Mercer Street Friends Receives $2.3 Federal Grant For Trenton Community Schools Initiative

By Cristina Rojas | For NJ.com
on November 10, 2015

TRENTON — Trenton’s Rivera Middle School will soon become a place that goes beyond textbooks to focus on the whole child, thanks to a new $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The five-year grant will help the recipient Mercer Street Friends make Rivera a full-service community school for children and parents alike by moving a variety of resources into the school itself. The nonprofit will offer after-school programs, health screenings, family counseling and parent classes, among other things.

“It’s not just about instruction,” Mercer Street Friends executive director Shannon Mason said. “It’s how do we engage families, how do we address issues and concerns of the whole child in order to give them the greatest opportunity to be successful.”

A community school, she said, connects families whose problems might be crippling their children’s ability to learn with the social services they need.

“It frees up teachers to teach and students to learn because so much of what teachers have to do is really trying to complement or provide these auxiliary services that they’re not trained and/or don’t have time to provide,” she said.

The federal grant targets five core services: assistance to students who have been chronically absent, truant, suspended or expelled, family engagement, mental health services, mentoring and youth development programs and access to community-based support and services.

After hearing about the initiative from a supporter of Mercer Street Friends, the nonprofit spent the better part of the past three years laying the groundwork.

“We talked to people in the superintendent’s office, in the community, other social service providers just to get a sense from the community whether this was something that would be effective and whether they were willing to be a part of,” Mason said.

Rivera was chosen in large part because it had a principal — Bernadette Trapp — who was willing to work closely with them.

“It’s not just services being dropped into the school, but the school and organization working together,” Mason said.

Though the grant began on Oct. 1, Mercer Street Friends began familiarizing itself with the school last year. Now, four staff members and two interns work there full-time.

Licensed clinicians have begun providing individual and group counseling to both students and families. Over the last year, a vision screening was held and free glasses were given out, fresh produce was sent home and computers were distributed as part of its Trenton Digital Initiative.

A stress-reduction group for parents will also start up soon. Mason said that building parents’ involvement with the school and with their children’s education is critical.

“If we want our kids to be successful in school, we have to identify meaningful ways to engage their families, their parents,” she said.

Mason said the nonprofit plans to gradually roll out programs so they can see what’s working and what’s not.

“It’s a great opportunity for our community and organizations like Mercer Street Friends who are wrestling how to continue and increase our impact in challenging fiscal environments,” she said. “I see this as a way to pull together the strength of our community to have a positive impact on children and families.”