Have more mental health specialists as employees of the school: For the teen girls and their families that we serve, they’re experiencing the trauma from the pandemic, without receiving mental health support. The DC State Board of Education recently released an all teacher survey highlighting more than half of teachers (54.8 percent) believe that the social and emotional well-being of their students is worse than last year.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Siobhan Davenport.
Siobhan Davenport is author and President & CEO of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington– a nonprofit that partners with schools to help girls from the 6th to 12th grades overcome obstacles, make positive choices, and achieve their goals. Prior to Crittenton, Siobhan served as the Executive Director of the Rocksprings Foundation where she oversaw the foundation’s impact by investing around economic and educational opportunities to low-income families and youth. She serves as a commissioner for the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Service and Volunteerism and sits on the Advisory Council for Ascend at the Aspen Institute.Siobhan holds a master’s degree in journalism from American University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
In many ways my life has come full circle. My mother was 16 and my father was 19 when they had me. Needless to say they were not prepared to raise another human being. Parenting is hard enough but figuring that out while coming into your own and attempting to graduate from high school is a different animal. Thankfully, my grandmother stepped in and became the trusted and consistent adult in my life who kept me on the right path and helped me see opportunity beyond my circumstances. Now, as the President and CEO of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, my life is playing in reverse. My organization runs multi-year programs in school to provide the social, emotional, and life skills necessary for teen girls and young women from challenged backgrounds to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams. My program managers and I become the trusted and consistent adults in our girls’ lives shaping their personal lives. In addition, I am a proud parent, a published author, and served on the Maryland Governor’s Commission for Service and Volunteerism.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Civil Rights icon, Dr. Dorothy Height. I had recently joined the Potomac Valley Section of the National Council of Negro Women and we were invited to the NCNW’s headquarters to celebrate the historical purchase of a building by a Black organization on Pennsylvania Avenue. When meeting Dr. Height, who was very gracious, I asked her to share her advice on how a young professional, like myself, could have a long successful career. Dr. Height explained that service is key to success and you must practice humility to serve. My most important lesson learned from Dr. Height’s advice is that women must define success for themselves, in order to be trailblazers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Prior to the pandemic my organization ran over 40 weekly programs in schools serving girls from the 6th to 12th grades. Like so many others we pivoted to a virtual model. Now that cities and schools are reopening, we will work to return to in-person programs, but our team realized that this is not like flipping on a light switch. Our research shows that our girls are harboring a lot of COVID related stress and trauma; 50% report concerns about their grades and schoolwork, 42% are concerned about their future, and 34% report trouble sleeping due to anxiety and food insecurity in their families. We are in the process of developing a summer camp for middle school girls in our region to address the social-emotional wellbeing of middle school girls in a fun and interactive way.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
For over 100 years, Crittenton Services of Greater Washington has worked to uplift and empower girls and young women. We partner with schools in our region to run multi-year programs that take a holistic approach to closing education and achievement gaps by engaging the whole-girl and her community. Our responsive and evidence-based model gives us an opportunity to form deep relationships with our girls, but also track our efficacy. It’s resulted in 97% graduation rates among our participants, even at schools with 50% graduation rates. Furthermore, 89% of our girls have enrolled in a post-secondary program which includes college, a technical program or the military. We are so successful because our leadership curriculum acknowledges the root causes of racial and gender disparities that prevent girls from achieving their goals.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
America is the land of opportunity, however, we can do a much better job of preparing our students to excel in the 21st century. The investments, rather divestments in our education system– from low teacher pay to slow adoption of social and emotional learning, are doing a disservice to our kids.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
I’m encouraged by the following:
The increased emphasis and offerings on STEM and STEAM courses and programs.
More high schools are offering college credits to help offset the cost of college. This is particularly helpful to students from lower-income families who skip college because of real and perceived costs.
More high schools are also offering professional programs to develop the skills for those students who choose to immediately enter the workforce after college.
The increased focus on incorporating a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens into education so that we correct systemic and social challenges that aren’t easily visible.
Exploring education in multiple mediums, in particular digital learning which has made information and education more accessible (though the digital divide during the pandemic has strained educational disparities)
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
There are a lot of ways we must improve our education system, especially in a post COVID world so that we don’t further exacerbate educational disparities.
- Mental health and wellbeing are by far the biggest priority for our girls, especially those from challenged backgrounds. Teen suicide is on the rise because of the depth of loss that youth feel coupled with perceived lack of societal support and life pans.
- We must plan for and prioritize higher than normal dropout rates. Many seniors in my program have had a poor experience with online learning and have already determined that they are not interested in college. They would rather enter the workforce because of the financial challenges that they and their families have experienced over the last year. Leaders at every level must be prepared to address that.
- Similarly, we must plan and prioritize for the impact that the pandemic has had on lifestyles and decision-making. According to Pew, lower-income communities tend to live in multi-generational households. Thus, all members of the family are pooling resources, including youth. Leaders should consider restructuring the school day to allow for older students– high school juniors and seniors, and early college– to work while getting their education.
- School safety, health and social wellbeing.. The decline in mental health led to girls stating they just won’t feel safe in school. Pre-pandemic the threat was violence at school. A lack of focus on social and emotional skills can rapidly escalate into increased bullying, fighting, and even school shooting.
- Lastly, our education should plan to improve how we accommodate different learning styles.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The emphasis on engaging young people in STEM is important. Our education system can increase this by:
- Spark interest at an early age in students. This generation of students are digital natives so there is an opportunity to leverage what is already common to them.
- Further Incorporate STEM into the school curriculum in fun, relevant, and modern ways so that it plants the seed for future career opportunities.
- Speak to the financial opportunities available in the industry. I recall a post on LinkedIn that said the entry-level compensation package for a software engineer is 190K dollars/year. That type of income can radically change the financial trajectory of the life of a student from a lower-income background.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Movies like Hidden Figures show that women have played an integral role in scientific advancement and achievement but those stories have not been told. It’s important to engage girls and women in STEAM subjects to balance gender disparities in the industry, to show them that they are capable of thriving in those fields, and also leverage their unique life experiences to solve some of our nation’s most pressing challenges.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We can increase interest and engagement in STEAM subjects by doing the following:
- Connect more girls to mentor in the industry so that they have direct representation.
- Provide paid internships so that they can gain critical work experience and develop skill sets essential to growth.
- Finally, combat implicit bias and the role it plays in keeping girls, especially girls of color, out of classes and programs that might foster interest in STEM.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I don’t believe that this is a zero sum game. STEM and STEAM require similar skill sets (e.g., creativity, logic, analytics), they just manifest and are applied in different ways. Additionally, we should further explore how STEM can complement, not compete, with career paths and opportunities in the humanities and vice versa. .
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Ensure equity and funding for schools: I’ve overcome many statistics in my life. I believe individual drive is important, however, you must have an environment conducive to success. I cannot overstate how much underfunded schools and communities impact the starting point and continual barriers that students face to achievement.
- Train teachers and staff in SEL practice: I had the privilege to receive a full scholarship to attend an elite boarding school for high school. I thrived in that environment, where teachers and administrators intimately knew me and genuinely cared about my well being and future. In spite of my humble beginnings, my school environment empowered me to obtain a high education and pursue a successful degree. However, most students today born into similar circumstances and attending underfunded schools, do not have the guidance and support that they need.
- Give youth a voice in setting educational policy: While Crittenton is an evidenced-based program, we teach our girls self-efficacy and heavily incorporate their to guide improvements and future initiatives. Peer advocacy program or leadership summit project.
- Incorporate job training skills for those who don’t want to attend college: The pandemic has adversely impacted our teen girls and their families. Parents and caregivers have lost jobs and continue to struggle financially. At Crittenton, we have an increasing number of high school seniors, who are choosing to enter the workforce to help stabilize their family’s finances. However, they don’t have the training to find jobs with livable wages.
- Have more mental health specialists as employees of the school: For the teen girls and their families that we serve, they’re experiencing the trauma from the pandemic, without receiving mental health support. The DC State Board of Education recently released an all teacher survey highlighting more than half of teachers (54.8 percent) believe that the social and emotional well-being of their students is worse than last year.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
American civil rights activist, poet, author Maya Angelou said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Maya Angelou has inspired me to strive to be better and do better. She is an overcomer that never allowed her circumstances of poverty, abuse, racism and sexism to keep her from achieving her dreams.
As the daughter of teen parents, statistics showed that I was at risk for incarceration, dropout rates in school, and homelessness and under-employment. I could have accepted this trend for people with backgrounds like mine but I chose instead to overcome those things. It reminds me of the power of mindset and how we can accomplish much more than we can ever dream, think, or believe by simply changing our mindsets.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have a private lunch with Oprah. Not only is she personally inspiring to me but I know her story would inspire our Crittenton teen girls. Like 5% of our teen girls, Oprah became pregnant at 14-years-old. Sadly, her child died weeks after birth and Oprah shared her shame. We teach our young ladies that they can still have an education, career and family after becoming a teen mom. Most importantly, we provide the support she needs to balance school and her responsibilities to her child.
Oprah believes in the transformative power of education, as we at Crittenton do. I would love to partner with her to make our nation’s capital a world model for providing equitable public education to all of it’s students, regardless of race, gender and economic status.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Siobhan Davenport @siobhanauthor (Twitter)
Crittenton Services of Greater Washington @crittentonGW (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook)
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!