District Attorney Andrea Harrington and Probation Deputy Commissioner of Pre-trial Services Pamerson Ifill take questions at the announcement of a grant-funded program at Conte Community School.
Conte Coordinator Marcela Vintimilla, left, DA's Office Director of Community Outreach Bryan House, Building Bridges SEL founder Brooke Bridges, District Attorney Andrea Harrington, Conte Principal Kerry Light, Morningside Principal Monica Zanin, Probation Deputy Commissioner Pamerson Ifill, and Superintendent Jason McCandless.
District Attorney Harrington says disparities in access to safety and education for children during the pandemic are a social justice issue.
Deputy Commissioner Ifell thanks those gathered at Conte for improving the quality of life for children in Pittsfield.
Principal Zanin speaks about building connections with students and Superintendent Capeless thanked everyone for their support.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A collaboration of the Berkshire District attorney's office and the Pittsfield Public Schools is using $25,000 in seed money in hopes of growing a sustainable program for social emotional learning in the schools.
The program, Tuned Transitions, is being funded through a grant from the state Department of Probation and will be implemented in the Conte and Morningside community schools for Grades 2 through 5. The curriculum was developed by Brooke Bridges, founder of Building Bridges SEL, a mental health advocacy and coaching organization.
"I have to say, as a parent, I understand how much the closing of schools and the switch to virtual learning has impacted children," said District Attorney Andrea Harrington at a press conference at Conte School on Wednesday. "And the disparity between children who are able to live in a safe home, children who are able to have access to education, and those who do not during the pandemic is going to be the social justice issues of our time."
Bridges will be the facilitator for the program, which will use personal storytelling as the focus to aid children in working through their experiences and challenges. Her business was inspired by her overcoming her own mental and social challenges as a child actor in Los Angeles. The program is evidence-based and is based off the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, program used in schools.
"We're teaching the kids self-awareness, we're teaching them self-regulation and self-management, we're teaching them about social awareness or how they can interact with others, we're teaching them interpersonal skills and responses," said Bridges. "And the reason why I paired that with storytelling is because storytelling gives them context."
Kids often don't know how to connect their emotional creative side with their rational analytic side, she said, but storytelling can help them process what they're feeling and thinking. She gave the recent example of one child who told her he wanted to punch walls when he was angry. Instead of telling him why that was bad, she lead him in a conversation of how he might punch something without hurting or others: the solution was a pillow.
"The main focus for me and for the principals as well ... is to meet the kids where they're at," Bridges said. "We can't give them like, say, oh meditate or take 10 deep breaths when they can't even experience their anger, when they don't even really know what's going on."
She and others acknowledged the difficulties and added stress for children, families and educators in working in a virtual environment because of the pandemic. Bridges is meeting with children remotely now but the program is flexible enough to adapt to the classroom once the schools begin to transition to in-person learning.
Parents were offered the opportunity to participate and 24 families have signed on for the three-month period. Parental involvement is considered key to the children's outcomes.
Tuned Transitions is part of the district attorney's Juvenile Justice Initiative launched last year with the goal of early intervention to address the roots delinquency.
Probation Deputy Commissioner of Pre-trial Services Pamerson Ifill had reached out to Harrington when the grant opportunity became available. He said he'd gotten to know the district attorney because of her stances on justice reform issues like pretrial and bail disparities, areas that his position had been created to address.
Ifill said he and Commissioner of Probation Edward J. Dolan had been impressed with the application submitted for the grant and Bridges' curriculum.
"As I was trying to do more to find out about the breakdowns and the demographics, you all really work with children who are living at the margins, who if not for you, and the school system and the work that you do, lives will end up here deeper in the criminal justice system," he said. "I think this is really seed money to see what is possible in a lot of other communities."
The superintendent and the mayor should be thinking about how it can be incorporated at every level of the system, Ifill said.
Conte Principal Kerry Light says she has been advocating for this type of program for years.
"I think the important part here is that if we're really going to have an impact, it requires funding" he said. "It requires commitment in the district attorney's office ... to make sure that we can sort of secure these programs. These are really important pieces."
The grant has annual opportunities but this funding will only run for three months. During that time, Conte Principal Kerry Light said they will be evaluating data such as referrals, behaviors, and goal-meeting as well as students doing their own self-assessments and self-reflections. Three months is a short period to gather this type of information but the schools will be looking to extend beyond that time.
"I think that is so important. It's not just three months, this has to be sustainable and it has to be in the future for these kids and for these families," she said. "In the end, the ultimate goal would be to have similar efforts spread throughout the district at large, with the intention of assisting students and families and providing them with the skills needed to be empowered members of society to reach their full potential."
Her colleague at Morningside, Principal Monica Zanin, reiterated some of those points.
"At this uncertain time, where disparities are widening across our community, our elementary children need targeted emotional support," she said. "As I visited families this summer, it was evident that our children were craving connection, and that our families were in need of help."
Also attending the announcement was School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon and Superintendent Jacob McCandless, who thanked those for the efforts and for believing that "building a more fair, equitable and sustainable community begins in our schools."
Harrington said the decision to focus on social emotional learning came in part out of conversations she'd had with Zanin when Zanin had been principal of Richmond School and Harrington a member of that school committee. Bridges had done a "really amazing video" about managing anxiety at the DA's Students Teaching Respect Integrity, Values and Equality, or STRIVE, conference, she said.
"She just really seemed like a perfect fit. And so all of the pieces just came together and my friend Pamerson reached out to me and suggested that we apply for this grant. So things just came together," said Harrington. "We have a community that is very collaborative, and we're out and we're talking to each other and we're sharing information."
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