By day, Jonathon Blackwell is a project manager at a local utility company.
But once a week, during his lunch break, he becomes “Mr. John” — tutor extraordinaire.
There’s no special uniform, no theme song, but to a first-grader named Noah at Case Elementary School, he might as well be a superhero.
“Is Mr. Jon coming today?” he’ll ask his teachers.
And if it’s Tuesday, the answer is always “yes.” Blackwell is one of a handful of tutors who comes to the school every single week. With the support of his boss, he even blocks off the time on his work calendar.
“It says, ‘Do Not Schedule Any Meetings Around This Time,’” says the father of two with a laugh.
“I’d always planned on going every week, but building a relationship with Noah definitely made the commitment stronger,” he says. “You really do develop an emotional relationship with these kids, as much as they do with you.”
Blackwell is one of a roster of volunteers from for-profit and nonprofit companies that visit Case to offer tutoring for kids during lunchtime. The goal is to help kids with their reading, but also to build positive intergenerational relationships — some of which last for years.
“The social-emotional support is just as important, maybe even more important, than the reading instruction itself,” says Alison Black, site coordinator at Case, who oversees the tutoring program. “For the kids, any additional positive relationship with an adult in the building helps them feel confident and supported.”
That support, in turn, makes it more likely that the kids will want to come to school, Black says — and good attendance is a prerequisite of academic success.
“Even students with attendance problems, we notice they show up more often because they know their tutor will be here,” she says.
They even stand up to friends who think having a tutor is “dorky.”
“Their friends might say, ‘Tutoring is stupid,’ and the kids are like, ‘No it’s not. I would never miss a session,’” Black says.
At first, Case’s program emphasized group reading sessions, but has transitioned to mostly one-on-one work because kids seem to prefer that type of connection. They also learn to read more quickly that way, Black says.
Allowing the program to evolve — even as its key feature of adults mentoring students remains constant — has been one of the keys to its success, Black says. In that way, it’s similar to most of the programs she helps oversee.
“The first year in, we may see a need and come up with a plan that seems right, but then the needs change,” she says. “Responding to those changes keeps the programs relevant.”
At the same time, adaptations must be balanced against the importance of keeping consistent relationships.
“For a lot of our kids, there’s a lot of change in their lives,” Black says. “These tutoring relationships add one more consistent relationship to their lives so they can feel supported and thrive.”
For Blackwell, his bond with Noah is both uplifting and “humbling” — and “not just because we sit with them in little kiddie-size chairs,” he jokes.
“He expects me to be there every week, and when I’m not, he’s disappointed,” he says. “It’s a responsibility, but it’s also an honor — to try to turn the tide for kids who you know haven’t had the same opportunities.”
One of the strengths of Cleveland’s wraparound strategy has been its ability to evolve — both overall and at the individual school level. The story of Case’s tutoring program, which has shifted to emphasize one-on-one tutoring over group sessions, is just one example. While wraparound is based on best practices supported by national research, Cleveland leaders understood from the start that the the city and its population are unique. Wraparound has therefore been a work in progress, continuously adapting to better fit the needs of students, families, and communities.
Following are some lessons learned over the course of the program’s first five years, as identified by the principals, site coordinators, and lead agencies who oversee wraparound on a daily basis.
If there’s a common theme across these lessons, it’s the importance of trust and consistency. In order for wraparound to achieve its goals effectively, trust must exist in all areas of the wraparound network of support — between families and schools, between students and site coordinators, between principals and lead agencies. Trust takes time to establish, and can be facilitated by consistency and continuity in staffing.
1. Families and community members need continuous reminders of what wraparound is and what it offers.
Many family members and community members hold a traditional view of public education. Perhaps remembering their own childhoods, they think of schools only as places of “teachers, books, and classrooms.” These deeply held notions are difficult to change, and school leaders must commit to continuous outreach and communication to help adults understand that schools can help them, too.
“Families struggle to understand that I have additional resources to offer” beyond what’s available at the school itself, said one site coordinator. To drive home this message, there is no substitute for face-to-face conversation. In their daily interactions with families and community members, staff must continuously convey the message that wraparound can help them with whatever they need, and is not meant to serve students only.
Actions speak even louder than words. Several site coordinators reported that they were able to “break through” to parents only once they took highly individualized actions to address specific needs. One coordinator drove a parent to a furniture bank to find items for her apartment. Another introduced a parent to a domestic abuse program after hearing her speak about an abusive relationship. These actions speak to the need for wraparound to meet adults “where they are,” and to drive home the message that wraparound can help with problems that have nothing to do with academics.
2. While best practices exist, every school is different and requires a tailored approach.
When it comes to addressing the needs of wraparound communities, the “rubber stamp” approach doesn’t work. Leaders must listen carefully and continuously to the needs of both students and adults in the community — and recognize that those needs will change over time.
Meanwhile, on the “supply” side, “new programs and services are coming around all the time,” one site coordinator said. School leaders must remain aware of them so that they can reach out to those providers and offer their communities the ones that are most relevant.
3. The missions of lead agencies and community partners must align with the needs of schools — not vice versa.
Many well-intentioned nonprofit and for-profit organizations approach wraparound schools to offer their services. While these services are invariably valuable in and of themselves, some do not match the needs of the students or the school community. “Everyone thinks they have the magic pill to help students, but it may not be what they actually need,” in the words of one site coordinator.
For example, an after-school literacy program may not be needed in a school where reading scores are high or where the school already offers its own literacy assistance program. Sports and physical activity programs may be redundant in schools with strong athletics.
To keep these offers from becoming overwhelming, and to clarify whether or not particular services are needed, school leaders should be proactive in defining the community’s needs. “We need to make sure we’re streamlining around what the school mission and vision is, and that we’re clear on what is not going to have a positive impact,” in the words of one principal.
4. Trust is the most important ingredient to developing life-changing relationships, and trust takes time to build.
The most productive relationships between site coordinators, families, and students are those that develop over time — most often over multiple years. “You can’t help someone if they won’t share what their issues really are, and they have to have trust before they’ll share,” in the words of one lead agency director.
This level of trust takes time, and is possible when site coordinators, families, and students all remain in place for the long-term. Priority must be given to promoting stability on all fronts: keeping site coordinators happy in their jobs, helping families maintain stable housing, and promoting consistent attendance among students.
Wraparound participants at several levels reported that trust could be improved significantly by creating greater year-to-year certainty about funding and other details. Site coordinators reported feeling anxious each school year about whether their contracts would be renewed for next. “Kids ask me, ‘You’re going to be here next year, right?’ And I have to say, ‘I don’t know,’” said one site coordinator. That creates job insecurity for coordinators, but also “does a disservice to families and students” looking to build relationships. One principal reported that his school had been through four or five site coordinators in nearly as many years.
5. For families, convenience is key.
“We can’t overstate the importance of accessibility of resources to families,” one lead agency director said. “For [people] not to have to catch a bus or spend an extra dollar is really important.” Offering services to students and families at times and locations that are convenient to them is therefore critical. By contrast, outside referrals that require a trip downtown, for example, are more likely to go unacted upon due to lack of time, transportation, or energy.
Often, the most convenient location for offering services is the school building itself, because it’s the one place where many students and families come every day. A successful wraparound program is built on “the convenience of bringing assets to a centralized location — the school — where you know parent or family is connected the most,” in the words of another lead agency director.
This could occur on an even wider scale than it currently does. Several site coordinators expressed a wish for bilingual services and housing assistance services in every building, for example. Greater centralization of information about services available would also be a great benefit, helping site coordinators connect community members to resources more quickly, one site coordinator said.
6. Principals, lead agencies, and site coordinators work best together when they understand and respect each other’s strengths.
Given the complexity of wraparound work, overlaps in duties between principals, lead agencies, and site coordinators will inevitably occur. However, site coordinators and principals report that they work at their highest capacity when every staff person is empowered to perform the tasks for which they are best qualified.
One principal reported he was best able to focus on improving academics once he delegated certain roles to the school’s lead agency and site coordinator. “If a parent says [a student] is not learning because the family doesn’t have money for the light bill, I’m going to move to the site coordinator to help you with the bill,” he says. That delegation then frees him up “to be in the classroom helping the teachers, focusing on academics.”