Winston-Salem Street School Reconnects Youth to Opportunity

At the Trust, we’re working to foster an inclusive economy in Forsyth County through our Local Impact program. To that end, we’re supporting grantees focused on increasing the number of youth who have been disconnected from school and work, to ultimately move into living wage jobs.

In 2021, the Trust funded the Winston-Salem Street School (WSSS)—a private alternative high school dedicated to serving students who have been denied success in traditional educational settings—for its work in increasing support and opportunity for impacted youth. We spoke with Trust Senior Program Officer Shenell Thompson and WSSS Executive Director Mike Foster about partnering with the Trust, the mission and vision guiding the work, and some key outcomes.

Talking with Shenell Thompson, Senior Program Officer, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust

What is the goal for working with WSSS?

“As part of our Inclusive Economy initiative, we are looking to reduce the number of youth not connected to school and work. We try to look for unlikely partners that are typically under-resourced, yet meeting the needs of the community. WSSS is doing just that, meeting the needs of youth and young adults who need a more customized education plan with direct support from a culturally-responsive, trauma-informed staff.”

How is the Trust supporting WSSS to advance the work?

“The Trust has provided two years of general operating support. As we work toward our goals we are intentional in making sure that we look at gaps in services and where we can ensure that solutions include the voices of youth and families who need different education opportunities. WSSS is a perfect partner because they are on an equity journey, they are challenging their internal equity—and this truth journey is necessary for true systems change.”

What does success look like?

“We believe success is defined by community, and it’s exciting to see how WSSS has started increasing the number of students they move through graduation and into work or secondary education.”

Talking with Mike Foster, Executive Director, Winston-Salem Street School

Can you describe the goals of the school and how you’re working to achieve them?

“Our goal is to help students find the educational and personal success that they have not been able to find in previous environments. We aim to create safe spaces and opportunities for students to realize that it’s okay to learn differently.

It’s not about fixing the students previous schools couldn’t work with, it’s about having a different atmosphere where students can succeed. We understand that there is no cookie cutter method to education or figuring out life, and we strive to meet each student where they are.”

What does success look like for your organization?

“Last year we had 27 graduates walk across the stage. That represents our largest graduating class. All 27 have either continued their education beyond high school or are now doing a job they enjoy—and that’s our goal.

For each student we stress that, ‘yes we see you, we see what happened to you or what you did, but let’s talk about how you’re going to succeed here with a clean slate.’ There is no probationary period, we make sure students feel safe, not just physically, but emotionally. Students know once they come through the door that there is a comfort level, when we talk to graduates they say it felt like a family, that they belonged. That’s what success looks like for us.”

What kinds of job and higher education opportunities are students pursuing?

“We offer shadowing opportunities with local businesses. We also have partnerships with Forsyth Tech for dual enrollment. Many of our students take the trade school route where they can find good paying jobs. Some students go into the medical field, several have gone on to being certified nursing assistants, for example. We’ve had students become entrepreneurs and start their own cleaning or landscaping businesses.

We generally have a couple of students each year who pursue higher education. We have found that the community college set up works for a lot of our students, as many still need to be able to work and be an earner for their family. We currently have one student going to UNC Greensboro for the nursing program. At the end of the day, we want students to leave feeling equipped to take the next step, whatever that may be.”

How is support from the Trust helping you achieve your goals?

The grant from the Trust changed our trajectory. It helped us grow the program and triple our capacity from a dozen students to almost three dozen students.

The grant also helped us to eliminate tuition for our students. Previously, we had a sliding scale tuition. It’s made a big difference in the minds of students and families to not have to worry about paying.

What are some opportunities you see for the future of this work?

“We originally had a five-year strategy plan and we met our capacity quickly with the Trust grant. We are considering expansion and want to ensure that if we do, we continue our same level of personal interaction. I want to make sure that if we now serve 65 students, we are serving them as best as we can, and if we one day serve 120 students, that we serve them as best as we can. There are usually 400 high-school dropouts a year in our county alone, and one day maybe we can reach them all.”