In the 1990’s, Hillary Clinton who was then the nation’s First Lady wrote a best
selling novel entitled “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.” The premise of the book was
that humans live in social groups where there is division of labor in order to provide the
highest quality of life for all members of that group, especially the children.
In non-industrialized societies that group is usually members of the same tribe or
clan who live in villages made up of extended family units. Each village has developed methods to make and
enforce laws for individual safety and social justice and address overall sanitation and public health, and
educational and recreational needs of the children of the village. These methods are the pillars of support
that Ms. Clinton referred to as the “village.”
With the decaying infrastructure of the cities during the latter half of the 20th Century and the decline of the extended family into single parent families, 21st Century inner city youth have lost the support of these networks so vital to their successful transition from child, to adolescent to young adult. Every neighborhood in the 50’s and early 60’s had an older relative living with the family or in the neighborhood whose wisdom and mentoring was important not only to Mom and Dad but the children as well.
Each neighborhood had a public library and well-maintained parks and playgrounds for Little League Baseball, family outings and church sponsored soft ball leagues. The leaders of the church were also important in teaching ethical and moral behavior to the youth regardless of religious affiliation. There were visiting school nurses and social workers who came to the schools to monitor the overall physical and emotional health of the children at neighborhood schools that were within walking distance of the home. Policemen walked a “beat” and knew all the business owners as well as the youth in the neighborhood.
There were school guards and safety patrols as well as Parent Teacher Associations and the neighborhood fire station. As these institutions have declined in Portland as well as inner cities across the nation, our neighborhoods have become breeding grounds for absentee landlords, homelessness and drug activity. In addition, children no longer attend neighborhood schools. They are bused all over the county in the name of a “better education” because their neighborhood isn’t good enough. Portland's schools have now been burdened with addressing all the youth needs previously divided among the above mentioned support systems. The drop out rate is reaching an all time high and even those who graduate often do not have the minimum levels of reading, math, critical thinking and conflict resolution skills to be self-sufficient, responsible adults.
Matt Smizer, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the non-profit Metro Louisville Foundation has seen the connection between lack of reading skills as a “pipeline to prison.” In a recent conversation with him, Mr. Smizer cited a study that revealed 85 percent of the prison population in the United States has a reading level below the third grade. That translates into a statistic that says that an adolescent with a reading level that low has a much higher risk of some involvement with the criminal justice system by age 18 than those with reading levels that reach or exceed the norms of performance. With these statistics in mind, Mr. Smizer set about creating a “model program to share” that has partnered with five Jefferson County Public elementary schools (JCPS) and 5 different church groups in five sites in the West End of Louisville.
The program that operates two times a week on Mondays and Wednesdays January through April from 3:45 to 5:00 pulls a maximum of 20 first and second grade students from each of the following schools: J.B. Atkinson, Portland Elementary, Maupin Elementary, Roosevelt-Perry and Layne Elementary. The students meet at an off school site in a church nearby. Each site is administered by a site director and operated by two certified JCPS elementary school teachers who have no more than 10 students each, meaning a maximum of 100 students across the board. The schools identify the students recommended for the program and then the site directors contact parents whose active participation is required by way of a written contract. All duties are fully explained in a parent handbook received at the start of the program.
Each teacher has a mentor who works in the classroom on discipline and social skills so the teacher can focus entirely on what she/he does best – teach. The mentor develops a relationship with the students and observes behavior during instructional time. If a student is non-engaged or distracted, the mentor quietly gravitates toward the student to encourage participation or, if necessary, remove the student from the classroom setting for some counseling. The mentors are usually volunteers from the community and lead by quiet example and counseling. Although JCPS officials select the students for the program from the individual schools, participation is open to any first or second grade students living in one of the five participating school districts. Some students who live in the district may be bused out of the district during their first and second grade years. If you think you want your child enrolled in the program, you may call Matt Smizer at 502-552-8261 or 502-235-9859. The Foundation also has a contact page on their website www.mlflouisville.com.
Mr. Smizer is hopeful that this model will be successful and he wants to “give it away” to any community organization wanting to implement it in their neighborhoods. Prediction for success? The pilot that served 17 students from Maupin Elementary at the Baptist Fellowship Church last year showed an increase of five and one-half reading levels for the participating students. Coming together and working with all the community organizations and leaders serving youth in inner city neighborhoods is indeed the answer to what we all want - revitalization and transformation. It starts with the youth because they are the future and it does take a village.