Friend like Phalon can be a lifeline for families facing the greatest challenges. One of her most important ways to do that is often by building bridges between home and school.
Friends of the Children Befriend Parents, Too
Though Phalon’s main focus is on her eight young friends–she spends four hours a week with each of them, two in their classrooms and two in activities like parks, museums or therapeutic services–one of her important jobs is helping their parents partner more effectively with schools to support their children. She knows parents who haven’t experienced school success often expect the worst when they have to go to school on behalf of their kids. This can lead to strained relations with school staff.
Here’s an example. Last year, one of Phalon’s young friends missed 120 days of kindergarten. “Nobody is waking her up,” Phalon says. “The mother is sick; she has a lot of health issues. The father lives there but he’s not stepping up to get her to school.”
Last summer, Phalon supported the mom through the process of making sure nurses at school could give her daughter medication during the day. Initially, the mom thought if she put the medicine in her daughter’s backpack, the teacher could give it to her. When that didn’t happen, “she was going to school and yelling at everybody,” Phalon said. That’s when she entered the picture, asking school staff how to manage the paperwork process to have medicine given at school.
Phalon then explained to the mom that having the teacher give her daughter medicine was not possible and walked her through getting to the doctor, making copies of the paperwork to allow medicine to be given at school and getting the papers to the right people back at school. When the mom hit a snag and got frustrated, Phalon coached her through the roadblock.
Now, when the mom has to go to school for IEP meetings or other meetings with staff, Phalon accompanies her. She says this mom tells her, “You’re going to keep me calm.”
Phalon has also worked to build relationships with the school staff–from the principal and teachers to the front office clerk. “The front desk lady, she knows one of my relatives. We talk and laugh. I didn’t know the teachers when I started at the school, but I’m very outgoing and I like talking to people. Now teachers say, ‘Come see me; come talk to me; let’s have lunch.’ It’s all about building trust with the people in the school.”
The Solution Isn’t in the Classroom Alone
I asked Phalon what she thought about the endless debate between people who think that education is the pathway out of poverty and people who think we can’t improve education unless we address poverty first. To Phalon, it’s not a strict either/or. “The solution to this isn’t in the classroom alone,” she told me. But when we’re talking about the most vulnerable kids, the ones with the fewest supports in place outside of school, “they need more positive support than the school system is set up to give.”
She would like to see more support like what Friends of the Children offers in order to take pressure off teachers, who often try to fill in the gap. “Teachers can be other positive adults in kids’ lives,” but this kind of work really isn’t their job, she observed. “Get supports for kids , so teachers can do their job and teach kindergarten and first grade curriculum.”
Phalon and her boss also want Chicago policymakers and philanthropists to pay more attention to violence prevention at much younger ages than teens and young adults. “When I worked in the detention center, I had a young man tell me, ‘If I just had anybody when I was younger who encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t have been here.’ He’s telling me this and he’s 15.”
Knowing those kinds of stories inspires Phalon in her current work. “We have to deal with the children while they’re younger. They’re crying out and telling us they need someone and no one is there. This organization is perfect for trying to address this issue.”
Plus, she told me, working with the younger kids has been surprisingly fun. “I like the little kids—I kind of like working with them more. You see how happy they are to see you. They’re full of joy.”