Amazing story about what a Houston high school teacher, Adeeb Barqawi, did to address the chronic poverty and crises in his school community. So inspiring!
Sí se puede! Yes we can!
Nonprofit ProUnitas works to bridge gap between students and servicesDecember 4, 2016 Updated: December 5, 2016 9:13am
Photo: Gary Fountain, For The Chronicle
Her mom, she said, was murdered the day before. She came to school so she could eat.
Barqawi heard so many stories of struggle from his students. How could they concentrate on physics, he thought, when they went hungry at home or were stressed about bills or a parent in jail?
Barqawi and ProUnitas are being put to the ultimate test this year at Kashmere High School. The north Houston campus, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, has failed to meet the state's academic standards for seven straight years. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has ordered a state appointee to oversee instruction at Kashmere and to report back. The school is under immense pressure to improve fast.
Barqawi's approach joins a growing national effort to stop the teacher blame game. The movement embraces the idea that, while schools may not be able to do it alone, they must pay attention to the whole child - their physical and mental health, family life, emotional needs, as well as reading and math.
"We're not here to take over a school," Barqawi said. "We're here to work alongside. We're an organization that believes that, whether a test score goes up or doesn't, kids need basic services."
Barqawi, 27, has been on the fast track. He attended a private international school in Kuwait, moving there from suburban Virginia, for his dad's engineering job. By 16, he was accepted into college, at Virginia Commonwealth University.
At 19, although Barqawi had the credits and grades for medical school, he deferred for more real-world experience. He worked as a scientist for Pfizer and Product Pharmaceutical Development for about a year and then left for Georgetown University, where he earned a master's degree in physiology and biophysics. Not ready to commit to being a doctor, he followed his brother's lead and applied to Teach for America, pledging at least two years at a high-poverty school.
Barqawi, then 22, taught his first class at Kashmere High School four years ago. The school, long on the state's low-performing list, had been tapped for then-Superintendent Terry Grier's reform program, Apollo. Barqawi joined a mostly new faculty in 2012. The Apollo creed was high expectations, no excuses.
"They were the sweetest kids," Barqawi said. "But after probably a couple of days, I started to see the wear and tear on the clothes. Kids would put their heads down more as the weeks went by. Kids would start to ask for money: 'Can I have bus fare?'
They opened up to him:
"The FBI raided my house."
"My mom got shot."
"I'm visiting my dad in jail. He has 50 years."
Barqawi, single and without college debt, would dip into his own wallet, stocking his classroom with snacks and bus passes. He would call doctors to arrange appointments for students. He checked on them during lunch, gave them rides, visited their homes. In his spare time, he earned a master's degree in education through John Hopkins University online.
In 2014, Barqawi's students had the highest passing rate on a district-wide physics exam. They earned a mayoral proclamation.
"We had success," Barqawi recalled, "but I look back on it, and it was such a localized impact."
Barqawi set up his ProUnitas office in 2015 at the Kashmere Multi-Service Center, a city building on Lockwood, five minutes from the high school. Nearly half the adults in the area lack a high school diploma, and 53 percent earn less than $25,000 a year. Most families have one car or rely on public transportation. The neighborhood is short on grocery stores, health care facilities and after-school hangouts for kids.
From his computer, Barqawi can access data to see which students need help. Are they skipping school? Are their grades low? Are they getting suspended? Like a doctor, he wants to catch problems before they spiral. This year, ProUnitas has expanded to work with Key Middle School and Kashmere Gardens Elementary, which both feed into Kashmere High. Nearby Paige Elementary will be served starting in January. Barqawi hopes to add the three other feeder elementary schools by August.
ProUnitas employees, housed at the campuses, essentially work as case managers, reaching out to the neediest students and deciding what would help: private counseling, a support group for depression, assistance with college essays. Nearly all the services are provided at school.
Barqawi describes ProUnitas as a broker, bringing together the city's disjointed network of nonprofits. He formed a volunteer community council of local residents, alumni and the school principals to vet the service providers and give direction. The ProUnitas name is based on the Latin word for "unite."
"We're not only keeping Kashmere (High School) going. We're keeping the community going as well," said Keith Downey, the community council chairman, a 1980 Kashmere graduate who returned to help the neighborhood in 2015 after three decades as a New York architect.
The KIPP charter school network has experimented with a similar strategy of partnering with nonprofits at its southwest Houston campus, hoping to break the cycle of generational poverty.
In the Houston Independent School District, the Houston Federation of Teachers union has been lobbying for more campuses to become "community schools," serving as hubs for families and offering so-called wrap-around services such as medical care and counseling. In September, the district, urged by school board members Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Mike Lunceford, hosted its first ever summit "Wrap-Around Services Summit" for principals.
On a recent morning at Kashmere High, several students stopped by the trailer buildings where the ProUnitas "linkage managers," Donua McDaniel and Talicia Stringer, work. The students were out of uniform. McDaniel and Stringer, both in their 20s, suspected some simply ignored dress code. Others come because they're short on money for clothes or perhaps can't get laundry done at home.
The trailer is stocked with various clothing items, shoes, toiletries and non-perishable food for students or their families.
Later in the day, McDaniel attended a meeting with an assistant principal about a student caught with weed. He said his friends encouraged him.
McDaniel planned to connect him with ChildBuilders, a nonprofit that teaches good decision-making skills.
Another student with a history of marijuana use stopped by the trailer. He had gotten in a fight with his girlfriend and came to talk to McDaniel instead of sneaking off campus early.
McDaniel reminded the student that he had set a goal of becoming a mechanical engineer.
"See how your right now impacts your future?" she told him.
He liked poetry, too, so she gave him a composition notebook.
"You can write poetry about your day, how you're feeling," she said.
"I want to make poems to motivate single mothers," he said. "No food in the fridge. No lights. Be strong."
After chatting for about 40 minutes, the student said he was ready to return to class. McDaniel walked him there. On the way, she asked if he would be interested in counseling.
He shook his head yes.
Nancy Blackwell, in her second year as principal of Kashmere, said ProUnitas has been a "godsend," vetting the agencies peddling services and helping the students overcome the obstacles of poverty.
"The kids don't fail," Blackwell said. "It's the systems that fail the kids."
Donna Bahorich, chair of the State Board of Education, said she could see a model like ProUnitas expanding across Texas. She met Barqawi when he was a teacher, and his enthusiasm was infectious.
"We're asking a lot of teachers and administrators," she said. "His vision of being that middle man ... in a way that holds those services accountable - what a great idea."
ProUnitas, funded by grants and donations, doesn't charge schools for its services. Its biggest backers are the Houston Endowment, which has given $415,000, and the Menninger Clinic, which donated nearly $350,000. Barqawi said at some point he could see asking schools to cover some of the costs. He envisions expanding the program nationally. For him, med school is off the table.
"I'm not going anywhere," Barqawi said.