This guest perspective is by Johanna Ulseth. She is the Student Services Coordinator and Homeless Liaison at Briya Public Charter School, Washington DC.

Briya Public Charter School’s mission is to strengthen families through culturally responsive two-generation education.  Our school offers English and workforce development programs for DC parents, and early childhood classes for the children (infant to 5 years old) of our adult learners.  Many of our students share the housing of others due to economic hardship and similar reasons.  We have four different Briya locations in Washington, DC, three of which are co-located with Mary’s Center, a federally-qualified health center that provides a wide range of services including medical, dental, mental health counseling and family support services.  This partnership allows a holistic approach to working with families and participants, and the ability to address some of the barriers that may hinder learner persistence and engagement. At Briya, I am the Student Services Coordinator and the Homeless Liaison. Our Student Services Team collaborates with our adult students to overcome obstacles that they face outside of school and connect them to community resources, such as legal services, employment, housing, and mental health.

As the 2020 United States Census is approaching, Briya and Mary’s Center have been working together to ensure that all of our students are informed of the process and empowered to participate.  Mary’s Center is an official partner of the Census and relies on data-driven government funding for programs and services. Many of our participants, however, are part of populations that have historically been undercounted.  We are trying different approaches to ensure everyone gets counted in 2020.  At one of Briya’s recent professional development days, all of our staff received training to learn more about the Census and how we can support the process. In our adult education classes, which range from basic to advanced level English, instructors created an entire unit of interactive activities and lessons to educate students on the Census, as well as build their language and literacy skills: why it is important, who needs to participate, how to fill it out, and what information to share.

In one of our English classes, students participated in a simulation of resources being allotted unfairly. Students were given cards that said whether or not they filled out the Census. Those who completed the Census received chocolate. The students reflected on this activity and learned that these pieces of chocolate represented community resources, such as schools and educational programs, medical assistance programs, emergency services and child care.  This class explored the Census information and content, specifically the question about racial and ethnic identity.  As these racial identity categories are specific to the United States, many of our students might not identify with those racial identities. The instructor explained that they have the option to self-identify and write in the “other” box.

In one of our basic level English classes, the instructor created a short story book with pictures and easy-to-understand sentences about a family who shares a home with other people—a living situation similar to that of many students, and within the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of “homeless” used by our schools and all early childhood, public school, and postsecondary education institutions in the county.  Using this as a case example, students practiced how to fill out the Census.  Mary’s Center Census Ambassadors also visited our adult education classrooms to check comprehension, clarify any doubts and reassure students that their information will be kept confidential.

Before Census Day on April 1st, our student services and adult education teams will continue to support adult students with information and assistance so they are prepared and empowered to complete the Census. Our aim is that these creative, relevant and thoughtful lesson plans will ensure that all students participate and encourage a more accurate count of our communities.

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