Experienced parents often say that “little kids have little problems, big kids have big problems.”
This may not be true all the time, but with Social Emotional learning, there’s definitely more at stake for older kids. A teenager without the social and emotional skills to stay in school, stay out of trouble and self-advocate can face consequences that last a lifetime.
Enter Enroot, a United Way funded agency working in Cambridge and Somerville, with plans to expand to a third community soon. Enroot’s mission is to empower immigrant youth to achieve academic, career and personal success through inspiring out-of-school experiences.
According to Ben Clark, Executive Director of Enroot, these students have experienced trauma, speak little or no English, and have a limited understanding of American cultural norms. At the same time, they face the same challenges as many teens from low-income families, often without adult role models to show them how to be successful in a world beyond their everyday experience.
A Vulnerable Time
The teen years are a vulnerable time of transition and identity, and kids have many temptations that can lead them off track. “Students who aren’t able to visualize a bright future for themselves, start to behave in a way that reflects what they think is awaiting them. Their motivation suffers and they can quickly get distracted by the many things that have always derailed teenagers,” according to Clark. “We provide experiences that middle- and upper-income kids are more likely to have access to – from internships to visiting offices, learning about a career in business or law or medicine. Our students have fewer examples of career path options. Broadening their horizons and their vision of what’s possible for them increases the chances they will latch onto something new, beyond their comfort zone.”
Exposing young people to new opportunities is the first step. Helping them set goals and forge a path to achieve them is just as important. That’s where Enroot’s program is unique. They provide adult support and guidance at each inflection point in a student’s journey. Tutors provide academic support. Mentors, trained in talking about issues of race, power, class, and gender in a nuanced way can support students through crises that come up around racism, classism, and sexism. Program staff match students with internships, bring them to visit potential employers and help them develop leadership skills like public speaking, which build confidence.
Starting with Lunch
Halfway through the 2005 school year, Enroot alumnus Jean Montout immigrated to Cambridge from Haiti. He spoke almost no English and lived with his aunt, who did not speak any Creole or French. This made communication with his official guardian extremely limited. Jean also had major challenges transitioning to his new school, since he did not know any other students and had limited English. For the first few months, instead of going to the cafeteria for lunch, he wandered the halls and sat on a bench out of sight. “I had lunch money but I couldn’t eat since I didn’t speak any English and I didn’t know how to order. So I would just go sit on a bench. I didn’t know anybody. I was afraid – what if I say the wrong thing, order the wrong food – what if they don’t understand me? I did this for my first 2-3 months.”
Jean was welcomed into the Enroot program a few months after arriving and participated for two and a half years until graduating in 2008. As part of his Enroot experience, Jean worked as an intern at the Cambridge Finance Department for two years in Cambridge City Hall, helping residents over the phone and in person with information about taxes and water bills. Excited about a career in this area, he attended UMass Boston and earned a degree in finance. During college, he was able to use the connections he made and skills he developed as an Enroot student to obtain a part-time position in the Finance Department. After graduating he was hired full-time in the Auditing Department. Last year Jean was proud to be presented a “2017 Outstanding City Employee of the Year” award by Cambridge City Manager Louis D. Pasquale, who had helped supervise Jean years before as an Enroot intern. Jean credits Enroot for his understanding of “how to work in an office and how to be a professional.” He also said his mentor was pivotal in this phase of life, who helped him navigate key parts of the post-secondary process, like the college essay and selection process.
“We can connect the dots when students are facing a crisis. When they can’t go to a parent, they come to us.”
Enroot staff have deep relationships with the school and the individual teachers and counselors, so messages and goals are consistent in every area of the student’s life. Teachers participate in Enroot volunteer trainings to help mentors and tutors understand the students’ school experiences, and how to translate support to that population. Mentors provide college advice that is aligned with what guidance counselors are saying at the high school. “Staff members become part of the school community,” says Clark. “Students are better served if we can limit the variance in what they are hearing from different adults in their lives.” The benefit of daily collaboration is constantly apparent. If a teacher notices a student behaving differently, often the Enroot staff can provide insight into what’s going on at home. If there’s a fight at school, the mentor can help their student make good decisions about moving forward and helping them move on.
So how does Enroot measure success? Nearly 100% of Enroot students complete high school on time, a major achievement for a cohort which has the lowest on-time graduation rate across Massachusetts. Across the state, English Language Learner (ELL) students typically lag 10 percentage points behind low-income peers and more than 15 points behind overall averages. Enroot’s students’ college completion rate is double the average for similar high school students in Cambridge. Many alumni report that it was the Social-Emotional skills they learned – how to seek help, how to advocate for themselves and how to resolve conflict – that made the difference. Their work with Enroot has helped them develop a vision for themselves that is more concrete, and this motivates them in their college years and beyond.