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A D.C. School's New Approach To Fighting Poverty: Teaching Parents And Kids

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Annabel Cruz watches as her daughter is checked over at Mary’s Center, a community clinic that partners with Briya Public Charter School.
WAMU/Armando Trull
Annabel Cruz watches as her daughter is checked over at Mary’s Center, a community clinic that partners with Briya Public Charter School.

On a recent weekday, about a dozen immigrant women were learning about Microsoft Word at the Briya Public Charter School in D.C. Adult students at the school in Adams Morgan learn practical skills like computing, while they learn English.

“When we started 20 years ago there was a large influx of immigrants into Washington, D.C.," explains Christie McKay, Briya’s executive director.

Those immigrants came from Central America and Vietnam, and they were poor and disconnected. “They were coming with very little knowledge of U.S. culture and how to even function within Washington, D.C.,” she says.

McKay says today’s Microsoft class is a far cry from when Briya first began working with immigrant families, because the needs and aspirations of those families have evolved since 1989.

Annabel Cruz embodies those aspirations. A few years ago she got her high school diploma through Briya. “And then I became a medical assistant too, because immediately I enrolled to that program that the school provides," she says.

And while Cruz was going to school at Briya, her children were attending pre-school in a classroom down the hall. “That’s why this school is different, that’s why this is unique school — because my children were next door learning too," she says.

Cruz says her children, who are now in elementary school, benefited from being introduced to education at a very early age. “Now I don’t have any problem with them to do their homework, or creating routines for them or reading books," she says.

But Cruz’s and her children’s educational journey with Briya actually started next door at Mary’s Center, a community clinic that shares space with Briya. “My social worker referred me here because I was in depression and postpartum depression," says Cruz.

All of the families with children at Briya are also receiving medical services from Mary’s Center, so referrals like Cruz’s are common. It’s a public health approach to care, says Joan Yengo, a vice president at Mary’s Center.

“We have created a model to support social change in the communities. The social change model brings together education, social services and health," she says.

This partnership between the community clinic and school began in 1998. Over the years an integrated curriculum was developed. It includes early childhood education, parenting, adult education, and referral services for health needs. The model has piqued the interest of researchers such as Stuart Butler.

"We've been very interested in looking at examples of where health care and education have kind of come together to solve general problems in a community," says Butler, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. He recently published a paper analyzing the Briya/Mary's Center model.

"It's very important to look at two generations, at both the children and their parents, particularly when the parents face many challenges — command of English literacy, financial literacy — and to bring them together and see them as a unit," he says.

By treating families as a unit, the clinic and school jointly address the families’ interrelated challenges, says Butler.

"And so one of the things that they do very well is bringing all these elements together dealing with the issues that the families face — health issues, parenting issues and so forth — at the same time that they're dealing with the children and that's what really makes that household more likely to succeed over the long haul," he says.

Butler says Briya students performed better than other D.C. early education and K-12 schools. Mary’s Center was in the top 25 percent of all federally funded healthcare clinics nationally. However, assessing the effectiveness of the combined model is challenging, says Butler.

"Because for example you really want data that follows the parents and child for several years thereafter, and that takes money. There's a dilemma too that they need money to collect the data and the metrics needed to fine tune the operations that they do every day," he says.

Butler says those metrics are needed to show the Briya/Mary’s Center model is worth replicating in similar communities.

But while those esoteric points are pondered in glass and ivory towers on K Street, on Georgia Avenue children and parents such as Annabel Cruz are becoming healthier, better educated and more resilient.

"I get something I think is never gonna happen in my life," says Cruz. "I always have a lot of doubts on my future, but the school helped me set up goals and how to reach them."

Briya, by the way, means to shine brightly in Spanish.

Music: "To US All" by ENO - HYDE from Someday World

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