Whatever It Takes hopes to bring community together to help children

By Briana Gerdeman

“At 1 p.m. on Wednesday July 1st, 2020,” the goal reads, “every child in Athens will be on course to graduate from a post-secondary education.”

It’s an ambitious goal, but Whatever It Takes Athens has made it their mission. WIT Athens is based off the Harlem Children’s Zone program, which has helped children living in a 97-city-block area in Harlem, New York further their education and escape poverty. A federal grant is enabling community organizations in 21 cities and towns throughout the country, including Athens, to do the same.

The Harlem Children’s Zone, according to its website, offers support to children and families from the child’s conception through college. Its services try to address all the problems of poverty, beginning with parenting workshops for expectant parents and continuing to college success workshops to help high school graduates adjust to the new environment of college. In between, there are preschools, charter schools, and summer and after-school programs.

Although the HCZ has been criticized for spending more money than the program’s results justify, the Children’s Zone has been praised as “literally saving a generation of children,” as President Obama said.

The federal Promise Neighborhoods Initiative provides towns and cities with grants from the U.S. Department of Education to spend a year planning “cradle-to-career services” for children, similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone. Athens was one of 21 communities chosen out of more than 300 applicants, along with Little Rock, Ark.; Boston; the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Mont.; and several neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles.

“We believe that the only way we can truly improve our children’s success rate is thinking holistically,” said Erica Gilbertson, program director for Whatever It Takes. Athens’ Whatever It Takes program is an initiative of Family Connection/Communities in Schools, a partnership of 90 organizations working together to meet the needs of children and families.

Terris Thomas, resident engagement facilitator for WIT Athens, said Whatever It Takes aims to ensure that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, involved in the community and educated. The way to do this, she said, is by involving everyone in the community, including parents, neighbors, teachers, doctors and religious leaders.

That’s one important way that Whatever It Takes differs from other programs, she said. It makes residents “not just recipients, but contributors,” Thomas said, by “building a strong sense of community where we are all responsible for each other.”

“We facilitate collaboration among all the different organizations in town that care about children,” said Tim Johnson, executive director of WIT.

At a monthly partners meeting in March, the leaders of Whatever It Takes invited parents, educators, religious leaders and other members of the community to meet at Classic City High School to discuss the program’s goals. The meeting opened with a short video about the Harlem Children’s Zone and its founder, Geoffrey Canada.

Gilbertson, whose job includes organizing focus groups to work on different goals to help children, shared insights from some of the focus groups. The focus group participants wanted to see more child care options and recreational and after-school activities, Gilbertson said, and they wanted faith leaders, Athens Housing Authority staff and public health nurses to get involved in working for children’s success.

Several parents, who serve as resident leaders for WIT in their neighborhoods, spoke at the meeting about what they had learned from having “living room conversations” with their neighbors.

Marcia Dotson, a resident leader and a board member of WIT, said the neighbors she talked with were concerned about helping children stay healthy. Dotson, whose child is experiencing health problems, met another mother in the same situation.

Sonya Freeman, also a resident leader and board member, said the neighbors she talked to were focused on education. They wanted to strengthen early childhood learning programs, and teach kids foreign languages at an early age so they won’t be left behind, but also let children learn at their own pace. Freeman told about one mother who attended the meeting who didn’t know how to read, and said that Whatever It Takes needs to help illiterate parents so they can help their children.

Since WIT Athens is still in the early stages of planning, it doesn’t have many specific goals or plans to achieve them yet. But Thomas said the program’s goals will be closely based on what parents and residents say is important.

“It doesn’t matter what their family situation is, all parents want their children to succeed,” Thomas said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to empower and create advocacy among community leaders.”

Whatever It Takes is applying for an additional grant to fund its efforts over the next decade. Whether it gets the money depends on whether Congress approves any more money for the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, Johnson said, and if so, whether Athens is chosen for another grant.

If Athens doesn’t get the grant, WIT will continue to look for other funding sources, including donations, but the leaders of WIT said community involvement and making connections with existing resources were more important than money.

So will Whatever It Takes be able to achieve its goal? Let’s break it down.

“At 1 p.m. on Wednesday July 1st, 2020…”

2020 is far off, but when you’re talking about supporting a child through every stage of development, nine years goes by quickly. Although the leaders of WIT aren’t ready to announce specific steps, they said the time period will be enough to make a difference.

“It’s hard to imagine how exactly we get there in 10 years,” Gilbertson said, “but I think it’s possible.”

“…every child in Athens…”

Will WIT be able to reach every child in Athens? For now, the program is focusing on the Alps Road attendance zone, which includes Alps Road Elementary School, Clarke Middle School and Clarke Central High School. But once its work starts to gain momentum and show results, Whatever It Takes plans to expand to other neighborhoods.

“We’re taking a geographically focused approach, going neighborhood by neighborhood,” Johnson said. “You change the culture of the neighborhood to be pro-education.”

“…will be on course to graduate from a post-secondary education.”

When a student is still in elementary or middle school, how can you tell if they will later graduate from college? WIT Athens plans to track reading skills, the teen pregnancy rate, graduation rates and the general crime rate as indicators of its progress. And “post-secondary education doesn’t mean a four-year university for every student.

“A young person with a learning disability is not going to go to a four-year institution,” Johnson said. Instead, that person might receive on-the-job training. Other students’ post-secondary education might take the form of community college or military service.

It’s too early to know if Whatever It Takes will achieve its ambitious goal, but Gilbertson said the fact that it was chosen out of over 300 cities for an initial Promise Neighborhoods grant means it has a good chance.

“This community is really positioned well to make this happen,” she said. “This is our moment.”



One Comment on “Whatever It Takes hopes to bring community together to help children”

  1. community service ideas…

    […]Whatever It Takes hopes to bring community together to help children « Civic Life in Downtown Athens[…]…

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