Mars Estates Elementary in Essex, MD recently became classified as a Community School, meaning that over 80% of its students’ families fall below the federal poverty threshold (annual income of no more than $27,250 for a family of four). The Community School status affords Mars Estates additional resources, including a Community School Coordinator; wrap-around services like medical, dental, and behavioral health care; and translation services, to support greater personal and academic success.
Upon visiting Mars Estates and getting to know the Student Support Network team there, it is clear that community takes shape at the school in other powerful ways too, when students benefit from both Community School resources and those of the Network.
The student body of Mars Estates is among the most diverse in Baltimore County. According to BCPS records, about 55% of students are Black, 20% Latinx, 15% white, 8% mixed race, and 2% from a “small group” ethnicity (making up less than 1% of total students). Principal Kelly O’Connell intentionally addresses diversity and builds community to serve her students, and sets an example of creating authentic relationships which are free of judgment – among students, caregivers, and staff. She also asks for help from others, calling on those whose deeper roots in the community can help the students in the specific ways they need.
Ms. Monterey Sosa is one of these people. She knows and represents the Essex community surrounding Mars Estates as well as anybody could! Born and raised in Essex, Ms. Monterey represents three generations educated at Mars Estates – starting as a student herself, then as a parent, and now as a grandparent of two students! She works full-time at the nearby Rec Center and part-time in the Mars Estates cafeteria, lovingly preparing and serving meals each day. When Principal O’Connell was preparing for Student Support Network services to launch at the school in 2021, she asked Ms. Monterey to add “Lead Volunteer” to her already full plate of responsibilities, knowing that her relationships with students and with the school community would benefit all.
It’s a family affair as well for Ms. Carla Crisp, the second Network Lead Volunteer at Mars Estates, whose daughter-in-law teaches in the school. Ms. Carla is not new to education or equity work; she retired a few years ago from both her full-time career at CCBC and her leadership of the nonprofit she founded (Baltimore Art & Music Project) to bring the arts and camaraderie to young people in Southeast Baltimore County and surrounding areas. Ms. Carla approaches her volunteer work with an open mind and an open heart, and offers her style and creative spirit to ensure that when she and Ms. Monterey distribute food, clothing, personal care products, and more to students and families, it feels “less like charity and more like sharing.”
The ways in which these three wise and generous ladies create community translate into immediate and long-lasting impacts for Mars Estates students and families. In the course of a lively half hour conversation, they shared some examples of the difference the Student Support Network makes – and they easily could have kept going!
A female student had been arriving at school with her hair tucked under a hood, lacking confidence because she didn’t have products to style it at home. Through empathic conversations, school staff learned that she was feeling very crummy about how she looked. Principal O’Connell knew right where to go: she asked Ms. Monterey to order hair products and styling tools that the school’s young Black students would want and need. The hair gel and edge brush this tween soon picked up at the Care Closet, stocked by the Network, may not have been the only things that contributed to her improving self-esteem, but they certainly helped!
Principal O’Connell is a tireless supporter and advocate for her students, including one who had some health challenges. Ms. O’Connell visited the family several times, and accessed Network resources to provide new sets of clothes and shoes, and to cover some other urgent expenses. The family received much-needed short-term stability as well as long-term confidence that their Mars Estates community would be there for them in times of trouble.
A big effort toward de-stigmatizing Network services has been the group’s creative approach to distribution, especially the “pop-up markets” they set up before holidays and school breaks. Setting up in plain view of parents and caregivers coming to pick up students makes it easy to publicize what’s available, allows for a shopping type of experience, and enables the team to connect naturally with the estimated 40% of Mars Estates families who regularly accept support from the Network. They set up tables in the lobby or outside and play music to make the “market” an inviting place to be. While the markets have always been popular, the team noticed a shift last fall after most federal support resulting from COVID-19 had ended. At the pre-winter break market, a large supply of winter coats, hats, and gloves, games, and food was all gratefully taken – in four minutes. “There has definitely been a change in economics,” Ms. Carla reflected. “Last year, some things didn’t go, and this year everything went, and parents were so happy.”
Finally, the Student Support Network team at Mars Estates loves to celebrate! A second grader stopped Ms. Monterey in the hall to remind her that his birthday was coming up, and to ask if he would receive a birthday bag – a favorite Student Support Network offering featuring a cake pan, cake mix and oil, frosting, candles, and a birthday card. “Ms. Monterey is not just at the heart of the community,” Principal O’Connell piped up during this story, “She is
the heart of the community.” She and Ms. Carla have so normalized and de-stigmatized the sharing they do through their Care Closet (the name given to their Room of Support, now growing into a full Care Classroom!) that students can feel unashamed in asking for help, or in inviting celebration! We imagine this student not only received a birthday bag on his special day, but probably a hug as well.
Hugs – literal and metaphorical – abound at Mars Estates Elementary, thanks to the warm and embracing community that Principal O’Connell, Ms. Monterey, and Ms. Carla have cultivated in partnership with the Student Support Network and all who contribute to it.