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New community partnership targets student success

Robert Ashley Whitehead, Sr. has been the pastor of New Zion Baptist Church for 28 years. He and his wife, Jocelyn Henry-Whitehead M.Ed. ‘90, Ed.S. ‘95, Ed.D. ‘04, are passionate advocates for education.For many Black families, the church not only provides a place of worship, but a place of belonging and a hub that connects them to the community through a wide range of support services. It can be the bridge that directs students to academic support and mentorship they may not receive or feel comfortable seeking out at school. A new partnership with a local church is exploring how educators can collaborate with faith-based communities to better support the growth of Black students.

When news broke at the onset of the pandemic that computers at home would be replacing school desks and white boards, Pastor Robert Whitehead at New Zion Baptist Church in Williamsburg became worried about his K-12 students falling behind in school. He recognized that New Zion was in a unique position to offer support to students and help them stay engaged in school from home.

In the meantime, students in the school counseling and school psychology programs at the W&M School of Education were struggling to get clinical hours for their internships and practicum — a critical part of their training.

So when Pastor Whitehead reached out to Natoya Haskins Ph.D. ‘11, associate professor of counselor education, and Janise Parker, assistant professor of school psychology, to see if they could help him create a tutoring program for K-12 students transitioning from in-person to online learning, they followed their academic hunches and dove into the research.

Natoya HaskinsHaskins and Parker have deep experience and research expertise on the topic of supporting Black students in their academic and personal development. Both are interested in exploring the potential of partnerships between mental health practitioners and the community to empower more people and increase access to services.

They knew that not only would a partnership with New Zion help their W&M students acquire internship and practicum hours and provide much-needed support to the church’s K-12 students, it was also a unique opportunity to develop and study a school-community partnership — and the Success of Students Virtual Tutoring program was born. What set out to be a 6-week pilot program extended into the spring semester and expanded to 12 weeks of service delivery.

Since its beginning, Haskins and Parker have approached the project from a preventative perspective that looks beyond the letters students earn on their report cards. While traditional academic tutoring is part of the job, graduate students also work with students on skills that go beyond the classroom, such as developing self-esteem, managing stress and regulating emotions.

The partnership is already at work from the moment a parent or student reaches out to New Zion about joining the program. From there, the student’s information is sent to Haskins and Parker, who serve as the matchmakers. Graduate students are paired with K-12 students based on their prior experiences and interest in working with certain age groups. They also have the opportunity to work more directly with families by facilitating parent information sessions on various topics, including time and task management, dealing with stress, and college and career development. Since the program also focuses on the development of graduate students, Parker and Haskins provide training in culturally-responsive tutoring, rapport building and establishing community connections within the Black community.

This spring, the program expanded to work with students in Richmond and Newport News based on their contact with New Zion’s members and staff. As the K-12 student population grew, Haskins and Parker decided to incorporate more graduate students into the program. Now, students in their first year of the school counseling and school psychology programs are able to gain experience that will prepare them to serve as peer leaders during their second year, providing continuity and further opportunities to expand in the 2021-22 school year.

Janise ParkerThe program serves two much-needed purposes, says Parker. It helps students who have been typically overlooked and underserved in K-12 schools get access to academic, social and emotional support and helps train graduate students in working with families and youth from backgrounds that differ from their own.

“Our graduate students have commented that through this experience, they have learned to appreciate individual differences among families and to provide culturally responsive interventions,” she says. “They are inspired to advocate for and serve as allies for marginalized populations at the systems level.”

They work closely with an advisory team that is made up of several leaders at New Zion, including Brenda Christian, who is the director of Christian education and youth programs.

“It has been exciting to receive positive comments from students, parents, the church and other community members about the program,” she says. “The students are thrilled about how their tutors are so friendly and want to help them.”

These anecdotes are backed up by the research, which Haskins and Parker are conducting through interviews and surveys with support from graduate students at the School of Education.

“Early findings reveal that parents have witnessed increased confidence academically and enhanced time management in their children,” says Haskins. “And the graduate students have expressed that their skills in providing anti-biased support services have improved, as well as general skills related to cultural competency and cultural context.”

As the team reflects on what keeps the energy of the program alive, they come to one conclusion: the relationships between the graduate students and the families.

“We hear on both ends that bonds are being formed and it is truly great to witness,” Parker says. “In the midst of the current racial and political climate, it says a lot when cross-cultural walls are being torn down by this experience and at the end of the day, it is truly about the K-12 child.”

The sentiments from program administrators echo throughout the community as students, parents and church members want to see it grow. Haskins, Parker and Christian are already planning ahead for how to adapt the program for the coming year, anticipating that the post-pandemic transition and the return to a normal school year may bring challenges to both students and families.

This is the first program of its kind at William & Mary and the research on similar programs in other communities is sparse.

“It is our hope that this program will serve as a roadmap for other mental health training programs that desire to collaborate with predominantly Black churches,” Parker says.

“It is a good thing to know that the community trusts you and supports your efforts to help make life better, for the community, through outreach,” Christian adds. “This program is proving to truly be the Success of Students!”