Each quarter, we feature a past participant of the Rising Leaders program in a section we call "Leaders on the Rise." For this installment, we spoke with Shandell Richards, Elementary Programs Director for Horton's Kids. Learn about her outstanding work with young people in Ward 8 and how she is finding balance today.
As Elementary Program Director at Horton’s Kids, you lead K-7 literacy, youth development, enrichment, and social-emotional programs. Children who participate in Horton’s Kids are twice as likely to graduate from high school. Can you tell us some specifics about why the Horton’s Kids model is so impactful?
Before coming to Horton’s Kids I was a DC Public School educator for 7 years. I served as a teacher, a coach, was a part of their District-wide training corps and I wrote curriculum. When I went from one school in Northwest to a school in Northeast, you could tell that there was a big disparity. The demographics of kids were similar, and they were both Title 1 schools, but the discrepancies in how one school was treated on one side of the town versus the other were evident.
One thing that was the same between both the schools was that each time we had an issue with a child, we never got to the root of why that child was having a problem. We expected children to come to school every day, be ready, walk in a straight line and sit in their classrooms and follow each and every rule, and always stay on “green.” And we never really got to ask questions like, “did you eat last night?”, “have you seen your parents in the last couple of days?”, or “I know you got removed from your house, how are your foster parents treating you?”. It became very disheartening to see that because as an educator you really want to help children, but at the root of all of the issues is helping families.
That brings me to the model at Horton’s Kids, we help not only the children but their families as well. A child can come in and get academic support, and meanwhile we are helping the parents navigate the educational system and helping them advocate for their kids. So, if a parent is having issues with mental-health support, we connect them to the right resources. We have a mental health specialist on our team. If someone is dealing with a death in the family, we help them with funeral arrangements. If they need food they can stop by the center, if they need diapers, they can get them at the center. We are not only treating the symptoms of the dynamics in the family but the root cause. That model is what makes the kids who enter Horton’s Kids successful because we are helping them in each way that they need help.
We are located in Wellington Park, we have been in the community for 30 years and we primarily only serve that community. We have parents who have been through the program and their children are now in the program, and it is a great thing to see. We spent a lot of time with the community. This year, we are expanding to Stanton Oaks, an adjacent community. We are excited to bring all of our resources, our expertise, and our partnerships to a new neighborhood to implement all of the same things we did in Wellington Park. I am currently the lead on the new expansion, and it is very exciting to transfer all of the things we do and truly get to know this community.
What are your thoughts on keeping students engaged during the pandemic? Are there any specific strategies or tactics that have emerged that are most impactful for rising to the unique challenges educators face today with COVID-19?
This is a challenge for everyone I talk to. Everyone is asking how to improve virtual learning. First, for anyone who has a program, patience is the number one thing. We have to be patient when transitioning from "face to face" to a virtual model. That is a challenge in and of itself. Especially with our kids, they are accustomed to walking straight from school to our community center. A lot of our kids are extremely independent, they can come in, get something to eat, give you a hug, it’s low-pressure safe space to get their homework done. And then, boom, we are not there anymore. So, we had to create a social media page for our kids, because that is the place where they talk. We had to find them on the ‘gram (Instagram). The more we are engaging on social media the more kids are taking advantage of the program.
When the pandemic started, we created a model that was based on all of the things we were already doing. We converted our homework help, our STEM club, our social and emotional gender-based discussion groups to a virtual space. We did this in a phased approach. Phase one was just creating social media outlets. On Monday, we would have a challenge, on Tuesday we would come on and read a book out loud on Instagram Live. My colleague did a STEM lesson. The kids started to get familiar, because we had them follow us on Instagram, we started speaking their language, we started “sliding in their DMs.” From there, we started our Zoom activities. Doing those things helped us transition to our summer program where everything is in Zoom. But the engagement was still a challenge. So, we incentivized.
Last week, anyone that logged in to our programs, we bought them a pizza. We have to engage with the parents too, so they see the value in it. So, I acquired a Robo-text service to engage parents.. Just today, I had 30 parents respond to my text message. Something as simple as trivia questions, like “who was the Mayor before Mayor Bowser?” or “Who is Rhianna’s best friend?”. I am trying to make it very entertaining to get parents engaged. They answer the trivia question and then scroll down and get reminders to come into the center for meals or log in to our online programs.
Currently, we are trying to infuse social-emotional learning (SEL) into everything we do. For example, in our summer program, we start each day with a meditation, and we go into our social-emotional learning discussion group. We use content centered around the Black Lives Matter movement to bring those discussions to the forefront for our kids. That is for our kindergarten through fifth graders. Our older kids are doing SEL discussions that are based on activism and taking a stand. It is all about Black Lives Matter and how you can appropriately advocate and protest because 100% of the kids we are helping are Black.
We want to make sure that we are educating them on how to properly advocate for themselves and what that looks like. We are also educating on these topics for the younger kids because often these things are not being taught in schools, period. We want to help them stay grounded in the facts and the history of Black people.
Horton’s Kids serves residents of Ward 8 in DC, which has the highest concentration of poverty and violent crime in the city. Can you describe the importance of education efforts in addressing the underlying causes of violence and give some examples from your work? How has the community responded in the wake of the murder of Davon McNeal?
For a lot of our families, violence is a part of their lives. Violence is not new to them. Because of that, sometimes kids can start to feel numb when dealing with all of that trauma at one time. It is extremely disheartening. The way that we are trying to combat violence within the community is to help our parents.
Education is lateral so the more we educate both kids and parents the more we can change the trajectory for a lot of our children and mitigate that violence. We want to make sure that when they come out of high school and college, they are ready for life. That ready for life piece is a reality. Not all of our kids are going to go to college or have a quote-unquote career, but we want to make sure that when they go out into society, they are ready to be well-respected. We are really trying to focus on how we can move forward and create a two-generation approach for communities to mitigate violence.
About two years ago a child who was a participant in our program, TaQuan Pinkney was murdered. We rallied around and helped the family.
During your time as a teacher and facilitator with DC Public Schools you led professional development training, and at Horton’s Kids, you provide leadership to direct reports to support their personal and professional well-being and development. How did the Rising Leaders program help you advance your skills in these areas?
As a public school educator things are just a little different. I used to say when I hit the door in August, “we have 180 days to turn things around.” You are moving so quickly you are not always able to assess, to get to know the people you are leading. It is a little bit different; things can feel almost semi-hostile because you don’t always have a lot of time to think about the best way to positively impact our colleagues.
Rising Leaders actually gave me a lot of tools to help me pivot to my next role, from learning my personality, to how to manage the people that I supervise, how to understand their skills, how to hone into it, and how to manage up. All of those aspects of the program were very helpful to me. I think that I had the leadership qualities when I came in, but with anything you do, you have to put in the effort to become better. The program allowed me to place my energy where it needed to be. It has benefited me in this past year alone since I graduated, I am now going to be promoted. All of those things I learned helped me become more successful at Horton’s Kids. I am very thankful. Everything I learned in the program has allowed me to show my voice and my leadership to the best of my abilities.
My friend Britney Stephens is in the program right now, we went to college together, and she was my line sister in Delta Sigma Theta Incorporated.
How has life been during the pandemic, what have you been doing to find balance? Have you been able to keep in touch with friends from your Rising Leaders Class?
I ride my bike in DC. If you haven’t been on the trail get out there. I ride almost 150-200 miles a month. So that is my balance right now, riding my bike. A lot of the people I went through the program with, we are friends on social media, LinkedIn. You keep in contact. After I do my five, six, seven hours of Zoom sometimes you want to go on silent. Zoom is not my best friend (laughs).
I remember when the pandemic was starting, we had to pivot so quickly, and everything was changing. We were closed, and the next day, we had to find ways to serve the kids. When I shut off I make sure I really shut off. When I need a break throughout the day, I make sure I am intentionally breaking.
Learn more about the Horton's Kids here.
Special thanks to the Crimsonbridge Leadership Fund for scholarships in support of Rising Leaders from the nonprofit sector.
Special thanks to our program partner TD Bank.