Alumna Hannah Propp MSW ’13:

UNE alumna, Hannah Propp MSW ’13 felt “the call” to social work while she was working in New York City as a Childcare Provider.   Through this work, she found herself unable to continue to operate within the many oppressive systems that unfairly target specific populations without challenging them.  Fueled by a desire to be a positive agent of change, Hannah applied to and was accepted into UNE’s MSW program.  Shortly thereafter, she packed her bags and moved north to the beautiful coastal city of Portland, Maine.

After completing her MSW, Hannah moved back to NYC, where she still resides, working as a Community Based School Social Work Director.  She works at P.S. 165 Ida Posner School, a public elementary school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and her job is anything but monotonous. She’s employed through Partnership with Children a community-based organization that provides trauma-informed counseling, school wide services, and family and community outreach in New York City public schools where students are at the highest risk of academic failure and dropping out.  Their primary focus is to help children overcome the severe and chronic stress of growing up in poverty. (1)

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Hannah (in red) photographed among other social workers at a workshop.

“Brownsville has a long history of  being affected by institutionalized racism” Hannah explains as she goes on to describe the 1950’s era of accelerated housing development, demographic shifting, and “white flight.” Brownville is still affected by the housing descrimination and over-policing of this era. Amidst all this are always the children- the children who often bear the brunt of the generational trauma caused by these oppressive systems, and this is precisely what Community Schools aim to address.

 

So What Are Community Schools Anyway? 

The idea behind community schools is that poverty, housing instability, trauma, and inadequate health care impede student’s learning ability, and schools should work to mindfully address these challenges. Community Schools partner public schools with resources.  They integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement.

“My job is incredible,” says Hannah, “The community school model is something I truly believe in.”

There are about 5000 community schools nationwide, and are most prevalent in New York City, where Partnership with Children is among the most active organizations in the community schools network.   In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a $200 million Community Schools Initiative with the goal of creating 100 community schools. Over time, this number has grown to 267 schools serving 135,000 students in low-income areas, and there is promising research showing these schools are working! (2) 

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Parent Workshop at PS165

Each community school forms a partnership with a Community-Based Organization that addresses its unique needs.  Partnership with Children  provides social workers and counselors who connect families to legal and housing resources and run in-class workshops that help students navigate social and emotional learning and development.  They provide individual and group counseling and use art and play therapy modalities to work through trauma.  There is also a Community Director at the school, who focuses on organizing other community resources. They may host  food pantries, onsite dental exams, vision screenings, and other health resources. 

Are Community Schools the Future of Education Reform? 

A Day in the Life of Hannah Propp: 

“My days are so varied!” says Hannah.  “This morning for example, I started with 3k for All rounds….” 

3k For All is free, full-day preschool for ANY New York three-year-old that follows the same school day and calendar as pre-k (for four-year-olds). 

Hannah’s school was chosen to be one of the pioneering 3k For All schools due to its positive reputation. P.S. 165 was given the highest quantity of 3k For All classrooms, eight in total, in the program’s second year.

“3K for all is one of the best parts of my job!” she exclaims. “We do parent workshops aimed at 3K parents, where we teach Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child’s research on ‘serve and return’ interactions. “ Serve and return emphasizes early childhood interactions and the effects on  brain architecture.  It specifically focuses on the importance of developing positive and supportive relationships in early childhood, and emphasizes how these have been shown to counteract the effects of toxic stress. 

 

“Other days, we do full-class lessons that focus on an aspect of early childhood social and emotional development” she says, “we read books like,  Hands are not for Hitting,” for example,” she reports with a chuckle.  “3k classrooms have ‘calm down corners,’ and we teach various mindfulness strategies with accompanying materials that we add to the classrooms as we go.”  

In her work with the older elementary students she often leads support or social skills groups that utilize different creative modalities.  She describes the “Test monsters vs. Test Superheroes” lesson she modified in collaboration with the Senior Social Worker whom she supervises, Jozi Zwerdling.  As many students struggle with anxiety and doubts around standardized testing, they had students create test monsters who embodied all their scary thoughts, doubts and fears.  The students then created their test superheroes adorned with “positivity shields,” decorated with positive self-talk to fend off these doubts and fears and empower the students.  The children then role played a duel between test monsters and test heroes, where the only rules were that it be school appropriate and that the superhero must always win.

She describes another lesson she developed around the topic of consent. Her team executed this lesson just that morning with a fifth grade class.   “We want them to learn to apply consent to everyday situations. The important thing is that they feel empowered to know how to and, when need be, assert their own personal boundaries.” “You are allowed to say no,”  “You are the boss of your own brain and body,”  “your ‘no’ is powerful,” and “it’s your choice” are the primary messages.  Hannah and her team of social workers also facilitate support groups for children who may be experiencing shelter, temporary housing, or specific traumas.  

Hannah attends weekly attendance meetings as well.  “Attendance is something we take seriously.”   Not only are kids missing lessons when they’re out, but their absence can indicate there’s trouble at home: perhaps a parent lost a job, there may be violence at home, a family’s been evicted, or maybe there’s no heat  in the dead of winter. By regularly monitoring attendance, they can quickly identify these issues and better connect families to services. On the other side, when attendance is up, it’s a great sign that students are enjoying the learning, which helps inform future curriculum. 

“Our school’s motto is ‘P.S. 165: we are on the rise!’ and I think this school, its students, and the amazing families I get to connect with every day represent a community on the rise. I believe the students I work with are the future leaders of the world, not in a cheesy way, but in a real way. The job of a Community School is to alleviate the barriers that would hold them back, and facilitate connections that help to propel them forward. I am fortunate enough to know them and to know that, if they are allowed their way, then the future is bright.” 

UNE and Hannah’s Journey: 

In her own words…..

I always hold close to me two lessons that I learned at UNE: 

  1. That the goal of any Social Worker should be to work ourselves out of a job. I hope to work myself out of my job at P.S. 165 by implementing structures that build capacity, facilitating connections that will outlast me, and empowering students and families. 
  2. That no social worker is, or should be, a silo. 

UNE taught me that the most seemingly small connections can be significant, and also taught me to never stop fighting for social justice. Doctor Shelly Cohen-Conrad’s Social Work with Children and Adolescents course taught me the value of art, play, and small moments of significant connection in building therapeutic relationships with young people who communicate in ways that adults can’t and don’t always see. Professor Vernon Moore taught me in his policy course that intention is not enough, that we as social workers have a responsibility to amplify the voices of the vulnerable, to keep pushing and working for big, structural change. Somehow, I have been fortunate enough to find a place where I can embody these values simultaneously.

Everyday, I partner constantly with the team that I supervise, my supervisor, and the Community School Director and Family Outreach Worker through Partnership with Children at my school. I am also supported by the incredible people that work at my school who are part of the Department of Education. What sets my school and my job apart is that our Community Based Organization is integrated completely into P.S. 165, and we all support and uplift each other. This job isn’t easy, and it never has been, but I could never do it alone.

(1) Partnership with Children (2020) Retrieved from: https://partnershipwithchildren.org/
(2) Rodov, Florina. 5, March 2020.  Yes! Solutions Journalism: Are Community Schools the Future of Education Reform? Retrieved from: https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2020/03/05/community-schools-education-reform/  (3.11.20). 

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