Community program

Schenectady’s community program aims to close the gap

SCHENECTADY — After they finished their homework, a small group of youngsters sat in a circle in Rob Alley inside the Proctors Theater on a recent Friday afternoon, cutting through on healthy relationships and what the community means to them.

Meralys Collazo, who moderated the session in front of a poster made of brightly colored sticky notes with handwritten responses under the heading “What does the community look like? “, praised the group for its maturity and thoughtfulness.

“I really liked how you approached the different storylines and went deeper into them,” she added.

Aimed at students of color, the “Bridge the Gap” foundation program provides a “safe space” for teens to get academic and social-emotional support, according to program coordinator Alicia Holt.

“We made it very clear at the start that everything we do is there to support you and meet their needs, so we ask them what do you want to talk about?” Holt said, adding that the circle sessions are largely dictated by what an all-male group currently wants to discuss and ranges from systemic racism and inequality between school districts to the recent car accident that killed a popular classmate. “We want to make it a space that meets their needs and the needs of the community,” added Holt.

Twenty-five students, ages 14 to 18, attend the program three days a week and are involved in the local “My Brother’s Keepers (MBK)” program, a program for young men of color.

Jahiem Copeland, 17, a junior at Schenectady High School, has been with MBK since 8th grade.

“We come here, talk about what’s going on in the community, what’s going on in the world and try to make it a better place,” he said. “We go to school together, we witness what happens in the community – we are just a brotherhood”,

“One thing I appreciate is the comfort zone, you don’t have to hold back your emotions or feelings when you’re here, you can let it all out, you can say what’s bothering you and what you’re want to talk,” Copeland said. “It makes you a family.”

Damonni Farley, who works as the Schenectady School District or Community Outreach Director, noted that the program is a student-led, community-focused initiative carried out in conjunction with the school district, proctors, Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady, among other partners.

He acknowledged that the district provides tutors and has been extremely supportive on many fronts.

“We’re not replacing the school district at all, what we’re really doing is adding the supports necessary for students to succeed, but it’s not just about school, because many of our children have other difficulties,” Farley said. , noting that “culturally responsive pedagogy” is another cornerstone of the program.

He said they sometimes have teachers and certified professionals, some of whom have been fired by the district, volunteering alongside participants in the Bridge the Gap program, which has been running for just over a month.

Farley said Bridge the Gap also helps city residents struggling with technology issues, food insecurity and needing to resolve conflicts.

Karen Corona, spokesperson for the school district, said engagement between community members and staff “helps build connections and get students to a place to maximize their learning.”

“They work as community or family engagement specialists in the district to provide counseling and bridge home and school as part of their work to engage and connect families to resources. and supports that will help them succeed educationally,” Corona added.

Farley recounted how he was speaking with friends and colleagues about the program’s launch even before the Schenectady School District laid off about 450 employees, many of them black and brown staff, who were attending programs for at-risk teens and struggling to reconcile. a budget shortfall resulting from the anticipated loss of $29 million in state aid.

He said when this happened a few months ago, the sense of urgency to put something in place became even greater.

Farley said they have applied for grants and plan to open another “Bridge the Gap” site on Furman Street in Schenectady, and plan to open other sites early next month.