Pack-4-Success Gears Up to Put Backpacks, Supplies into Hands of City Students

Warner Alumnus Leads Local Organization Promoting Educational Equality

For many families, it’s become the norm to hop in the car in late August and head over to the store to stock up on supplies for the upcoming school year. Not all families, though, have the pleasure of taking part in this tradition. 

A new local organization is answering the call for help. Pack-4-Success, a non-profit founded June 2011 by University of Rochester graduate Matthew Cohen ’11, ’12W (MS) and his sister Emily Cohen ’07, also a University of Rochester graduate and a former elementary school teacher in Atlanta, Ga., has been working feverishly this past year to raise enough funds to equip low-income children with the right tools to start school this fall.

Last fall, after bringing in close to $1,000 in just three months, more than 75 students from Joseph C. Wilson Foundation Academy sported new backpacks stocked with supplies at the beginning of the school year. Additional school supplies also have been donated to the Mt. Hope Family Center and a new all-girls charter school, Young Women’s College Prep, this past year. The backpacks have become an annual project of Pack-4-Success, and with a new ambitious goal that more than doubles that amount for the 2012-13 school year, the organization is now gearing up to provide more than 200 city school children with backpacks and help alleviate the financial burdens associated with back-to-school time for families.

“Our scholars were thrilled to receive the new backpacks full of supplies,” says Jamie Collins, school counselor/coordinator of student and family support at Wilson Foundation Academy. “It allows students to feel the excitement of starting a new school year with all new supplies that are just for them. They feel prepared, which goes a long way in helping with academic success.”

Cohen and his sister, who both grew up in Pittsford, N.Y., have witnessed this economic disparity first hand.

“I was really lucky growing up,” says Cohen, who will begin his teaching career in Baltimore, Md. this fall. “Before every school year, I would go to the store with my Mom and buy tons of school supplies, and most of my classmates did the same. But, during my teaching placements in the city, I would often enter a classroom where a number of students didn’t have anything to write with at all.”

Reaching out to Wilson Foundation Academy was an unexpected but pleasant surprise for many at the middle school, which is in the process of expanding to serving students in Kindergarten through eighth grade. The way the foundation was created and the idea behind it makes the partnership with Wilson Foundation Academy unique.

“The thing I admire most about Pack-4-Successs is that two young people saw a need in our community and were passionate about doing something to help students in need,” adds Collins. “Too often, we feel helpless and overwhelmed, but Matt and Emily took the initiative to set up this foundation, which will make such a difference to so many children. I speak for everyone at Wilson Foundation Academy when I say we really appreciate the generosity of Pack-4-Success.”

A passion for social justice is what led Cohen and his sister to lead this effort.

“One of the reasons I enrolled at the Warner School is that I really wanted to make a difference in the city,” says Cohen, who completed programs in secondary social studies and inclusive education this summer. “You see students who are not prepared for school and don’t have the resources, and it’s at no fault of their own. We are hoping to make a difference in the city and help all students succeed.”

Fueled by a desire to impact social change in urban education, a group of Warner graduate students from Professor Joanne Larson’s literacy learning as social practice class chose to focus their research project on the lack of school supplies that are in the hands of students at high-need districts, such as the Rochester City School District, and to reach out and help Pack-4-Success in its endeavors to inspire change in Rochester schools. As part of Larson’s class, students were charged with developing a project with a social justice component that took an action to change what their research determined needed to happen.

Four students in EDU 498 spent this summer conducting research to determine what students really wanted and what supplies they needed in their backpacks in order to be successful in the classroom. The research team consisted of master’s students Christopher Young, Rebecca Stein, Anna Dobrzynski, and Zachary White-Stellato—all of whom are in the inclusive teacher education program, focusing on either social studies or science education. White-Stellato and Claire Ennist ’12, who is working toward teaching certifications in early childhood education and Teaching Students with Disabilities at Warner, also serve as board members of Pack-4-Success.

The goal of their social action research project was to help students become successful in the classroom by receiving the necessary school supplies. After surveying and interviewing students and teachers, the team moved a step closer toward this goal by getting over 250 responses and then determining the top five things that students really need so that Pack-4-Success can focus on getting those supplies and other donations for the upcoming school year.

According to Young, it’s important for students to come into school and get immersed in what they are learning.

“When you enter the classroom and have the right school supplies, you are not worrying about anything else,” adds Young, who on several occasions has witnessed students spending at least five minutes at the beginning of class looking for something to write with or on. “You can focus on your academics and what you are learning in class, and you can be excited about what you are learning because you don’t have to worry about the fundamentals and the basics. When you don’t have those basic needs met, you can’t have a chance of moving on.”

Their research project also gave city students a chance to dream and have their voices heard. “We were able to go to students and say, ‘Listen, we want you to tell us what you want or need in order to be successful—it’s all about you,’” he explains. “I think that was one of the really unique parts about what we did.” 

The team has since set out to share their research findings with and raise awareness for Pack-4-Success’ mission among the larger community. Their hope is to get others involved by making donations and ultimately helping to level the playing field for all students.

“If you really want to be able to impact students and how they start thinking about things in high school before they go onto college and the rest of their lives, you really need to learn more about them and what is going to help shape them,” Young says, “and that is something we can do as teachers and as a community.”

Pack-4-Success has already surpassed its goal for the upcoming school year by raising $2,500 that will go toward putting school supplies in the hands of urban students. To learn more about Pack-4-Success, visit http://pack4success.org/.

Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
585.275.0777; 585.278.6273 (cell)

Tags: inclusive education, social studies, social studies education, student, teacher preparation, teaching and curriculum