Aunt Flow’s Founder/CEO Claire Coder interviewed Trisha Meier – the Operations Director of United Schools Network – on the impact Aunt Flow’s products have had in their support of students during the COVID-19 crisis. Trisha, along with her colleague Diana Wakim (the Development Director at USN) gave us insight into their decision to offer Aunt Flow’s menstrual products along with the meals they are distributing to students in need.
United Schools Network (“USN”) is a network of four high-performing, college-prep public charter schools located in Columbus, Ohio. Our founder, Andrew Boy, started this network with 57 6th grade students in 2008, armed with the belief that every child deserves an outstanding education, regardless of zip code. Today, we serve nearly 1,000 Columbus students across our four schools — two middle, two elementary — to achieve our mission of transforming lives and our communities through the power of education. USN students arrive an average of 2-3 grade levels behind; however, through rigorous academics and a strong culture, our students grow an average of 1.5 academic years in one school year! Our alumni services program supports students to and through the most selective high schools and colleges in the country, from OSU to Brown University.
How many students do you serve that participate in your free or reduced lunch program?
We serve 950 students in Franklinton and the Near East Side, two of the most under resourced boroughs in Columbus. 100% of our scholars are economically disadvantaged. Due to our schools’ economically disadvantaged status, we are able to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision program which ensures free breakfast and lunch for all of our students. During COVID-19, we have been able to participate in the Seamless Summer Option Program, which allows us to distribute meals to all children ages 18 and under, regardless of whether they are a USN student or not.
Why did you decide to offer menstrual products in your bathrooms (pre-pandemic)? What were the results?
We were fortunate to be the first middle school that Aunt Flow approached when considering expanding their program, and our answer was a resounding yes! Equitable access to menstrual products, as well as the opportunity for the education that it provides, is a great win. While we offered menstrual products upon request in the front office, scholars were hesitant to utilize this service based on the negative stigma around menstruation. Ohio doesn’t have health education standards, so students come to us with a million different experiences and levels of knowledge about menstruation and reproductive health. We were eager to widely offer a high-quality product and have a conversation with our students (not just girls!). Once we normed it through an open conversation that included answering student questions — many of which demonstrated the fear and mistrust that our students had with their bodies — we made menstrual products available in our restrooms. While we saw some initial product vandalism (not atypical of middle school students), it quickly became normal enough not to bother. Now, students have the resources they need, free of shame.
We hear from schools “FREE?!? People will steal them!” What do you think about this? Has this been your experience at USN?
I get that reaction, but that wasn’t our experience at all. A big part of our mission is going beyond the classroom — that is, eliminating the non-academic barriers to success so that students can focus on the business of learning. We anticipated losing a high volume of product due to some resource hoarding. Any person who has had a period can attest to the discomfort and shame of not having what they need, and our menstruating students are no exception. We were able to set the norm around when and how to utilize the menstrual products, and our scholars respected those norms. At the end of the day, our students are really smart, caring people, and they’re more compassionate and responsible than they get credit for!
Covid has impacted schools across the nation – What has your school done to adjust to the situation?
Our model was built to move quickly and adapt to hard situations. Our teachers have been so flexible and wonderful. Instead of shifting to a pre-made online curriculum — which is much easier to implement but much less likely to be aligned with unique student needs — our teachers created their own curriculum, allowing them to make shifts daily based on what students need. They’re also offering instruction in a variety of ways: some live instruction, some recorded instruction, so that we can be face-to-face with kids but also recognize the busy lives and schedules of our families that may not allow for every lesson to be done between 8-4. One teacher even created a tutorial for our Spanish-speaking students to show them how to put Spanish subtitles on lessons — that’s one less barrier to education that our students face. Our teachers also take on a small advisory of about 15 students and check in with those students and families regularly. Building these relationships is crucial, now more than ever. In addition to the awesome work of our teachers, I also have to shout out our operations staff! They have coordinated for breakfast and lunch pickup to be available for every family, and have distributed a laptop and a WiFi hotspot to every single family who needs one, free of charge. They are powerful advocates for our families, and they move mountains to make sure kids get what they need to learn. Finally, we’ve worked really hard to support our high school and college-aged alumni. We’re a K-8 network, but we work with students after they leave us to make sure they continue to succeed. Our Alumni Services Coordinator is a one-woman whirlwind, checking in with 695 alumni quarterly, coordinating ACT/SAT prep, connecting kids with tutoring and career mentorship, setting up digital college tours, and administering microgrants. Microgrants are especially critical now. We make $500-$1,000 gifts to students who keep them on the path to college by paying for books, lab fees, bus passes, rent, etc. At a time when college students are being asked to leave dorms and find new housing and entry-level jobs are less available, this matters a lot!
How did you decide to offer Aunt Flow products with the meals you are distributing?
As mentioned, the operations staff across USN is amazing. One of our Operations Managers, Rachel Jones, brought up her interest in student wellness at a monthly performance goals check-in, and the idea of menstrual product distribution just clicked! We have all of this product for when we are learning in person, and while we have been remote, our students have lost access to this absolutely needed resource. We decided the best way to get it out is during our weekly meal pick up. Our meal pick up not only serves students, but also members of the community. Rachel immediately jumped on it. She prepared brown bags containing 30 pads, added a sticker with the image of a pink bow and Aunt Flow logo, included the information on our meal pick up flyer, and placed signage near the bags, urging families to take what they need. This idea was shared across USN to replicate at our other three schools.
What has the reaction been to the offering of menstrual products?
Our leadership teams have been thrilled about this. On the first day, we nearly ran out of prepared bags. We also had a wonderful reaction from a mother. She decided to pay it forward by purchasing deodorant and passing out deodorant and pads to every girl who lives on her street. If we can impact our school community as well as those outside of our school, it’s absolutely worth it. We have also had male students take bags home for other family members.
What advice would you give to other schools considering adding menstrual products to their lunch-pickup-programs?
Don’t hesitate – just do it! You will impact more people than you know.