Ben Franklin High School

Using the Community Schools Model to Help
Youth and Families in Masonville Cove Thrive


Dante M. de Tablan (right), Executive Director of the Ben Franklin Center for Community Schools and Heather Chapman, Deputy Director (center) pose with TCC member, Imani Williams.

About a year ago, at a conference led by Dr. Ken Ginsberg on Building Resilience in Teens, several Thriving Communities Collaborative (TCC) members had the opportunity to meet Chris Battaglia, the principal of Ben Franklin High School.  It was apparent right away that Chris cared a lot about his students and his staff.  He talked about putting love first and building a program around that principle of love.  It was only natural that when the TCC went looking for updates on how institutions and organizations in the community were faring in implementing trauma-informed practices, Chris Battaglia came to mind. Chris connected us with key members of his team at the Ben Franklin Center for Community Schools, a.k.a The Ben Center. Then, one incredibly sunny and warm Friday in November, Imani and I had the opportunity to stop by and meet with a few of the people spearheading the initiatives at The Ben Center, Dante M. de Tablan, Executive Director; Heather Chapman, Deputy Director; and Kelly Oglesbee, Community School Coordinator. All radiated the same warmth and concern for their students that I had observed in Chris — the love for their work that makes transformation possible.

–Ros Williams

In order for communities to thrive, individuals and families must thrive. And when fostering thriving communities, it’s important to remember that how we treat people matters. At Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove, we see an example of trauma-informed policies being put into action. Not only do school leaders understand that it matters how they treat their students and families, but they know the many ways in which a school can serve as the hub of a thriving community.

While the typical function of schools in today’s society is to educate and socialize children, Ben Franklin’s community school model allows it to do much more than that. The school uses trauma-informed practices to address the needs of its students and their families and to provide resources, support, and essential services to its community.

How We Treat Children Matters

The value that Ben Franklin places on its students is evident in the way that it selects and prepares its staff.  Their Capturing Kids’ Hearts Training helps create a culture in which faculty places students’ needs first and demonstrates thorough dedication to their success. For a school who’s mission is “to customize education so that students are engaged behaviorally, socially and cognitively,” this type of preparation is necessary. Warm and thoughtful interactions are essential as faculty guide students through active and engaged learning. This means hiring the right people and giving them the tools they need to succeed. (Insert Link to Small Segment of Video of Chris B. Speaking if Approved by the Alliance for Excellent Education)

Also important is the trauma training that occurs as part of Ben Franklin’s Mental Health initiatives. This training provides teachers with the understanding that they cannot just react to symptoms such as anger. Instead, they learn to consider the root of an issue. Classroom environments can be full of triggers that elicit fight or flight responses. Something as simple as a seating chart can be a problem for students who are triggered by having their backs turned away from the door, and a hand on the shoulder may derail an otherwise positive teacher-student interaction. When instructors know to look at their classroom through a trauma-informed lens, they are better equipped to create an environment in which students have the opportunity to engage and learn.

Ben Franklin’s mental health program extends beyond the classroom in its engagement with students. Trauma-trained counselors prioritize relationship building as they regularly interact with students in hallways, the cafeteria, and other non-classroom settings. This provides counselors with a more complete picture of their students. Daily face-to-face interactions help reduce the stigma associated with seeking treatment and allow counselors to connect with students who are internalizing trauma.

How We Treat Families Matters

The time students spend at school is limited, so family engagement is necessary. Ben Franklin understands that in order to care for their students, they must care for their families.  Counselors in the mental health program primarily engage with families via home visits, and within this community school model, listening is crucial. Communication with parents can be difficult, especially if they are used to schools only calling home to report problems. Ben Franklin’s staff addresses this obstacle by taking the time to listen to parents and gain an understanding of their needs. In this way, the school is able to establish a more complete support system for its students and their families.

Towards the end of 2014, United Way opened a Family Center within Ben Franklin. This program is an important example of the school’s comprehensive approach to supporting the student population and their families. The center provides parenting classes and childcare for teen parents and also provides job-readiness classes for community members including parents, neighbors, and former students. Evidenced-based programs are used to help build stability in the lives of students and community residents. The positive impact of this program is particularly evident in behavioral changes of the daycare attendees. Children at such crucial stages in their development have a lot to gain from a nourishing environment. When a toddler who initially wouldn’t socialize now spends his time smiling and happy, it is clear that something is going right.

In this community school model, it’s important to take a multifaceted approach to caring for students and families. Ben Franklin seeks to build upon strengths and intervene in areas of need, addressing multiple aspects of students’ lives at the same time. Through this approach, the work being done in the school is supported and reinforced in the home and ultimately, the community. These steps of engaging parents and families in a comprehensive manner are critical
contributors to the health of the community overall.

Capacity Building in the Community

Within a community school, collaboration is essential. In this model, the school’s community coordinator takes on the responsibility of building and maintaining partnerships with local organizations. These connections allow Ben Franklin to provide essential services that combat the impact of environmental and social toxins which threaten thriving communities.

Through a partnership with the Baltimore City Health Department and The Well, for instance, Ben Franklin helped bring Baltimarket to Curtis Bay. This grocery service, run by the Baltimore City Health Department in partnership with ShopRite, operates online, is staffed by community members and does not require a delivery fee. For residents who live an hours walk from the nearest grocery store, services like these prevent them from having to rely on corner stores and takeout. In helping create pathways to nutritious food, this community school helps prepare students’ brains for learning and helps create opportunities for local families to have a better quality of life.

Ultimately, it is important for Ben Franklin to serve as a resource to its community. One of their goals is to create a network that begins with an academical village but expands beyond the walls of the school. Thus far, their community school model has seen success through markers such as greater attendance and school connectedness, growing enrollment, and decreased chronic absence, suspensions, and mobility. Success among families and the community is evident in different forms. Parents now understand that they can turn to the school for support when they are facing challenges like eviction, and residents know the school is a resource where they hold meetings, attend programs and galvanize support for community initiatives.

Expanding Impact

Like anything else, community schools come with their own set of challenges. On the academic level, the biggest issue is time. Counselors have to share limited time with teachers and faculty have to work to balance curriculum goals with goals related to overall well-being. However, the culture of respect and commitment to student and community success help keep everyone on the same page.

Despite these challenges, Ben Franklin has seen enough success to know that their community school model is worth replicating. By continuing to listen to and address the needs of students, families, and community, the school ensures that students will stay enrolled, partnerships will stay intact, and their impact will continue to grow. They’re currently working with nearby Bay-Brook Elementary & Middle School to learn about their unique needs and assets and to hopefully implement the community school model there as part of the 21st Century Schools Plan.

The work that Ben Franklin is doing teaches us that when looking for examples of trauma-informed policy in action, we don’t have to go any further than our own backyard. Their success lets us know that how we treat people matters, and the ideas they’ve put into action should influence higher level policies as we move forward in building healthy, thriving communities.

A special thanks to Dante M. de Tablan, Heather Chapman, and Kelly Oglesbee for meeting with us to share their work. 

By Imani N. Williams – TCC MemberImani N Williams