Three innovation awards focus on childhood disparities in a single core city

From reading, to healthy eating, to athletics, children in Central Falls, Rhode Island are benefiting from collaborative community projects funded by the Hassenfeld Institute.

Children in Rhode Island’s smallest core city gained new learning and enrichment options this summer through two 2021 Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Awards, and a third opportunity began in October. The Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute at Brown University is partnering with the Central Falls School Department, Progresso Latino and new awardee Project GOAL on pilot projects testing ways to tackle health and learning disparities in Central Falls.

“Health and education are closely connected,” says former Institute director Dr. Patrick M. Vivier. “Children need to be healthy to learn, and education is an important determinant of future health. It is exciting to see these partnerships working to foster health and education for children in Central Falls.”

Central Falls has the highest rate of children living in poverty in the state. Child obesity is twice the state average, and the city’s lead poisoning level is the worst in the state. The lagging reading scores in the third grade—a pivotal point to shift from learning to read to reading to learn—can portend lower graduation rates and more likely incarceration.

“ The collaboration between Brown and CFSD has been an incredible way to bring innovative support to our students while also living out the commitment that both organizations have to equity. ”

Stephanie Downey Toledo Superintendent of the Central Falls School District

Holistic Care

“The Hassenfeld Institute is a catalyst with Brown thinking about holistic care,” says Stephanie Downey Toledo, superintendent of schools for the Central Falls School District. “The collaboration between Brown and CFSD has been an incredible way to bring innovative support to our students while also living out the commitment that both organizations have to equity.”

The three pilot projects broaden the horizons of children living in poverty, who tend to have fewer after-school and summer enrichment activities. In addition to tutoring, opportunities range from field trips and meeting role models to cooking healthy recipes and playing sports.

Through the Lifting Rising Third-Graders in Central Falls project, 12 children attended a five-week summer program and have access to tutoring in the current school year. The team is anchored by education professionals Mary Ann Snider and Lupe Vivier, who volunteered their time; and includes three Hassenfeld Summer Scholars, interns trained gratis by Joyce Ball, a seasoned reading specialist. The scholars are: Nikita Baregala Lopez, a public health concentrator on the pre-medical track; Megan Feragne, a Master’s student in global health at the Brown School of Public Health; and Callista “Callie” Zingas, an MPH student at the School of Public Health.

The team uses evidence-based teaching strategies. Given the students’ broad range of skills, the four-to-one student intern ratio was ideal, says Lupe Vivier, an elementary-level teacher, because “the team could be nimble and pivot.”

Empowered Learners

Feragne, who learned how to teach reading and how to read the room to identify needs, says the intensive approach “had an incredible impact on 12 kids.” For those with a parent working the night shift, she adds, it meant engagement rather than staring at an iPad at home.

Nikita Baregala Lopez encountered “heavy issues” like housing and food insecurity that she couldn’t solve—a good lesson, she says—but could answer questions.

A girl, she recalls, said she loved that there’s always a teacher to ask for help.

The children became “empowered learners,” observes Snider, a consultant and former deputy commissioner of the RI Department of Education. “A quiet, hesitant reader became such a reader,” she added, “and declared: ‘I guess I’m really smart!’”

Their world was Central Falls—but widened as they walked nature trails, visited a dairy farm, and met Brown soccer players on campus. Career days featured an architect, a state trooper, a nurse, a librarian and their own school superintendent. Each day they learned about healthy cooking, yoga, and mindfulness. “They are now part of a bigger community,” says Snider.

New Snacks, New Sports

Progresso Latino’s award enabled the organization to expand its pre-kindergarten child engagement to elementary-school kids and their parents. The one-year project provides safe spaces for physical activity and encourages fitness and healthy eating, with institute help in data collection and analysis.

“This is a huge opportunity for us in a community where kids don’t have access to lessons and nutrition training,” says project leader Zelma Malave. The pilot started in June, ran five days a week for seven weeks, and continues in afterschool hours in 2021-22.

Kids enjoyed karate, tennis, swimming and cooking lessons. Other highlights: free ingredients for healthy snacks and the discovery that nutritious meals taste good. Parents wanted the recipes, Malave says, and one was surprised to see her child counting the grams of sugar in juice.

Scholar-Athlete Modeling

Middle-school students have an enhanced opportunity to become scholar-athletes with tutoring help from Brown students through the Project GOAL award. The after-school academic and soccer program for at-risk students started this fall.

The institute brings academic resources and access to college students to the partnership, while the community group has 17 years of experience providing the free program to fifth-to-eighth graders in Central Falls, where soccer is culturally important. Typically, at least 25% of the participants are non-English speakers.

There are fewer role models for completing high school and going to college here, says Darius Shirzadi, executive director and co-founder of Project GOAL, which reports a 97% high school graduation rate. In the program, students earn 90 minutes of soccer play by completing 90 minutes of tutor-supported learning.

“Be a good student and the athletic part will help you open doors,” Shirzadi tells participants. “The Brown students are great examples of that and will reinforce what we preach to the kids.”