By Sara Solovitch | Searchlight New Mexico
It was just two days into the school year, and Julia Bergen already was dealing with two cases of student homelessness. Then she heard about an influx of Guatemalan migrant children just released from federal detention, who had unexpectedly shown up in a Santa Fe school.
Bergen is executive director of Communities In Schools of New Mexico, an affiliate of a national wraparound program found in 28 states. It was created to provide all the services that distinguish a community school: basic needs like housing and food, job counseling for parents, academic assistance and tutoring help, as well as behavioral interventions.
Bergen has been with the program since it began in 2012 and says the need is only growing. She spoke with Searchlight New Mexico about her experiences working in high-poverty, under-served schools – and about what drives her.
Searchlight: How does CIS operate here in Santa Fe?
Bergen: In 2012 we started out with a very modest $150,000 budget and we were in two schools – Salazar Elementary and Agua Fria, which is now El Camino Real Academy. Now we’re in 11 schools, I have a staff of 23, and our budget is $1.6 million. We are a very healthy public-private entity. And what we do is address those socioeconomic and social/emotional barriers that exist outside of school but have a very negative effect on children and families. We do that by being fully integrated inside the schools, where we work closely with the principal, the leadership team, wellness counselors and teachers.
Searchlight: One of the most heartbreaking problems affecting New Mexico kids is homelessness. Do you see a lot of it?
Bergen: The school superintendent recently said there are1,000 homeless children in Santa Fe and there could be a lot more. But you know the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness: it’s not simply that you’re sleeping under a bridge.
At Capital High, we know there are students living in their cars, and when we find out about those kids we immediately work in partnership with Adelante (a public schools homelessness project) to find housing…It’s just two days into the school year and I’ve already had two emergency requests.
Searchlight: Santa Fe is often called a tale of two cities. What does that mean to you?
Bergen: It really is a divided city and it is a tale of two cities. Our schools overall are under-resourced. During the last legislative session there was an infusion of money to public education but those monies only caught us up to where we were back in 2008. So we’re still behind in terms of how well and how equitably our schools are funded. And that speaks to what emerged through the Yazzie Martinez lawsuit – that our schools for decades have been underfunded. Particularly our students who are English language learners, who live in poverty, our Native children, our children of color – they are consistently underserved by the larger education system.
Searchlight: And they are so poorly served by a revolving door of principals and teachers.
Bergen: There is a huge revolving door. Principal turnover is one of the biggest challenges in the schools we work in. Very often the Communities In School site coordinator is the one constant in that school from year to year.
Searchlight: Can you give an example of that?
Bergen: Sure. At several of the schools we’ve worked at – like Aspen Elementary – we saw five principals in the six years we’ve been there. It’s so disruptive for staff. And similarly, at Caesar Chavez I think there’ve been an equal number. Thankfully now, in both schools there are really strong principals and they’re very very committed to the schools and the community. But we need to figure out how to attract qualified people to do those difficult jobs.
Searchlight: Tell me about teacher morale.
Bergen: We did a survey, a very comprehensive survey of teachers, administrators, and parents. And what we found was that by the end of the school year teachers are exhausted. They are called upon to take on a lot of nonacademic responsibilities, which is why having a Communities In School person is so important.
Searchlight: What did your survey identify as the biggest contributor to morale problems?
Bergen: I think trauma and poverty. The schools our teachers work in are Title I schools, so they’re 100 percent free and reduced lunches. And the teachers are aware that some of the children are not coming in rested because they slept in their cars overnight. That they didn’t have dinner.
Searchlight: These childhood traumas have a ripple effect that make teachers’ jobs incredibly difficult.
Bergen: We see an increase of behavioral health needs in children – throwing of a chair, yelling at a teacher. These things are real. We work closely with the teachers. We ask that children be immediately referred out of the classroom to the site coordinator and wellness team, so we can understand what’s happening and get that child the right support.
In New Mexico, mental health supports were obliterated by the last administration and that has done so much harm to our communities. And perhaps that’s contributing to a heightened percentage of kids presenting with significant behavioral health issues.
Searchlight: Which leads to more disciplinary responses by school administrators, more suspensions, more expulsions. And where does that end?
Bergen: It doesn’t work, it’s not getting to the core of whatever is happening with that young person. We have to remember that these are children and they are living in situations that are often so difficult and so dire. And yet we expect them to come to school and to this very structured environment and behave.
Searchlight: So where do you begin?
Bergen: We calmly quietly sit with that child and say, hey what’s going on, what’s happening, talk to me, here’s a snack, here’s a bottle of water. Let’s spend some time together. It requires times, it requires thoughtfulness and love and compassion. And we have to commit that time because otherwise we are just perpetuating that punitive path. And that isn’t working for anybody.