A Message from Cassie Schwerner

December 16, 2019

A few weeks ago, a school had a crisis. They needed a rapid responder - and we were it. It was the support of donors who helped make that possible.

Here is Cassie's message of thanks - and reflections on her first year as executive director of Morningside Center.

I want to thank you for the support you are providing to young people in our public schools. 

A couple of weeks ago, we got a call for assistance from a school in New York City. There had been a racist incident that had traumatized students. It was especially upsetting because the school is in the midst of an important process of racial integration. 

Staff at the school knew that we could help them address children’s trauma and heal the school community after this awful incident. They needed a rapid responder. And we were it. 

I want you to know that your support helped make that possible. Contributions from you fund work that schools can’t always pay for. So I am writing to you now with a request: Will you step forward once again with a generous contribution to ensure that we’ll be there to answer the next call for help? 

Cassie at PAZIn the communities and schools we serve, there is plenty of inspiration, brilliance, and laughter. But there is also tragedy, most of it with deep systemic roots. The students we work with face challenges ranging from homelessness, poverty, and racism to a legal system that targets people of color and schools that are often crowded and under-resourced. 

It is in this setting that our young people show up for school every day. So do their dedicated teachers. And so do we.  In hundreds of schools each year, Morningside Center staff developers partner with educators to make school a kind, supportive, and equitable place. 

This work is our passion – our sweet spot. I’ve observed and reflected on this often during my first year as executive director of this amazing organization, succeeding Morningside’s founding executive director Tom Roderick. I want to share with you a few more reflections about our work over this past year. 

A conversation with a principal helped me understand why schools call on Morningside Center in situations like that recent racist incident. Morningside has something rare and precious to offer, he told me: An extremely diverse staff, most of whom have many years of experience and an intimate knowledge of schools. “Morningside Center can find the right person to help, someone who can come in and immediately get to work with our staff, students, parents,” he said. “They’re collaborative, they know how to relate, they know their way around a school, and they have the resources and tools we need.”

Our work in schools takes not only skill, but a big dose of humility, because it isn’t about rescuing anyone or “fixing” anything. We know that it is the school community itself – the students, the teachers, the families – who are the heroes in their schools. And they amaze us every day with their courage and creativity. 

But sometimes, in this difficult environment, they need support. They need a skilled facilitator who can tap their collective strengths and help them find the path forward; they need resources, like our curricula; they need a supportive coach at their side to help them overcome their obstacles and carry on. 

Over time, in schools across New York City and beyond, we, together with students and adults, are able to co-create something quite amazing: A place of safety, belonging, and joy where both young people and adults thrive. And it isn’t just a good feeling: The documented results include a dramatic drop in suspensions, fewer discipline incidents, improved social and emotional skills, and greater academic success, especially for children facing challenges. 

What does that kind of school look like? I think of Meyer Levin Middle School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The school was in the media repeatedly this fall, first on New York 1 and then on Access Hollywood, because of its engaging practices, its joyful celebration of students’ cultural traditions – and because of the major academic progress it is making.  As Principal George Patterson says, the math scores are “going through the roof.”

Patterson and the staff and students of Meyer Levin have been working side by side with our staff developer Dionne Grayman for three years to incorporate a school-wide program of social and emotional learning, restorative practices, and racial equity. At Meyer Levin, the work takes the form of a morning town hall with dancing, singing, and a fantastic steel drum band; a school-wide commitment to culturally competent instruction and restorative practices; and social and emotional learning for every child. 

A reporter asked Dionne why she chose to do this work. She said: “As a student who grew up in the New York City public school system, I was most successful when I was part of a community of care and belonging, when I was seen and recognized, and my voice was heard. Principal Patterson, and the whole Meyer Levin family, have created this community of belonging that centers joy. So why would I not want to do this?”

I’d like to share one more reflection I’ve had over the past year, or rather, a kind of slow awakening I’ve experienced. When I came to Morningside Center, I had a deep feeling for the work we do. For over two decades, I’d been organizing for supportive and equitable schools. 

But there was one thing I didn’t quite get: What exactly did the “social responsibility” part of our name mean?  Over the past year, this has become clear to me. 

Morningside Center isn’t just working to create equitable schools where young people have an opportunity to learn. We’re collaborating with students and educators to gain the skills, the awareness, the tools, the knowledge we need to collectively build a better world – so that young people themselves can work together to overcome the deep, systemic injustices that lead to violence, fear, racism, and poverty. And we start creating that better world, right here, right now

Thank you so much for being part of this collective project. 

With warmest wishes for a joyous season and new year,

 

Cassie Schwerner
Executive Director


P.S.  Below are some of the amazing staff members I’ve been talking about. We want to keep on bringing joy and love to our young people. You can help us do this!

Morningside Center Staff Developers