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Krystal Barnett launched Bridge 2 Hope in 2019 to unite parents and grandparents exasperated by the lack of quality school options to demand responsiveness from school system leaders. The young organization, based in North St. Louis city, runs fellowships for caretakers to teach them to advocate for their children and provides support and counseling when parents face obstacles getting their children the resources they need.

When COVID shut down schools and businesses, Krystal heard from parents that they were upset about what they were seeing in their children’s education, but that they were also struggling to make ends meet due to the strain of the pandemic. Bridge 2 Hope developed a holistic approach to address both the immediate financial needs of families and engage them in demanding better from their schools. With input from more than 1,500 community members, Bridge 2 Hope is now leading an effort to ensure all Missouri children have a “Learning Recovery Plan” to address learning inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Read our interview with Krystal to learn more about how Bridge 2 Hope is creatively and strategically engaging and supporting families.

What initially got you engaged in education advocacy? Why is it important to you?

Something that was always on my heart was to encourage parents to get in front of what’s happening with kids in schools. When I was in the eleventh grade, something happened to my mother that made a lasting impact on me. She went to my classroom for parent-teacher conferences, and teachers destroyed my mother with negative comments about me, telling my mom that I would not be a person who needed to go to college. When my mother came home destroyed and didn’t have the words or courage to stand up for herself, it did something to me, and I never forgot it. It set me on a course of radical change within my own self to prove that those teachers didn’t get to dictate my path. It set me on fire to go about disproving what people say about kids because they tried to say it about me.

How did this experience lead you to launch Bridge 2 Hope?

My number one goal is to tell a parent that you have the power and ability to be a spokesperson in a great way for your own child and not to accept the characterization and stigmas that other people try to attach to kids. Parents need resources to help them understand that schools and institutions are responsible for helping their children do well, and it’s not all on them.

Bridge 2 Hope just completed its first year of operation. How did COVID-19 change how you approached your work?

Before COVID, we had the ability to meet parents where they were. We still feel because of COVID that we’re not reaching everyone we can because many struggling parents trapped in failing schools are not on social media. So COVID has changed the way we meet the people we’re looking for. We have learned that if you meet a person on social media, they may be connected to someone who is not. We then use word of mouth and one-on-ones to find those families. So we’ve had to adjust to find the families most affected – the angry, frustrated mothers, the people who feel like their schools aren’t providing enough or supporting their children. We talk to them and help them connect their why’s to our mission and values.

Bridge 2 Hope received one of The Opportunity Trust’s Remote Learning Innovation Fund grants to launch the Bridge 2 Hope Relief Fund, which provided $100 grants to local families struggling to make ends meet due to COVID. Can you share more about this program and why you chose to take this approach?

One thing I know about a family that’s struggling is that when you have a lot of things you’re juggling, education falls to the backburner. When we were thinking about people losing their jobs and folks getting sick and not able to work, that’s when the idea for the Bridge 2 Hope Relief Fund came about. We became a friend to families before we asked them to participate or get engaged with what we are doing in the educational space. It presented them with a space of relief around their immediate needs so they could think about the long-term goal: successful schools. One mom told us that Bridge 2 Hope helped her when she was at her last resort. That $100 relief, you might think it’s not a whole lot, but for someone who doesn’t have any money, it’s an opportunity, and it gives hope.

Through the program, we’ve helped 200 families so far. Out of those 200, we’ve had at least 75 of those people stay actively engaged with Bridge 2 Hope. Fifteen have committed to going through our fellowship classes, and others support us on social media to spread the word and participate in our live events. They do that because we were a resource to them.

Over the summer, you released a manifesto with three demands: that every student receives a personalized plan for academic recovery, that each student has internet access and technology, and that parents are given a choice to continue with a district-provided at-home learning program for part or all of the 2020-2021 school year. How did you determine these demands?

We conducted a survey to get data from families in order to create our manifesto. We ran a series of teach-ins, trainings, and town halls. We talked to some of our parents who had traveled with us for our national work. In total, we surveyed 1,500 people to find out the general consensus on what most parents think is missing from schools, and then we created our manifesto around what parents were saying. We received 1,000 signatures on our manifesto from parents in city and county schools. Bridge 2 Hope doesn’t just support city schools or county schools. We’re looking to support any parents with children not getting what they need from their school system.

But the manifesto is just the beginning. We are now pushing for the state to mandate academic recovery plans for all students in Missouri, and with that, a list of accountability measures so that it’s not just about getting students a plan and hoping it works, but having benchmarks that show progress is being made over time. And then, if it’s not happening, there will be interventions if schools aren’t doing their jobs. I think that’s one of the biggest things missing with education institutions – there are no real consequences if you don’t educate a child. Nothing happens to you if that child graduates from high school on a 6th-grade reading level; that’s just the child that they missed.

Now that the manifesto has been published and has gained support, what are your next steps to push for the state mandate?

We’re now in the second phase, which is educating people around why the manifesto is important through teach-ins and our fellowship. Next, we’ll engage state legislators and find co-conspirators at the state level. Our fourth phase will be to build a task force made up of parents, educators, superintendents, legislators, and the community to help draft an enforceable policy that will work for the majority of children, especially the ones in the failing percentage. Finally, we will take the policy to the state and try to win on behalf of all Missouri children.

Bridge 2 Hope is part of the national Powerful Parents Movement. Watch their latest video, featuring Krystal, to learn more about their work.

You can learn more about Bridge 2 Hope’s work by following their Facebook page.