Working with students to create educational ‘miracles’

Jan Lepore-Jentleson is the executive director of Dayton’s East End Community Center, which works to address and resolve issues of poverty by working with families and children in a variety of innovative programs. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
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Jan Lepore-Jentleson is the executive director of Dayton’s East End Community Center, which works to address and resolve issues of poverty by working with families and children in a variety of innovative programs. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

What can be done to break the cycle of poverty? Many agencies and non-profits work hard to answer that question. In Dayton, a lot of attention is paid to the innovative work being done at East End Community Services, which works closely with a nearby Dayton elementary school. We spoke recently with Jan Lepore-Jentleson, East End’s founding executive director, to learn more. Prior to East End, Jan was the manager of Neighborhood Development for the City of Dayton, and before that was a product manager at NCR. She is a graduate of UD. Here’s an edited, condensed version of the conversation. Visit www.east-end.org — Ron Rollins

Q: For those unfamiliar, can you describe East End Community Center and its work?

Lepore-Jentleson: East End Community Services is non-profit organization on Xenia Avenue in the heart of inner East Dayton. East End, as we call it, has a mission to help disadvantaged children achieve success in school, establish goals for their futures, and develop healthy attitudes and positive behaviors they'll need as adults to be loving and responsible parents and community leaders.

Because we’re committed to bringing our neighbors the highest quality services to help break the cycle of generational poverty, we provide programs that are informed by evidenced-based, nationally recognized practices, and we measure outcomes on everything we do.

Q: Can you give us some examples?

A: Sure — these programs are organized into three categories: Children, Families and Community.

For children, we conduct the Miracle Makers afterschool and summer program for 200 students at Ruskin Neighborhood School, and manage a Youth Development Center for seventh- through 12th-graders who live in east Dayton.

For families, our Family and Job Connections program provides extensive services for adults to help them provide stability for their families through job training and job connecting and case management. Our TOTS program helps parents learn how to get their young children ready for kindergarten. East End’s Frail Elderly services support frail elders to continue living independently. We also partner with several other community organizations to address food insecurity in the neighborhood.

For the community, we work with neighborhood leaders to create a sense of community and to improve safety and security for our neighbors. The Community Development Department of East End provides affordable housing options for families, and builds opportunities for residents to get to know each other, and work together to build a safe and healthy neighborhood. Our Community Organizer and Ruskin Neighborhood School Coordinator collaborate with the neighborhood’s leadership to assure our community’s children are all safe and taking advantage of the learning opportunities available throughout the community. Most recently we have been engaged in efforts with law enforcement and public health to link opioid addicts with treatment through our Conversations For Change.

Q: How did it get started?

A: East End Community Services was organized in 1998 by our then-parent organization, the St. Mary Development Corp. St. Mary Development had been working in the Twin Towers neighborhood building and rehabbing housing for seniors and families for about eight years when it recognized people needed more than just improved housing. East End was formed to help try to meet the human service needs of the community and became an independent organization in 2001.

Q: What are some of the challenges your clients face?

A: We call our clients "neighbors." Most live in East Dayton, but many come from all parts of the city and Montgomery County. They tend to be the most under-resourced people in our community. Also, they have become much more culturally and ethnically diverse than most people realize. At Ruskin Neighborhood School the student body is 44 percent Caucasian, 29 percent Latino, 14 percent African-American, 8 percent Ahiska Turk, 1 percent African, and about 4 percent multi-racial.

The adults and families for whom we provide services have low incomes and are often described as the working poor. Many are challenged by lack of academic and vocations skills that limit them to working low-wage jobs and make it difficult to raise a family and make ends meet. Others have physical or mental health challenges, criminal backgrounds, or substance abuse issues that prevent them from getting and keeping a living-wage job. Many live in poor housing, in unsafe neighborhoods, and are food insecure. Reliable transportation and child care are daily struggles.

Q: How about the kids?

A: About 60 percent of the children who live in inner east Dayton live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. They typically do not attend preschool, and a majority are cognitively, socially, and/or behaviorally unprepared for classroom learning. They start first grade below their expected grade level and are more likely to fail the state reading proficiency test at the end of third grade. Typically kids have relatively low high school graduation rates and are less likely to enter or complete college.

Many live in families that have mental health and substance abuse/addiction issues. They often experience trauma due to the loss of loved ones from drug overdoses or incarceration. Many are being raised by grandparents or other non-parent family members. There are few summer and afterschool jobs for them, and few recreational opportunities.

Q: How did East End’s close relationship with nearby Ruskin Elementary School evolve?

A: We became a partner with Ruskin Elementary School in 2008 when the newly rebuilt school was declared by Dayton Public Schools to be a "neighborhood school." That meant Ruskin was to become the neighborhood anchor for children and families, and that East End would wrap services around them to remove as many barriers to student success as possible. It was then that East End adopted the mission of "nurturing disadvantaged children toward success."

Back in 2001, East End Community Services obtained a charter from the state to open a community school – which we called (simply) the East End Community School. As enrollment grew we recognized our facility was inadequate. At the same time, DPS asked us to become a partner at the new Ruskin, and we decided to merge into DPS, which was eager to enroll our 250 students. We negotiated an agreement with DPS that allowed us to bring our faculty into the new building along with our students, and to have significant influence over the selection of the principal.

The Ruskin Management Council, which was established in our 2008 agreement with the School Board, meets monthly with the principal and key Ruskin staff to assess test scores and overall progress, and sets direction for the coming school year.

Q: Talk about the Miracle Makers program.

A: Miracle Makers has been operating for the past 19 years during the summer and after school, so we've had a lot of time to get it right. Its approach to educating children is based on four basic, research-informed concepts and best practices. East End must raise over $425,000 a year to support the programs. Miracle Makers has demonstrated effectiveness in improving school attendance, student behavior, and academic performance. We also provide social service supports for every family in need, and coordinate monthly family nights that help parents learn how they can support their children's academic success. We even have set up a food pantry in the girls' locker room to help our families in emergencies.

Q: What makes Miracle Makers special?

A: First, we know all children can learn and are gifted in some way, and our job as adults is to help them identify and develop their unique gifts and talents. Every child develops at his or her own pace, and having a "growth mindset" is a positive way to guide that development. Growth mindset is the idea that the brain is constantly growing and changing. The old thinking was that a person's brain and IQ remained constant over a lifetime. New research is proving that brains are constantly growing and changing depending on what they are engaged in. For example, our brains grow more when we try something, fail, and try again and persevere. Miracle Makers teaches children that when they encounter something they may not yet understand or cannot master, their brains just aren't ready yet. So when a child says "I can't do it," we say, "You can't do it yet – but keep trying!"

Second, the deepest learning happens during meaningful, hands-on projects. Miracle Makers’ goal is for our children to explore their interests, talents and passions to achieve deep learning, and experience the joy of success (“I did it!”). Students choose experiences from the Spark catalogue — “Sparks” are hands-on, project-based learning opportunities: such things as gardening, engineering, robot building, 3D printing, dance, linguistics, theater, circuits, photography, cooking and forensic science. We are privileged that Dayton Philharmonic provides a year-round Spark – called “Q the Music.” Children learn to play the violin, viola or cello, and to perform in an orchestra. Miracle Makers Sparks help children develop a love of learning, which is critical for success in the 21st century.

Q: That sounds cool for the kids.

A: It really is. Third, a strong foundation of social and emotional literacies enables children to blossom academically. Children thrive when they are socially competent and emotionally secure. Unfortunately, many of our children experience significant levels of stress that children should never have to deal with. The stress impacts their emotional states to a point where learning cannot occur and behaviors become anti-social. To reduce the impact of stress and improve school attentiveness, we do "mindfulness exercises" every day with children that teaches them to calm themselves, and regulate their behaviors. Mindfulness is a great connector of all pieces: kids who are mindful are more empathic, kind and caring towards others which are successful building blocks for life. We focus a lot on building strong, resilient students children who have a purpose, and hope for the future.

Q: What else?

A: Well, fourth, the most effective learning takes place in the context of warm human relationships. Staff is caring and loving, with genuine interest in the lives of children and families. We live and breath the motto that it takes a village to raise a child – we come along side children in their learning and work together to demonstrate our love and respect for children. But we hold them accountable for their actions and make sure they reflect on their behaviors and make amends to those they offend – and repair the relationships.

Q: What’s the response from kids and parents?

A: Kids love Miracle Makers because it's a child centered, boundary-free and risk-free, exploratory environment that taps student, parent and classroom teacher best ideas and interests to drive and develop programming. Children love their power to choose a Spark which helps them to become deeply engaged in the activities. Parents love Miracle Makers primarily because they know their children are loved, well-cared for, safe, happy, and always learning. Our satisfaction rates are nearly 100 percent.

Q: What have the academic results been?

A: In the early 2000s, academic performance at Ruskin School was one of the worst in the Dayton Public School District. Over the past nine years the number of children served by Miracle Makers has grown to more than 180, about a third of the total school population. Ruskin's academic performance has continued to improve, and Ruskin is now the second highest performing elementary school in the District. (Horace Mann is No. 1).

Miracle Makers had significantly better school attendance and fewer discipline problems than their non-Miracle Makers counterparts. Over the past two years 31 Ruskin students have been accepted into Stivers School for the Performing Arts – the top performing school in the District and competitive with high-performing suburban schools.

Miracle Makers’ emphasis on positive social/emotional development is also paying off. Parents report that their children handle frustration better and are more motivated in school. Student tell us that they can calm themselves better now when they become angry or upset, and work better in teams.

Q: Is it a program that could be done elsewhere with the same sort of results?

A: Absolutely. MM is powerful because everything we do is based on brain science, and best practices in teaching and learning – information that is available to every educator and human service agency in the country. The key ingredients for a successful program are great teachers who want a less structured environment for teaching and learning, a solid understanding of what works best in afterschool and summer programs, adult leaders who are able and willing to build warm trusting relationships with children and their families, and who understand the connections between cognitive, social and emotional development of children.

Q: You mentioned the opioid situation and its impact on the neighborhood.

A: I think the drug culture that has spawned the opioid crisis in our community and throughout the country is a result of individual lack of purpose and lack of hope for the future. I think Miracle Makers is an example of a long-term drug prevention program. Miracle Makers supports children's school success, helps them create positive a self-image, teaches self-control, and establishes an optimistic mindset about the future. Miracle Makers fosters a love of learning, a growth mindset, and zest for life that are all indicators of resilience and future success as adults. Why would Miracle Makers, as teens or adults, engage in destructive drug activity when they are happy and optimistic about their futures?

Q: What other things have you learned from your work that go to methods for helping break or alter cycles of poverty to help people?

A: We all know that the cycle of poverty is typically broken through education. What East End has learned is that a good education is usually not enough for children who come from disadvantaged situations. We understand that children do best when they also have financially secure families, with good parenting skills that make them capable of supporting their children's growth and development; parents who have high expectations for their children's success.

We know that families do best when they have decent, meaningful work that pays a living wage, safe and supportive housing, caring neighbors, and access to critical services that include transportation, high quality child care, and physical and behavioral health care. We think in terms of “two-generation” poverty-reduction strategies now. We recognize that to improve outcomes for children we must simultaneously strengthen the family, and to do that we have to strengthen our community. We have a lot of work to do.