As the school day gets underway on the Friday before Thanksgiving at Ledge Street School in Nashua, English Language teacher Danielle Boutin is in the school parking lot in jeans, sneakers, and a tie-dye mask, staging the weekly farmers’ market. She and her team of fellow teachers and volunteers lug grocery bags crammed with potatoes, onions, and carrots from the backs of SUVs and arrange crates of milk, boxes of pancake mix, bags of fish sticks, tubs of pulled pork, and the rest of the week’s bounty on long folding tables. On the other side of the parking lot, women in colorful skirts and women (and a few men) in jeans and sweatshirts, form a line. Behind the tables, on the edge of a raised bed filled with the brown remnants of flowers, a teacher helps a mother and daughter troubleshoot a laptop.
For many of these families, this weekly event has become a lifeline in a year of crisis and uncertainty. It’s one piece of a community support system Boutin and her EL team have knit together over the years, and it’s one reason Boutin recently earned the title of 2021 Teacher of the Year.
“People fall on hard times, and sometimes you have no one to turn to, and sometimes if you’re in a brand new country you might not have a support network yet,” said Boutin, who has been teaching at Ledge Street for 11 years. “You may not have the language, you may not know how it works. … Trust is really at the core of a lot of the work that we do in building those relationships.”
Teaching new Americans is a calling for Boutin. Her first visit to an EL classroom, at Beech Street School in Manchester as part of her training at UNH-Manchester, confirmed it.
“It was love at first sight,” she said. “I knew after like two minutes in the room, I was like, ‘this is where I belong.’”
One of 12 elementary schools in Nashua, Ledge Street School serves students from a wide range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. More than 70% of the student body qualify for free and reduced price lunch, the second highest rate in the state.
Almost immediately upon arriving here, Boutin began looking for ways to meet her students’ needs.
“When I first came to Ledge Street I just noticed that there was a lot of small initiatives going in different ways. There wasn’t necessarily a common, even, goal, if you will, in terms of the work that was being done,” she said. “And then I also saw areas where I thought, okay … I see a problem. I think that I can help to kind of create a solution.”
She started small, with a homework club.
“Early on we found that homework was a big issue, that kids were constantly being kept in from recess or they were feeling when they got into class that they had no idea what was going on because they couldn’t keep up with the homework, and a lot of the parents didn’t have the English skills to be able to help them,” Boutin said.
Watching the families help each other out with transportation to the club, Boutin realized she’d tapped into something important. “Even at that kind of micro level I recognized that the pockets of community already existed, and that maybe there was ways that we kind of as a school could try to help build that, if you will, at a larger scale,” she said.
As they helped students with their academics, Boutin, along with Maria Barry, the school’s family engagement coordinator, also began noticing that problems in the classroom had deeper roots.
“We just kept hearing the same — you know, there would be a discipline issue at school, or someone would be having a hard time with a friend, or there would be some reason why Maria had to make a call home for something, and Maria would be like, ‘oh can we stop in for a minute?’ And it would just be this issue that was so much larger than the disagreement on the playground,” Boutin said. “It went back to basic needs. You know: ‘We didn’t have clothing, we didn’t have food, and we thought we were going to lose our house tomorrow. … I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I had kids tell me, like, ‘I couldn’t come to school yesterday because, like, I didn’t have the sneakers. My brother needed them for gym class.’ That honestly happened to me like three or four times in my early years of teaching.”
And so, a clothes closet was born, followed by a food pantry. Boutin, Barry, and, later fellow teacher Kayla Bassett, did everything themselves for a while: conducting clothing drives, spending long hours washing and sorting donations, and storing them in Bassett’s basement. Standing outside Market Basket to collect food donations. Requesting monetary donations from staff, friends, and family.
Barry, who was zig-zagging through the parking lot in a crocheted hat and leggings at the pre-Thanksgiving farmers’ market, chatting in Spanish with families navigating the tables of food, remembers the days before everything ran so smoothly.
“I remember just approaching my neighbors: ‘Okay clothing drive time,’” Barry said. “And then we’d set tables out in our cafeteria at conference time and have families just take what they needed, just whatever kind of clothing. Or we had, like winter coats were donated, and so each kid went up onto the stage and picked out a coat and mittens, and it was just, it was haphazard, and… storage — I mean my office would be full, their classrooms would be full, just clothes everywhere. I mean it was out of control.”
Eventually, the team connected with a non-profit called Katie’s Closet, which built them a clothing closet in one of the classrooms and keeps it stocked with donations.
“So there’s a lot less laundry in Kayla’s and my life,” Boutin said, laughing.
Over time, they made connections with other non-profits such as End 68 Hours of Hunger, the NH Food Bank, the United Way, and the local soup kitchen. Utilizing those, along with the deep connections already in place among Ledge Street families, Boutin and her team began to build a strong network of support and continually increase what they could offer families while meeting their specific cultural and religious requirements.
Of course, there were obstacles along the way, too, including finding funds, time, and support for the programs.
“We had an administrator who wanted nothing to do with any of this,” Barry recalled.
That’s changed. The current administrator, Chas Miller, recently sang Boutin’s praises at a State Board of Ed meeting, where he was reporting on the school’s progress as the recipient of a Comprehensive School Improvement grant. “She’s progressive. She’s innovative. She’s everything that needs to happen in a school like ours,” he said.
The impact of Boutin’s work has been profound and far-reaching.
“Attendance is a big one that comes to mind. I honestly, definitely see a correlation between the clothing closet and the improvement in attendance,” Boutin said. “When a student’s able to come in and feel like they look like everyone else, or their clothes are clean, or they’re wearing those silly sequined shirts that they can brush up and down just like everyone else has…”
Those small things matter, and they’re also a window into the bigger things.
“Sometimes the students that come to us, they’ve had atypical experiences . I mean, they’ve had significant trauma histories. They haven’t had an easy eight, nine, 10 years on this planet, and so they carry all of that with them,” Boutin said. “Sometimes I think my own learning curve has been — you know, in the beginning, like, why is that kid acting like that? Why are they misbehaving so much? Whereas now I approach it in a completely different way, and it’s through so much of this kind of community work that we’ve done that I’ve of kind of gotten a much better insight into what our families have experienced and where they’re coming from, and that maybe that behavioral outburst that happens every single day at the same time, a lot of times there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Sometimes by having clothing and food to offer, we’re able to start having much deeper and more meaningful conversations.”
And once those bonds are made, they stick, says Bassett, an EL teacher who’s been working at Ledge Street, and with Boutin’s program, for about eight years.
“One of the effects that we can see right now is we have high schoolers coming back to help us either in homework club or with our summer school who were here in elementary school,” Bassett said. “But I think partly just the relationship is where you see a lot of it, both with the students going forward but also with their families, and keeping that relationship. I know some people still call Maria and Danielle even if they don’t have any kids left at Ledge Street, but that’s just a person that, in their mind, I feel like, ‘this is a trustworthy person who I can call about anything.’”
Boutin and her team have also set a cycle of giving in motion — or perhaps lent their muscle to a cycle that was already there.
“A lot of our families, they’re proud and they want to be part of the community, so we’ll always tell families, ‘oh when your kids outgrow their clothes, if you don’t have anyone to give it to, feel free to give us a call, feel free to drop it off,” Boutin said. “So we have a lot of families that, they may take clothes from the closet, but they’ll also donate right back to us.”
“We do see like some families, once their situation changes, they then help others, and they bring them either to us or to other places,” Bassett added. “And that I feel like is awesome, amazing to see too because, yeah, they needed help for a time, we all go through ups and downs in life, and so when they were maybe in a down someone helped them, and now they’re up and they can help the next person.”
It hasn’t been an easy year for Ledge Street families.
“I mean it’s ten-fold,” Boutin said. “Families that have never needed before are in need now. Everything is so up in the air. A lot of our families are in the restaurant business. A lot of our families are in housekeeping and the cleaning industry. A lot of our families work in hotels cleaning rooms. And a lot of those industries are the ones that have been hit, you know, the hardest. A lot of times when your skills in English might be limited, your job prospects can also be limited.”
When the pandemic hit last year, Ledge Street quickly mobilized, turning the food pantry into a weekly farmers’ market brimming with fresh produce, dairy and meat, along with non-perishables and bread. They’re now providing food to about 150 families a week, estimated Boutin’s father, Mike Boutin, who volunteers at the market.
If there’s a bright side to the crisis, it’s the way it’s strengthened Boutin’s team.
“I feel like through the pandemic, a lot of our efforts have really kind of pulled together. We’ve been able to almost kind of tighten the network, and I feel like I’m more aware now of what’s happening in the community,” Boutin said. “And I feel like now if a problem comes to me, instead of not knowing who to reach out to, I feel like now it’s like I have three or four different people that I know that I can make a phone call to, and that are able to help. And they were always there, but I think that’s probably one of the shining lights through all of this is I feel like we’ve gotten to have firsthand experience of so much of the work that’s already happening out there, and then figuring out how we can kind of work with them.”