Salem’s Root celebrates three years of helping at-risk youth

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Peter Endicott, the owner of Salem’s Cheese Shop and Root graduate Henrique Corminas prepare the hors d’oeuvre that they created especially for Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration. [All photos by Alyse Gause Photography

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Last Wednesday evening, over 200 people filled Root’s elegant HarborPoint event space overlooking the harbor at Shetland Park, enjoying fine food, stylish table settings and festive lights. The well-heeled patrons were not gathered for just another holiday party. Rather, they were attending a third birthday party fundraiser for Root, a non-profit culinary-based training program for at-risk youth. They also celebrated honoree Deborah Jeffers, Root advisory council member and school nutrition director for Salem Public Schools, who received the 2018 Root Community Leadership Award.

 

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Founder and Board Chair Jennifer Eddy, Root graduate Nicky Lebron of Salem, Nutrition Director for Salem Public Schools Deborah Jeffers and 2018 Root Community Leadership Award Recipient, parent of Root graduate Leticia Carrasco, Root graduate Cassandra Bartolo of Beverly, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Root Executive Director M. Scott Knox were all speakers during the program at Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration.

 

 

Mayor Kim Driscoll hosted the Third Annual Gala and presented the award to Jeffers. “Who doesn’t like an organization that helps kids?” Mayor Driscoll asked rhetorically as she kicked off the formal program.

 

The Mayor spoke of Salem’s relationship with Jeffers, who eleven years ago proposed a food program in the public schools to provide fresh, wholesome, scratched-cooked meals with locally sourced ingredients. Today, this initiative has gained national attention and provides more than 900,000 nourishing meals a year. Every Salem school student gets free breakfast and lunch, regardless of need.

 

 

Jeffers also connected early on with Root founder and chairman of the board Jennifer Eddy to offer advice about setting a program that could both serve Salem Public School kids and be successful. “She is an exceptional partner and it is a pleasure to honor her,” Mayor Driscoll said.

 

Jeffers spoke briefly about the importance of food growing, preparation and sharing as a community to help lift us all up. “I don’t usually speak in front of a group. I’m more of a back room kind of person,” she admitted.

 

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Table of hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen for Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration includes Root’s own pickled vegetables and “Oat-eez” along with other catering items that are sold at the Root Café in Shetland Park. [Photo by Alyse Gause Photography]

Root is a social enterprise that focuses on the food industry as a training tool for at-risk youth ages 16 to 24 who have significant barriers to employment. Through a rigorous 12-week, 200-hour, work-force training program, students (called Program Partners) learn career and life skills through hands-on experience. “Root is the on ramp for youth in Essex County with an obstacle to success,” said M. Scott Knox, Root executive director.

 

Proceeds from the event will help support Root’s Essex County job skills training program.

 

It all started when Eddy had an idea she wanted to pursue to give at risk youth an opportunity to build a better life and break the cycle of poverty. She had visited and was impressed with D.C. Central in Washington, D.C. and Liberties Kitchen in New Orleans, two successful programs that use the culinary arts to train motivated young adults to access employment and education, and develop their skills as leaders and mentors.

 

When she returned, she put together a group of people, including her friend Elisabeth Massey, who serves on the Root board as community volunteer. They used the same structure and training program model Eddy encountered in D.C. and New Orleans. “She took the best of those two organizations and tailored it to our needs in Salem,” Massey said.

 

The result is Root, which operates a training program as well as several lines of food service-based businesses out of its Shetland Park facilities. These provide a training environment for the students and also generate revenue to support the mission. They include: The Root Café, which offers breakfast and lunch items; Catering By Root, and HarborPoint at Root, a new 2,200 square foot special event site. “Kids in the program learn by working in a real business,” Massey said.

 

Training is an intensive curriculum that runs Monday-Friday with four-hour morning and afternoon shifts. Program Partners attend life skills workshops, one-on-one career readiness coaching, and culinary training in Root’s on-site full catering kitchen. Root graduates are equipped with industry-certified credentials and direct skills that give them a sense of accomplishment and an advantage in seeking employment. “They leave Root with the skills not just to get a job, but to keep a job,” said Knox.

 

Referrals to the program come through the school system, the Department of Children & Families, social workers and word-of-mouth. Candidates who demonstrate a “barrier to success”, such as socio-economic level, housing status, or learning disability, go through an application and interview process. The average age is between 18 and 19 and Root just graduated its fifth cohort, marking almost 100 graduates in three years. “We really try to do whatever we can to be successful,” Massey said.

 

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Root graduate Nicky Lebron of Salem, Root graduate Arianna Couturier from Salem, Root Founder and Board Chair Jennifer Eddy, Root graduate Jayla Bryant from Salem, Root graduate Nevada Winter from Salem, Nutrition Director for Salem Public Schools Deborah Jeffers and 2018 Root Community Leadership Award Recipient gather at Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration. 

 

Recent graduates Nicky LeBron and Cassandra Bartholow praised the program. “For the first time, I felt like I was able to accomplish something for myself. I learned to be more proactive. I learned what I’m good at is working with people,” said Bartholow, whose mother works in Shetland Park and heard about Root.

 

LeBron is a 2018 Salem High School alum. On the last day of school, his class took a field trip to Root, and he knew immediately Root was for him. “What I loved about Root is — everything!” he exclaimed. “My mentors also felt like my friends. I could go to them about anything, not just cooking.”

 

 

Root is located in Shetland Park, 35 Congress Street, Building 2, Third Floor. For more information or to volunteer or make a donation, visit rootns.org or call 978-616-7615.

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Reality Fair Provides Reality Check

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Andrew Wulf, SHS Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning, SHS seniors Xhoralgo Gjinaj and Vistor Acosta, and Bryan Boppert, SSU AssociateDirector of the Student Navigation Center, pose with the Reality Check wheel of fortune. PHOTO: Shelley A. Sackett

 

Salem High School senior Daniele Alejandro hoped the financial Salem High School Reality Fair, a simulation of the financial challenges adults face, would show him how to be financially stable. After attending last Wednesday’s event, he came away with a better idea of how many obstacles he will face to achieve that goal.

 

“I was surprised at the cost of housing and how expensive it was. We had three people sharing an apartment and it was still difficult to pay for utilities,” he said.

 

Jaileny Pimentel, whose favorite subjects are calculus and statistics and who is interested in a career in business, looked forward to learning “tricks on how to save money.” Some students, like Victor Acosta, already pay all their personal bills, such as food and cell phone. Acosta recognizes he needs to learn to save on a regular basis and hoped the fair would teach him how to better manage money so he could afford to own a car.

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SHS seniors Jaileny Pimental (left) and Daniele Alejandro about to enter the Insurance and Investments booth.

 

Other students, like Xhoralgo Gjinaj, simply welcomed the opportunity to be out of the classroom on a beautiful May day. He anticipated the fair being “fun, interesting and something new.”

 

Since 2015, Salem Public Schools has run the SHS Reality Fair, providing graduating seniors with the opportunity to experience an up close and personal snapshot of what lies ahead of them as financially independent adults. The fair also supplies them with some of the tools they will need to tackle the many obstacles they will encounter along the way.

 

“We are very excited to be partnering with Salem State University (SSU), Salem Five Bank and Cabot Wealth Management. Everyone is committed to making sure our seniors leave high school understanding how to manage money,” said Andrew Wulf, Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning at Salem High School.

 

The Reality Fair planning team included Mikki Willson from Cabot Wealth Management; Ginny Leblanc, who teaches at Salem High School and handled most of the event coordination; and Adria Leach and Bryan Boppert from SSU. Bertolon School of Business at Salem State University hosted the event.

 

Each student received an individualized packet upon arrival with their name, occupation, and a summary of their hypothetical financial life at age 25, including net income after all taxes are deducted from their salary. Armed with that figure, they visited 16 booths to fill in the blanks on how to survive on that amount of money while also managing student loan debt and saving some money every month. Adult volunteers from the business, non-profit and public sectors staffed the booths, located in classrooms throughout the building.

 

At the end of the three-and-one-half hour fair, each student came away with a realistic monthly budget and the skills necessary to build one for themselves in the future.

 

 

Among the booths were: Career Counseling, Charity, Clothing, Credit/Lending, Credit Counseling, Education, Food, Luxury, Furniture, Housing, Insurance, Investment, Retirement, Savings and Transportation. In the Reality Check booth, a giant wheel similar to the “Wheel of Fortune” greeted visitors. Instead of winning vowels, however, a spin of this wheel yielded those little twists and turns life can unpredictably throw at you. Landing on green meant unexpected gains; red signified a loss.

 

For example, the green slots included a $100 birthday present from your parents or a part time job that yielded $250 a month. Red could mean an $875 expense to attend a wedding or $500 to replace a broken smartphone.

 

“It was really eye opening to see how the real world works,” said Alejandro, who hopes to earn an R.N. degree after graduation.

 

Bryan Boppert, Associate Director of the Student Navigation Center at SSU, greeted each student when they entered the lobby with a handshake and a smile. This was his first year of official involvement in the Reality Fair, but he was aware of it last year.

 

“Students took away the real world benefit of learning that budgeting is a skill learned through practice that requires discipline to maintain. Some students wanted fancy cars and vacations, but in the end they wound up broke,” he said, adding that the real benefit of the Reality Fair is that students can fail in a simulated way instead of trying it in the real world where they could lose their car or hurt their credit score.

 

His office, which counsels SSU students on borrowing responsibly, paying bills on time and managing the complex world of college, would love to replicate the Salem High School Reality Fair for their own students. “I would go so far as to say that the state should mandate financial literacy for all students because it has such a positive effect,” Boppert said.

 

Wulf has received positive feedback from the volunteers and students, who mentioned that the fair gave them a nice dose of reality regarding the complexities of managing their money. He believes that having volunteers from different companies and organizations was key to making the experience more authentic for the students.

 

“We have yet to hear from a student that the fair was not worthwhile,” he said with pride.

Reignited partnership between SSU and Salem public schools a win-win for both

 

 

In 1854, when Salem Normal School welcomed its first class of women who wanted to prepare for a teaching career, the city of Salem embraced the new school, endowing its One Broad Street location. Over the decades, the city and school developed a relationship that was mutually beneficial, but that waxed and waned.

 

That close historical partnership is entering a new phase with the recent signing of a memorandum of agreement between Salem State University (Salem Normal School’s heir) and Salem Public Schools (SPS).

 

Mayor Kim Driscoll is pleased that SSU will expand their connection with SPS through their Graduate School of Education and their commitment to the Horace Mann Laboratory School especially. “There is no more important mission for our city than ensuring that all our children receive a first class education that provides them with an opportunity to succeed,” she said.

 

One of the major sources of excitement for both SPS Superintendent Margarita Ruiz and SSU Dean of the School of Education, Dr. Joseph Cambone, is the return of the Horace Mann Laboratory School to its original purpose as a true “training school” for SSU students. “Some of our faculty longed to get back to collaborating with Salem Public Schools,” Dr. Cambone said during a phone interview.

Horace Mann Laboratory School was founded in 1896 and is now located at 33 Loring Avenue. Its 265 K-5 students and 26 teachers have traditionally drawn on the comprehensive resources of Salem State University.

 

When Superintendent Ruiz stepped in as superintendent in 2015, however, that liaison with the SSU School of Education was at an all time low. After the Horace Mann principal resigned soon after Superintendent Ruiz’s arrival, Dr. Cambone had a proposal for her and School Committee Chair, Mayor Kim Driscoll: What if a “very qualified” SSU faculty member served as interim principal for a year so Dr. Ruiz could have the time to think through where she wanted to go next with Horace Mann?

 

Superintendent Ruiz and Mayor Driscoll agreed, and SSU faculty member Chad Leith, EdD, was appointed interim principal for 2015-2016. “That was the genesis of our reigniting what has been in the past a close relationship but that had, over the years, become less strong,” Dr. Cambone said.

 

Dr. Cambone and Superintendent Ruiz wanted to use this turning point as an opportunity to explore the mutually beneficial ways SPS and the SSU School of Education could strengthen their ties and craft a formal agreement to memorialize that bond. To that end, they asked Leith to help convene a “blueprint committee” to rethink the SSU/SPS relationship and to consider ways in which the historic partnership between the two institutions could be better leveraged to enhance the learning experiences of Horace Mann students and aspiring teachers from SSU.

 

The blueprint committee included SSU faculty, an undergraduate education student, Horace Mann faculty, and a Horace Mann parent, and came up with five categories of activities to address.

 

Among those activities is collaboration between SSU and Horace Mann faculty around “curriculum enhancement”, meaning how teachers actually teach their subject matter. “Each year, whatever the core focus of Horace Mann is for their professional development and curriculum, we’ll work on our (SSU) side with some of our experts to assist,” Dr. Cambone said. This year, the core focus at Horace Mann is science.

 

Thanks to a 3-year grant, the SSU School of Education faculty and students and the Horace Mann community are also collaborating on “youth development”, including vacation, after school and summer programming. Winter and spring break “vacation academies” are under discussion.

As part of their curriculum, SSU students observe and student teach in classrooms while they do coursework to become early child educators. Returning Horace Mann to true “laboratory” status boosts the opportunities for students with interests in English language learners and kids with special needs to gain that targeted experience.

 

“Central to everything is our educator development,” Dr. Cambone said, adding that SSU students may go to Horace Mann to student teach and then return to their SSU classroom for faculty critique. “There is a back and forth between SSU and Horace Mann.”

 

Following his 2015-2016 year as interim principal, Leith was selected as principal of Horace Mann after submitting to a process that involved input from Superintendent Ruiz and the community. Once selected, that SSU faculty member steps off the faculty and into the role of principal for just under a three-year term, renewable one time. Leith is still an SSU employee, but reports first to Superintendent Ruiz and then to Dr. Cambone.

 

Leith’s expertise in English language learners (ELL) and inclusion classrooms, and his experience as a bilingual educator dovetail well with the needs of Horace Mann’s diverse student body, many of whom are newcomers who speak little or no English.

 

“Our students and families represent the full spectrum of the larger Salem community. We want to be sure we are continually looking for new ways of supporting and challenging our learners academically so that all students are moving forward, regardless of their particular needs,” he said.

 

The “blueprint committee” also suggested that Horace Mann support community outreach. To that end, a bilingual human resource specialist was hired to spearhead more Horace Mann community school efforts and to work on banding together with parents, the after school programs, service programs and other resources within the city.

 

“Another goal for the current year is to strengthen our approach to family and community engagement. I’m proud to say that we have a lot of happy children and families, but I know we can do better,” Leith said.

 

Both Dr. Cambone and Superintendent Ruiz point to the broader implications for the entire district of the revitalized Horace Mann/Salem Public Schools connection. “As students do their practicums at Horace Mann, they’ll get excited and think about working for us here at Salem. That’s what we want to be able to do,” Superintendent said.

 

“We are really strengthening the pipeline for our graduates training in Salem and then coming back to Salem to work. This is one of the benefits for the larger district,” Dr. Cambone said. “With Mayor Driscoll’s, SSU President Meservey’s and Superintendent Ruiz’s help, the stars are aligned for us to say, ‘Hey. This is a great way for us to get back to what we believe in.”