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First Book

This time last year, the top three most misbehaved boys at Equetta Jones’ elementary school were from the same family.

As assistant principal, it fell to Jones to figure out how to solve the problem. Other educators might prescribe detentions, suspensions, extra tutoring help, or even a doctor’s appointment to be evaluated for an attention-deficit issue. But Jones sensed that the problem ran deeper — and she had a solution.

“No child comes in every day and says 'I want to be angry. I want to hit you. I want to curse you out. I don’t want to learn,'” she says. “So it is our responsibility to find out why they’re verbalizing those things.”


Photo courtesy of Equetta Jones/Highlands Elementary School, used with permission.

Often, the problem is the same: Many kids are not having their basic health, shelter, and nutritional needs met. “The middle class, we forget about the fact that when we wake up every morning, we wake up with shelter,” Jones says.

Not all of her students have that luxury.

That’s why Jones’ school worked with an organization called First Book to install a “Care Closet” — a supply of basic essentials for kids in need.

First Book, which supplies books and educational tools for kids in low-income communities, started offering living essentials when they heard from teachers that they're just as important when it comes to helping kids do well in school.

With the Care Closet in place, Jones can give kids what they need and establish a sense of security so they can focus on school.

Photo courtesy of Equetta Jones/Highlands Elementary School, used with permission.

Her students are no longer worried about whether or not their basic needs are being met. "Their focus is now on coming in and being the best student they can be.”

The Care Closet project gives kids what they need to succeed. But they’re not handouts — they’re hand-ups.

Jones has a system in place to make sure the supplies make the greatest possible impact on the lives of the students.

Parents can come and ask for help, or if teachers notice that a child has an issue, they can discreetly let Jones know and she’ll take the child aside and get them what they need.

Photo courtesy of Equetta Jones/Highlands Elementary School, used with permission.

“I will give them the care package, let them go to the bathroom, clean themselves up, give them a fresh pair of clothes, fold up the dirty clothes, and then send them back home and call up the parents and let them know what I did,” she says. The whole process is discreet; Jones even bought department store-style shopping bags to keep their contents private.

Once the kids have what they need, that’s when the real work begins. When Jones calls children’s parents, there’s an understanding: Though the Care Closet doesn’t cost money, it doesn’t come for free.

“You need to give Ms. Jones back some time,” she says. Parents are asked to come into school and be engaged — either through volunteering or through coaching sessions that help the parents deal with some of the pressing problems in their families' lives.

“We feel that the information we’re giving is going to not only help them as a parent but also help the child within the classroom.

Photo courtesy of First Book, used with permission.

Jones’ method has already created big changes for some of the families at her school.

The three boys who were at the top of the disciplinary chart last year? They’re thriving now — thanks to Jones’ care closet intervention.

She found out that the boys’ mother was in an unhealthy relationship that was having a toxic effect on the whole family. “But she was afraid to leave because then the children wouldn’t have anything,” she says.

Photo courtesy of First Book, used with permission.

So Jones brought her in for a conversation.

"I connected her with some outside resources, gave her a scripted plan of what we expected of her,” she says. “And then we said, ‘Mom, follow through with us and we’ll do everything we can to support you.’” That was in September.

“Now it’s November, and Mom just recently moved into her own place,” Jones says. “She meets with me regularly for coaching sessions, we helped her write a resume, and she now has a job at one of our elementary schools.”

Now that their basic needs are being met, the three boys can concentrate on being successful kids. “They’re starting to smile,” she says. “They’re proud of who they’re becoming."

Photo courtesy of First Book, used with permission.

First Book continues to expand the Care Closet project across the country.

When kids have a caring presence like Jones and the resources they need, they have an opportunity to succeed.

“Unfortunately, if we don't catch those signs in advance, we’re faced with some of the situations that some of my older students are faced with,” she says. When their basic needs aren’t met, kids become desperate.

"It’s never, 'I plan to grow up and be this criminal,'" she says. "It’s 'I was faced with a situation and I found out this was a way for me to get things I couldn’t get.'"

That’s why Jones is so adamant about making sure her students have a solid foundation to further their education.

“All of their needs are being met here,” she says. And now that they have established that stability, “They know that their job is to go and learn.”

For more, take a look at how First Book's Care Closets are changing schools across the country:

Millions of children from low-income areas don’t have the tools needed to learn, placing them at a disadvantage that perpetuates poverty. First Book is a community that believes education is the way out of poverty for kids in need.

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