Giving Change a Chance: A Perspective of Community Schools

By Isael Torres
Community School Director, Kearns Junior High school

Kearns Jr

Students from Kearns Junior High’s 3.0 club enjoying a field trip to Bell Canyon

If you need a reason to hold out hope that everything is going to be ok, I would ask you look up from your social media feeds and look to the students and families who fill the hallways of our community schools!

Twenty-six community schools serving 19,804 students (with the endless support of our partners, community families, principals and teachers, and our staff here at United Way) work to provide a safe space for needed conversations to happen between our communities and our schools. We seek to understand what it is our parents and students need from their schools. We then use our existing resources to reinvest efforts back into schools, with our parents, students, and teachers armed to overcome any existing challenges or barriers, both inside and outside of the classroom.

As a new member of United Way of Salt Lake’s Community School Director team, I’d like to highlight that not all of our resources are in the form of a large budget dollars, or an inventory of donations. Sometimes our best resource is taking the time to cheerfully greet both our students and teachers as they rush into the school building and ensure that we do what we can to contribute to a nurturing environment that promotes the skills a student or family needs to succeed.

Kearns Junior High and Westlake Junior High attending a Utah Jazz Basketball Clinic

Kearns Junior High and Westlake Junior High attending a Utah Jazz Basketball Clinic

Good morning! Buenos dias!” I repeatedly sing down the hallways as I make my way into my school at Kearns Junior High school. Although we are about three months into the school year, some of the students still give me a slightly stunned look of “did he just speak Spanish?” This may not strike you as much, but in many of our schools here in the Salt Lake area, a significant portion of our students are multi-lingual and yet are rarely given an opportunity to use this skill as a source of learning. These missed opportunities of learning and empowerment can quickly spill over into our classrooms, the student’s/family’s home and ultimately into their neighboring community where a majority of our students don’t hear (or much less see) themselves represented, unless it’s in traditionally placed spaces that have historically and often been underserved.

Kearns Junior High Students during our trip to Snow College

Kearns Junior High Students during our trip to Snow College

As a new staff member for United Way, working at Kearns Junior High school, I was admittedly hesitant with my initial expectations of working with junior high level students. My background had mostly been focused in higher education outreach and access. I have spent a majority of my experience facilitating the transition process of high school level students into college/university environments. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in as a Community School Director. However, thanks to my Principal, Scott Bell, and Vice-Principal, Josh Moore, and our partners Belkis Villa and Jan Van der Beek from Salt Lake County Youth Services, all my hesitations disappeared when they expressed an interest in exploring options for our students to engage with college campuses. I was ecstatic at this opportunity. Why shouldn’t our students get this exposure?!

Thanks to KJH staff, and our partnership with Salt Lake County Youth Services, we have been able to create an extraordinary opportunity for our students and parents to visit Utah college campuses on a monthly basis.

Kearns Junior High Students during our trip to Weber State University

Kearns Junior High Students during our trip to Weber State University

These seemingly small shifts in expectations and opportunity are already breaking down conceptions of barriers that our students and families experience. Many of these conceptions stem from a historically deficit mentality that often surrounds our school’s students and families just for living on ‘the wrong side of Salt Lake.’ By helping to offer our students, families, and teachers spaces and opportunities to express their needs and the barriers that they face, we are better able to create a self-empowered students who can confront challenges and seek opportunities.

Brandon Kerby, LIA teacher, dedicates his lunch time to play chess with our students.

Brandon Kerby, LIA teacher, dedicates his lunch time to play chess with our students.

Through United Way of Salt Lake’s Promise Partnerships, community schools offer our students and families equal ground to create the best lives for themselves. When we are all working together towards the same goals, we truly can give CHANGE and chance! 

Kearns Junior High Students

Kearns Junior High Students

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