Bridges Summit County Helps Educators Confront Poverty

On the morning of February 17, 2017, a bustling crowd filled the central rotunda of Tallmadge High School. It wasn’t the usual crowd, however. Students were off that day, and in their place, the more than 180 members of Tallmadge City Schools’ teaching and administrative staff had gathered to confront an issuethat impacts their work every day – how generational poverty and class touch the lives of their students.

The day-long workshop was the result of a partnership between Tallmadge City Schools and United Way’s Bridges Summit County initiative. To Jeff Ferguson, superintendent of Tallmadge City Schools, it had seemed like a natural pairing ever since he attended the eight-hour Bridges training a few months earlier.

“As you go through that training, you start to realize and recognize, as an educator, that you do have biases and that there are these unwritten rules of class that exist every day,” he said. “I thought right away that this was something our staff could benefit from.”

Though Bridges Summit County workshops have trained more than 8,000 people across the community, the crowd gathered in Tallmadge High School represented one of largest training sessions to date. In preparation, United Way staff designed custom materials and scaled the training to meet the needs of such a large group of educators.

Throughout the day, teachers worked together to examine issues related to poverty. Through presentations, discussions and group exercises, they explored how poverty and class influence the daily lives of everyone around them – including their students.

“Poverty is such a complex issue itself, and I think that, to bring the different spheres of influence and the different groups together to start the conversation, I think that’s one of the real powerful messages that United Way has in its mission,” said Ferguson. “The advantage United Way has is that it crosses all the boundaries. It has access to business, to community and to the education world.”

Indeed, United Way is using its connections to build a grassroots response to the issues faced by local families. As its Bold Goal #3, United Way has committed to financially empowering 11,000 of Akron’s 42,000 working poor. Through initiatives like Bridges Summit County, and by helping individuals learn the skills they need to gain financial independence, United Way is working to build a future where every family – and every student – has the opportunity to thrive.

“Our students get off the bus every day, and they’re coming from such a varied background,” added Ferguson. “I think that understanding is really going to help our teachers work with our students.”