The Minnesota Brooklyn Bridge (I’m not selling it, but you would love to have this one)

Stella Sola is a bridge builder as sure as the engineer who put steel and concrete together to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Stella is the parent coordinator at Brooklyn Center Community High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is built of steely determination, concrete persistence, and driving love.

Brooklyn Center Arts and IB Community High School  is on one side of the bridge. The community where so many families struggle financially is on the other. Stella is one part of the team of teachers, administrators, community coordinators and support staff that bring both sides together in a model that is becoming a movement  to embrace more than the whole child and the whole family by welcoming the whole community as part of the life’s blood of the school.

While other parts of the team deal with student health services or childcare for teen parents or apprenticeships for students, Stella makes sure that parents are part of the learning community.

The students at her school come from families that face so many challenges. Poverty. Immigration issues. Language barriers. The teachers work hard to meet the academic needs of students who often come to school hungry. The principal works hard to make sure teachers have the time to collaborate and personalize instruction so kids can move forward. So they can find success with their natural talents and stretch to reach new places.

Any typical school works within this frame – teachers, support professionals, administrators doing what they can to serve their students. But Brooklyn Center Community High School has something other schools don’t.

They have Stella. I visited her Parent Center room in the heart of the school. There’s a big table, and a big closet and a little consulting room where the door can be closed. I asked her, “What do you do with parents in this room?” Her eyes lit up, and I didn’t have to say another word for the next 20 minutes.

“Sometimes a mother will bring in a notice she received from the electric company, and I can read it to her and explain what she needs to do. Sometimes a father will come in and need information on his child’s report card. Once a parent asked me what ‘credits’ were. His son said that he needed so many ‘credits’ to graduate. The father thought it had something to do with credit cards. Where he came from, they didn’t use the term ‘credits’ to refer to class credits. I decided to have a little workshop for immigrant parents so they would understand the terms that we use that might be helpful to them.”

“I got an immigration attorney to come in and give a talk to parents about how their children might qualify for DACA protection if their children were undocumented. We have information for them on our school dentist (yes, they have a school dentist) and our school optometrist (yes, they have a school optometrist) and our school family health clinic (yes… well, you just need to see this school and the partnerships they’ve developed with family social services and community organizations like United Way.)” 

“One of our students came in asking if I could help her get underwear. I talked to her for a long time, and found out that she was basically homeless, living on the couches of friends and acquaintances. She had the clothes on her back. We have a closet that Goodwill helps us keep filled with things our students need. I found her what she needed. But I was happy mostly because I could see that she trusted me enough to tell me a hard thing. She knew I would not judge her or her family.”

Stella went on and on until I had to wipe tears from my eyes. She had a story to tell for every corner of her Parent Center. She had stories about helping a child get the glasses she needed; stories about keeping healthy snacks for the kids she knew weren’t getting enough to eat at home; stories about helping moms and dads navigate bureaucracies that could help them with housing or jobs.

She said, “I’m not a teacher, but if I’m successful with the families, the children will be able to learn. Children who are frightened can’t learn. Children who are hungry can’t learn. These parents are sometimes intimidated by teachers, especially if they have little education themselves. They are afraid they will seem stupid if they don’t understand what’s being said or if they can’t make themselves understood. I come from the community. They aren’t afraid of me. I can show them they don’t have to be afraid. They trust me. I can show them there’s a place for them here – A physical place.”

Stella is so proud of her little Parent Center room, but she is mistaken that this space is the physical place where families can bridge the divide between school and community.

She is the physical place. Her heart is big enough to provide all the room needed for a family to find respect, compassion and hope; to bridge from their current reality to their brighter possibilities. Stella is the Brooklyn Center Bridge to something better.

2 Responses to “The Minnesota Brooklyn Bridge (I’m not selling it, but you would love to have this one)”

  1. Monica Washington

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I was one of those students who used school as a refuge and I can tell you the impact is far reaching and it is so much more to teaching than the teacher, everyone has a part to play, bus driver, the custodian, the school secretary, the parent teacher coordinator anyone and all have vital roles that can make or break a child. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.

  2. Betty Tapias-Heinrich

    I have known Stella as a colleague and student for several years. She is truly a talented, caring, and passionate professional. What a wonderful article!


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