According to the New York State Department of Education, there are a total of 4,131 children enrolled in Poughkeepsie public schools. When Poughkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison attended a summit from the Harvard Education Redesign Lab—alongside Eric Rosser, Superintendent of the Poughkeepsie school district; Robert Watson Jr., an alum of Poughkeepsie High Schools; and Wesley Dixon, Special Assistant to President Bradley—he walked in with each and every child in mind. During a phone interview, Rolison stated, “I ask myself, how does this help the children of Poughkeepsie? If you approach things from this frame of mind, if you come from that place, not everything may fit … but asking yourself that question all the time can help make progress happen.” This line of thought captures the impetus for the Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet, the culmination of efforts by the mayor’s office to create inter-organizational programs for Poughkeepsie youth and their families for educational enrichment outside the classroom.
At the top floor of the Mill House Brewery, across the street from City Hall, Poughkeepsie natives and and community leaders joined Watson Jr. to commemorate a series of initiatives meant to revitalize the city, including the Children’s Cabinet. During this time, Jason Watson, Kylynn Grier, Marlon Agustin-Mendez and John Doyle, also alumni of Poughkeepsie High School, emphasized the importance of civic dedication to the city and reinvesting in the community from which they came.
Watson noted that their meeting location was owned by a former classmate from Poughkeepsie High School. A graduate of Harvard College and the Director of Student Programs at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, Watson’s pride was palpable through his tone in introducing his classmates and their accomplishments. Grier, for example, served as an organizer of the New York City Women’s March; Agustin-Mendez recently graduated from Columbia University’s School of Social Work and, as an undocumental individual, returned to Poughkeepsie with the goal of working with struggling communities.
Municipalities across the United States have created Children’s Cabinet initiatives: Denver, Minneapolis, New York City and Louisville, Kentucky served as examples during the summit at Harvard. These cabinets seek to integrate extracurricular experiences into classroom education through programs sponsored by community organizations and leaders.
Children only spend 20 percent of their time in school. The Education Redesign Lab specifies that this initiative will task mayors around the country to identify values in their respective communities, illustrate challenges they face, define the structure of what their respective Children’s Cabinet would look like and what it would accomplish, and then assemble a team of community leaders to implement it (Harvard Graduate School of Education, “CHILDREN’S CABINET TOOLKIT: A Roadmap for Getting Started in Your Community,” 09.2019). Watson reiterated this in his explanation of the Children’s Cabinet, noting that “Generally, they are city-based cabinets that bring leaders together to accomplish an agenda, from cradle to career, for children and young people.”
Both Mayor Rolison and Watson Jr. emphasized the fact that the Children’s Cabinet seeks to unite educational organizations in Poughkeepsie—such as Vassar, Marist and Dutchess Community Colleges, as well as nonprofits that operate within the school district—to assist the school district in creating programs tailored to the needs of students and their families. Mayor Rolison applauded the efforts put forth by Vassar students thus far, stating that “Vassar College students are involved with internships throughout the city of Poughkeepsie. I applaud all that Vassar does, particularly from people like John Bradley and Lisa Kaul. I think it’s important to stay aware of opportunities in the city and how to help out.”
Watson summarized the important roles that individual players, such as the returning alums, organizations across the city and the mayor’s office all held in the development of the Children’s Cabinet: “I’ve worked a lot with both local and international organizations on educational equity, civic engagement and anti-poverty work.” He continued, “It starts from a basic premise. There are a lot of opportunities … as well as economic resources in our community…that exist and aren’t being as leveraged as well as they could to transform the realities of children.” Although the Cabinet is in its formative stages and will be redefined as support for it hopefully grows, this much is clear as of right now: the project is a way to bring public offices that have never formally collaborated—such as the mayor, superintendent, and nontraditional actors—together to accomplish progress.
Among the community leaders present both at the Mill Brewery and the summit at Harvard was Co-Founder of Lead for America Benya Kraus. In impassioned conversation, she stressed the importance of returning to one’s home community to reinvest in the public sector at the local level. A native of Waseca, Minnesota, Kraus emphasized her own experiences in giving back to the communities in her home state, and her newfound desire to create a local initiative called Lead for Poughkeepsie, which supports the Children’s Cabinet as a precedent for future development and collaboration. Funding from the City of Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County has been made available for the Cabinet, along with private donations.
Executive Director of the Vassar Urban Education Initiative John Bradley reiterated the formative value of experiences outside the classroom: “The Children’s Cabinet is essentially a way for the community to work together to establish goals and work together … There are some programs in Poughkeepsie that have their own individual objectives, so the question is: How do you have them work together?” Bradley also clarified that though the Cabinet would augment educational services, it would by no means replace the role of school.
As Mayor Rolison stated, “It is not just schools alone that shape the development of a child. We should all share the responsibility to help children reach their fullest potential by helping them as they develop dreams and goals.”