Q&A with Dr. Marisol De Jesús-Pérez, Pastoral Counseling Center

Recognizing factors that affect children’s social and emotional development continues to be a priority of The Budd Center and The School Zone. With the growing uncertainty and fear surrounding immigration and deportation as well as an increasing awareness of the many ways racial inequity impacts our students of color, The Budd Center is focusing its 2017-18 Networking & Learning Meetings on equipping partners to address these realities and create a safer community for everyone in West Dallas.

During our first Networking & Learning Meeting of the school year, we invited Dr. Marisol De Jesús-Pérez, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Pastoral Counseling Center, to discuss how socio-political issues such as immigration and deportation can affect the social, emotional and mental health of children. We also examined mental health disparities based on race and ethnicity.

As a follow-up to her presentation, we talked with De Jesús-Pérez about her career, gaps in social and emotional support of children, and innovative approaches to supporting students from marginalized communities.

When did you experience the calling to serve families and children through therapy and psychological services? Was there someone or something that inspired you to walk this path?

I realize now that all the experiences of my life helped to shape my career decision and my work with children and families. I was born to an undocumented immigrant mother and an alcoholic father. Neither of my parents completed a formal education. Due to my father’s alcoholism, the very little income that he generated was not being invested in our family, resulting in our family living in poverty. During the first five years of my life, I witnessed their intense marital conflict. This situation changed drastically after my parents joined a faith community that offered them holistic support and patiently assisted them in the process of living sober and changing their dysfunctional relational dynamics. My family’s experience with this church opened my eyes to the power of supportive communities. Therefore, I decided very early in my life that I wanted to become an agent of restoration for families at high risk. My calling to become a psychotherapist was reaffirmed when I did missionary work in South America, right after finishing college. I primarily served children living in severe poverty and recovering from abuse, abandonment and war-related trauma. This work helped me realize the importance of providing holistic assistance – medical aid, food and education – to families in need.

Having experienced what it feels like to be paralyzed by helplessness, poverty, shame, and fear allows me to empathize with children and families suffering similar circumstances. I know the power of supportive communities and corrective experiences, which has helped me to define the kind of psychologist I want to be. My story reminds me that I am a “wounded healer.” It is precisely my own hurt that has enabled me to become an agent of healing and restoration.

Your story is truly inspiring… Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Can you describe any recurring types of hardships you observed and addressed in your work with children and families in California and South America?

Poverty was the number one issue that afflicted the families I served. Many kids had parents without a formal education or valid work permit. Sometimes these parents were working upwards of 60 hours a week, but they were so underpaid they could not make their bills. Also, many children lived in single-parent homes due to divorce, incarceration or deportation of a parent, or death due to violent crime. Because of the limited resources, these children often had very unstable home environments, and many families experienced displacement resulting from the gentrification of their communities.

A large percentage of children in the communities I worked in came from immigrant families in which one or both parents experienced traumatic events. A significant number of their traumatic experiences were related to the process of migrating to the U.S. Given these circumstances, a great number of parents experienced high levels of stress, which impacted their ability to interact with their children in adaptive ways and their ability to cope with adversity. As a result of persistently experiencing these circumstances, many of the children and their families struggled with a sense of hopelessness.

Access to medical care and mental health care services was also limited because these services were far from their communities, and many people faced transportation challenges. Parents’ lack of awareness of mental health services, stigma, or fear also determined if children received such services.

As we know, all these challenges affect children’s academic performance. In addition, schools often lack the resources to support struggling students. However, schools and nonprofits can play a tremendous role in addressing these multilayered and interconnected issues that our children and families face. Creating innovative and empathetic solutions to challenges families face such as limited transportation, confusing referral systems, inadequate clinician staffing in schools, and significant stress levels is where we will start to see lasting community change.

We absolutely agree with having to create holistic support systems to heal troubled communities. It definitely takes time to get there, as The School Zone’s collective impact efforts in West Dallas span almost a decade. After years of our schools and nonprofits collaborating, building trust and sharing student-level data, receiving training and professional development, and working through problems together, we have all created an incredibly effective, synergistic partnership. And the results show in our students’ improved academic performance and increased levels of social/emotional health. Our partners in West Dallas committed to the work it would take to ignite systemic change, and their dedication has led to a stronger community – even amidst the aggressive gentrification.

Can you share with us some protective techniques parents, teachers and nonprofit staff can use to help children of families in our partner communities who are disproportionally affected by racism, immigration, deportation and poverty?

For Parents: My primary recommendation for parents is to make an effort to spend quality time with their kids every day. This is more than helping them with homework, but engaging in an activity that leads them to experience mutual enjoyment. We have seen that engaging in 5-10 minutes of play time each day resulted in fewer behavior problems and better attachment for young children. This practice strengthens the quality of the parent-child relationship. I also encourage our families to build a strong support system – to recruit people from church, local nonprofits, family and friends who are willing to invest in their children and can help to provide consistent supervision for their kids. We also coach parents to communicate high expectations to their kids, especially regarding academic performance, and to make themselves available to support their kids in both academic and extracurricular activities.

For Educators: We ask educators to identify students at risk and invest more time and effort in them. One extremely effective intervention is visiting at-risk students in their homes. We coach teachers to communicate with parents more intentionally. When engaging with students with behavior problems, I advise them to find out why these behaviors are happening rather than taking them as a personal offense.

For Nonprofit Staff: We encourage nonprofits to not only meet the immediate needs (e.g. counseling, tutoring, legal assistance, etc.) of their client families, but to also get involved with their local community to promote systemic changes. It is important to not only work for the community, but also to work with its residents, give them a forum to voice their concerns and help them organize to begin creating the change they want. It is imperative that nonprofits communicate with policy makers about the needs of the communities they serve. Additionally, we ask nonprofits to collaborate with other agencies to drive change.

One example that illustrates the power of collaboration in Dallas is Pastoral Counseling Center’s (PCC) co-location strategy. We have more than 17 satellite locations throughout the Dallas metroplex. We partner with other nonprofits to provide mental health services within their facilities (co-location), and we deploy therapists to these sites. Some of our satellites are hosted in churches, schools, and nonprofits to give families with transportation issues access to our therapy services. We operate as far as Frisco, Garland and south Dallas. Because of The School Zone partnership, we have co-located with Brother Bill’s Helping Hand, Wesley-Rankin Community Center and Trinity River Mission. At West Dallas Community School, one of our PCC therapists runs the school counseling program. We were also running the counseling program at Amelia Earhart Learning Center prior to the campus closing. PCC implements cognitive behavior interventions at local schools and nonprofits, and we offer professional development to all the nonprofits in The School Zone. The Budd Center provides funding for several trainings each semester with its nonprofit partners at Mercy Street, Readers 2 Leaders and Trinity River Mission. Our approach is designed to bridge the gap between need and access, and that is what must be done in low-income communities to create sustainable, systemic change.

PCC’s co-location strategy is making such an impact on ensuring our families and students receive the social/emotional support they need. This kind of collaboration between partners is a huge part of why The School Zone works. Would you please share with us some innovations and practices you’ve seen in schools and nonprofits in other communities that have yielded breakthrough results for students?

In Santa Monica, I witnessed the implementation of a preschool mental health consultation program that had significant impact because it provided prevention and early intervention in a setting where it was possible to address children’s educational and socio-emotional needs in collaboration with parents. This program launched because a nonprofit mental health agency partnered with the school district and other agencies and obtained a grant to send therapists into preschool facilities to identify children at risk and provide mental health services. The program received funding from the city, and the nonprofit implemented the intervention themselves. Collaboration with parents is crucial. The key is for schools and nonprofits to consistently provide holistic support for families – parenting classes, prevention and early intervention services, empowering and giving people tools. In communities where nonprofits and schools engage in consistent preventative measures, there are lower rates of crime and mental health issues than in other low-income communities.

I observed another innovative and collaborative effort in Compton, California. A group of nonprofits, including churches, partnered to create community gardens in places that used to be neglected in multiple marginalized communities. This community effort is not only producing nutritious food and jobs for the community, but also creating opportunities for recreation, exercise, therapy, and education, as well as reducing crime and beautifying the neighborhoods. Sensory integration is another innovative approach where children participate in activities that promote awareness of the body-mind connection. More and more, schools and mental health programs are incorporating yoga, psycho-ballet, and the expression of emotions through the arts. These environments foster stronger bonds between children and their caregivers. Incorporating freedom of movement and creativity into a child’s daily routine has tremendous impact on their overall well-being.

One of the most innovative ways to promote socio-emotional health in children is to create opportunities for cooperation among diverse members of a community. The School Zone partnership in West Dallas is addressing interconnected issues that affect children living in poverty, and, from what I have seen in this community, nonprofits and schools are collaborating in an effective way. It takes time and commitment to begin making a significant impact on academic outcomes and children’s well-being, and the work of The School Zone is making steady headway and serving as a model of what collective impact can achieve.

Pastoral Counseling Center has been a trusted resource for families in navigating life’s changes and challenges through faith integrated counseling and psychological services. The Center’s licensed therapists and residents provide affordable counseling and psychological evaluations for children, teens, and adults. Pastoral Counseling Center is one of 33 nonprofits in The School Zone in West Dallas.

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2017 Entrepreneurship Workshop

As the students of Mercy Street’s Leadership Intensive filed into the classroom, the air began filling with an electric vibe of anticipation. Forty-five students, six mentors, two dynamic young women business owners and one excited summer intern – The Budd Center’s 2017 Entrepreneurship Workshop was ready to kick off.

The Budd Center first partnered with Mercy Street to integrate entrepreneurship elements into its Leadership Intensive program in 2016, as part of the Center’s entrepreneurship task force efforts. Collaborating with partners in The School Zone (TSZ), The Budd Center implements programming that encourages innovative thinking and fosters an entrepreneurial mindset within TSZ communities. The goal of this task force is to provide resources and environmental exposure that will nurture creativity and provide on-ramps and mentorship for TSZ students. And the Entrepreneurship Workshop for the Leadership Intensive students has become the annual capstone event for these efforts.

Leadership Intensive is a 10-week summer program where Mercy Street invites high school students from West Dallas to participate in unique business and experiential programming to help them develop their leadership skills. We invited the 2016 Leadership Intensive students to an all-day entrepreneurship workshop at SMU, featuring numerous speakers and activities designed to empower students to think big, network effectively, discover their strengths and develop their personal brands.

This year we made the programming more fluid and focused, so the students had time to get to know the speakers and participate in an extended session of community problem-solving. The Leadership Intensive students put their innovative thinking caps on and dove into some community issues facing West Dallas: the ongoing HMK eviction situation and summer activities for youth in the community. They worked in groups to discuss and propose solutions to problems such as: how to identify and address the needs of families who would be impacted by the evictions; how to aid in those relocation efforts; and how to support these families post-move. The students also talked about how they could motivate kids to spend their summers participating in meaningful activities that help serve other residents and how they, as high school students, could work with the younger kids in the community to create and sustain these kinds of efforts. Each group came up with thoughtful responses and solutions and presented their ideas to the others. Mercy Street has committed to working with interested students to help them put these ideas into action. Click here to see one student sharing out her group’s solutions: https://vimeo.com/230803961

Since most of the Leadership Institute students are young women, we approached two local women of color who have each built unique and flourishing enterprises, Brit Rettig and Yasmeen Tadia, to speak to the group.

As a former captain of the Cornell University Women’s NCAA Division I basketball team, Brit always focused on developing her physical fitness and mental grit. She founded GRIT Fitness in January 2015. Her full-body boutique fitness concept is based on her belief that mental grit or “passion and perseverance for long-term goals” is the key to both fitness success and to living our best lives. A true force of nature, Brit launched the workshop with a blood-pumping cardio yoga session, getting everyone charged up with some intense reps over a Beyonce-infused soundtrack. After everyone caught their breath, Brit shared her story. Her anecdotes were inspiring and charismatic, and the students visibly connected with her positive energy. Brit emphasized the importance of pursuing higher education and described how she learned critical life lessons during her college experience.

Our second speaker was SMU’s own Cox Business School alum Yasmeen Tadia. After spending 10 years in corporate HR, Yasmeen decided to break into the confectionary industry with a revolutionary idea. She developed an artisanal, organic cotton candy to satisfy her young son’s sweet tooth in a healthier way. This cotton candy was the genesis of a line of four brands under the “Make Your Life Sweeter” umbrella. Her clients include Neiman Marcus, the Food Network and Facebook.  She also runs a nonprofit called Random Acts of Sweetness, through which she initiates various philanthropic efforts around the world.

As Yasmeen shared her story with the Leadership Intensive students, she stressed values like empathy, emotional intelligence and compassion for others. She emphasized how practicing kindness in all walks of life is the karma that creates lasting happiness, not the mounds of money that you can make off a novel product or idea. A proud mom-preneur, Yasmeen introduced her 8-year old son Zain to everyone, as he attends many of her work functions and meetings and has been helping out mom with her business since he was 3 – stuffing popcorn bags, unscrewing lids and other things that little hands could do. Yasmeen also candidly opened up about what it was like, and what she still experiences, as a Muslim woman of color running her own business.

She ended her session by administering a curiosity quiz – a tool designed to gauge an individual’s level of curiosity about the world around them, and a great barometer for entrepreneurial spirit. During a lively Q&A session, Yasmeen and her team distributed pints of her organic cotton candy to everyone who asked a question.

The third star of the show during this year’s workshop was Akilah Wilson, our summer intern who we came to know through Mercy Street’s Leadership Intensive program. Over the course of a month, Akilah helped orchestrate the workshop and practiced tirelessly for her MC duties that day. And she pulled it off beautifully. Akilah commented, “One of the most impactful experiences I’ve had at The Budd Center was planning for the 2018 Entrepreneurship Workshop… The feelings I have after this experience are pride in myself and being grateful that everything ran smoothly. My time spent working on this event showed me how determined I can be when I’m willing to put in the work.”

A great day all around, and The Budd Center plans to continue this annual summer partnership with Mercy Street. #ThinkBigDoBold

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Leveraging Students’ Community Cultural Wealth

Last year, The Budd Center made a strategic shift in its programming to better equip its PreK-12 school and nonprofit partners in The School Zone (TSZ) in West Dallas. We decided to integrate professional development, training and coaching into The School Zone model because we recognized many of our partners faced shared organizational and human capacity challenges that we, as a University center, had the resources to address. Led by Esmeralda Ortiz, director of human development, we now offer our 49 school and nonprofit partners an ongoing four-session professional development series, at no cost. Each 60-minute session, held during our quarterly Large Group Meetings, is designed to strengthen our partners’ ability to implement academic, social and emotional interventions to high-needs students. The Budd Center collaborates with faculty from SMU’s Simmons School and University-wide as well as with expert practitioners to facilitate these sessions. The entire professional development series is grounded in evidence-based research and best practices.

In November 2016, Dr. Frank Hernandez, the Annette and Harold Simmons Centennial Chair in Education Policy and Leadership and Associate Dean in the Simmons School, led a professional development session to equip our TSZ partners to recognize and value the community cultural wealth of students, especially students of color.  His presentation, based on the research of Tara J. Yosso, Ph.D., professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, challenged those working with students of color to abandon the idea that those students are operating at a deficit. He stressed that educators and nonprofit staff alike should begin to recognize that many of their students’ communal and cultural experiences are assets – capital that can be leveraged for more meaningful educational experiences and future success.

Many of our partners commented during the session that they felt very comfortable activating the aspirational capital of their students; however, many felt less equipped to recognize and employ resistance capital. In the video below, Dr. Hernandez talks about Yosso’s Community Cultural Wealth model, a challenge of aspirational capital and different forms of resistance capital.

3 Ways to Implement the Community Cultural Wealth Model:

  1. Start by sharing the model with everyone in your organization and providing your staff with insights into each form of capital.
  2. As an organization, identify which forms of capital you are best at leveraging and determine ways you can continue to do that.
  3. Identify the forms of capital that are more difficult for your organization to recognize and leverage.Determine ways you can begin to leverage those forms of capital to improve your organization and the lives of the students and families you serve.
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How We’ve Engaged This Year

By immersing SMU faculty, staff and students in The Budd Center’s partner communities, PreK-12 schools and nonprofit partners can expand their human and intellectual capital to better serve clients and strengthen their organizations. Equally as important, the SMU community becomes a learning partner through faculty research and teaching, student volunteerism and employment, and service-learning projects facilitated by The Budd Center.

One of our newest faculty engagements is Project CONNECT, a joint project between The Budd Center and the Simmons School, which was just awarded $2.5M by the Department of Education to develop teachers for English Language Learners. Rather than using traditional classroom settings, SMU Simmons faculty travel to West Dallas where they meet teachers at our nonprofit partners’ offices and train them while they are fully immersed in the culture of the West Dallas community.

So far this academic year, 62 SMU undergraduate and graduate students have volunteered or worked within our partner communities, and 72 PreK-12 students have visited SMU for immersive trips designed to introduce them to college life. To see a child’s eyes light up as they explore SMU’s campus or to hear elementary students share their business ideas with professors from our business school, is to see the landscape of their imagination widen. We know the college dream is choked early for too many students, so we’re intervening while that dream is still alive, and feeding it with everything from burgers to college knowledge.

AY2016-17 Mid-Year Engagement Report

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Partner Survey Results for AY2015-16

Download Report

In May 2016, an online survey was administered to The School Zone partners to help The Budd Center and its partners understand: 1) the impact participation in The School Zone has on individual partners and 2) the impact The School Zone has on students in West Dallas.

Here are a few highlights from the survey:

  • 81% of respondents feel that being part of TSZ increases their ability to use school data to make programmatic decisions.
  • 72% of respondents feel they are better equipped to meet the needs of clients because of their TSZ participation.
  • 85% of partners are collaborating at least once a year; more than half collaborate at least once every three months.

The survey also helped us to identify areas of growth for The School Zone. In 2016-17 we are focused on strengthening two of these issue areas:

  • 57% of respondents feel that the efforts of The School Zone partners are aligned and that group accountability exists.
    The CEO Council is tackling the accountability question in The School Zone.
  • 20% of respondents feel they receive effective training on how to make programmatic or instructional changes based on The School Zone-provided data.
    The Budd Center has hired two interventionists who are providing training and special supports for TSZ partners who are intent on improving their use of data to make program decisions.

For the full report, click here.

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Equipping Our Partners through Professional Learning Communities

In addition to providing training for our partners, The Budd Center is now offering coaching to help them implement what they learn. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are a fixture within PreK-12 education. Schools use them as a way for colleagues to learn from each other – sharing resources and data, problem solving and addressing shared issues as they emerge. In an effort to improve collaboration and data use within The School Zone, The Budd Center hired two coaches, adopted the PLC model and took an innovative approach to its use.

The School Zone’s PLCs are primarily composed of nonprofit program staff, with some participation by school leaders. By placing adult learners from mission-similar organizations in collaborative settings, participating nonprofits get to know each other (the foundation for all collaboration), they engage in idea-sharing, examine data and incorporate it into their daily practices, and tackle persistent and systemic challenges from a collaborative perspective.

To date, three PLCs have emerged – Early Childhood, Academic Support, and Social and Emotional Health. Each has developed or is developing its own leadership, mission, SMART goals, roles responsibilities and accountability structure. A fourth PLC, the CEO Council, is in formation and will serve the same purpose at the senior executive level of The School Zone.

PLC Missions
Early Childhood PLC

Provide young children access to high quality early childhood education and support at home, in school and in the community. Families, schools, early childhood providers and community organizations who interact with families and young children will work together to meet a shared set of school readiness outcomes supported by the Early Childhood PLC.

Academic Support PLC
Bring together in-school and out-of-school educational nonprofits to address common issues and identify and implement solutions to better serve students and families in West Dallas. Schools and community organizations who interact with students, teachers and families will work together to help make sure students in The School Zone are performing at grade level across all age groups.

Social and Emotional Health PLC
Improve the social and emotional health of children by identifying, sharing, and engaging in best practices in order to improve the trajectory of children’s lives.

PLC SMART Goals
This year, each PLC will use its SMART goals to continue to develop structures and practices to support improved student outcomes.

  • The Academic Support PLC’s SMART goal is: By the end of AY2016-2017, 75% of Tier 3 students (high-risk students in grades 1-3) will improve their ISIP scores by 10 points in reading.
  • The Early Childhood PLC is working to establish an attendance goal (if parents don’t understand the importance of attendance, their children miss out on critical learning even in the first years of school).
  • The Social and Emotional Health PLC is newly formed and is developing SMART goal .
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The Educated City

Sustaining the growth and opportunities that make Dallas a vibrant place to live requires a strong public education system – a system that authentically engages parents and local citizens, creates innovative development opportunities for teachers and administrators, and utilizes data in ways that create real and useful information for schools.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Dallas Festival of Ideas and the Dallas Morning News explored these critical issues during a panel discussion on January 24th, highlighted by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, local leaders and policymakers and our own Regina Nippert, executive director of The Budd Center. Speakers addressed topics including progress in Dallas education, deeply rooted historical challenges in low-income communities, and the gap between visionary policy making and on-the-ground realities for teachers, parents and students.

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The Power of Partnership – Supporting Samuel

Many students served by The School Zone have varied social, emotional and academic needs that are best supported through the combined efforts of multiple nonprofits. Samuel, currently a third grader at TSZ partner school George W. Carver Creative Arts Learning Center, is one such student. We recently had a chance to speak with Lisa Dickerson, program director at TSZ nonprofit Readers 2 Leaders, about Samuel.

Based on data Lisa received from The Budd Center, the staff knew Samuel had been served by Rainbow Days and Big Thought in the 2014-15 academic year. The data also indicated that during the 2014-15 academic year, Samuel was classified as Tier 3, a categorization that indicates a high-needs student within the Student Advocacy Management (SAM) Tier Criteria system.

In January 2014, Ssamuel_smallamuel was halfway through first grade at Carver. He always had a joke ready and rarely sat still. When he entered Readers 2 Leaders’ Team Read program, he tested at a pre-kindergarten reading level, which means he did not know all of his letter sounds, let alone how to put them together to make words. Lisa says, “The first time we read together one-on-one, it took half an hour to get through one page of a book, and I could tell he was frustrated and embarrassed that he didn’t know the words. It took that whole first semester for him to learn his letters and to begin to sound out small words like ‘it’, ‘and’ or ‘go’.”

The next year Samuel moved on to second grade, though he was only reading at a beginning kindergarten level. He had grown into a class clown and there was never a dull moment when he was in the classroom. He was not very interested in reading, but he showed up in class every day. It was during this year that reading began to click for him. In seven months, Samuel made 15 months of reading growth progress. Despite the tremendous progress he had made, he was not ready to move on to third grade and was held back to remain in second grade for another year.

At the beginning of Samuel’s second year in second grade, Lisa sat down and talked with him about the reading program. She said, “I explained to him that this year I could only take five second graders into the program, and I believed that if he put in the work he could reach his grade-level goal by the end of the year. He agreed and we shook on it.”

Samuel was still a playful kid, but he also started to take an interest in his education. He asked for more difficult books, participated in class discussions, and practiced his fluency passages over and over again until he could read them perfectly. One day during spelling practice he said, “Ms. Carpenter, do you know why I know how to spell so good? Because you taught me how last year and now I can spell anything.” Samuel was committed to becoming a great reader, and in May of 2016 all his hard work paid off when he passed the test for his grade-level reading goal.

The steadfast efforts of Lisa and the Readers 2 Leaders staff have made a significant impact on Samuel’s personal and educational growth. The Budd Center believes the combined support of Rainbow Days, Big Thought and Readers 2 Leaders contributed to the “win” of Samuel’s upward transition from Tier 3 to Tier 2 and his increasing interest in reading and education.

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