Letter from HERE4Justice

June 5, 2023

Mayor Katjana Ballantyne

Somerville City Council

93 Highland Ave

Somerville, MA 02143

Dear Mayor Ballantyne and City Councilors,

It is with great urgency that Health Equity and Racial Equity for Justice (HERE4Justice) writes to you in solidarity with the Winter Hill Community Innovation School (WHCIS). HERE4Justice is a student-led racial and social justice group within the MPH@Simmons program. Many Somerville constituents belong to our directorship, general body, and alumni. Our organization works to advance health equity as it impacts our communities, both domestically and globally. We are aware of how systems, structures, and policies benefit particular groups while disadvantaging others. These inequities are unfair, unjust, avoidable, and interconnected. We hold ourselves accountable for taking action toward the upstream determinants of health in order to create tangible and meaningful change in our world. At this time, HERE4Justice is working on a campaign to address institutional accountability within our own organization as well as other institutions that impact health and wellbeing. Therefore, we urge Mayor Ballantyne and the City Councilors to prioritize the safety and well-being of WHCIS students.

With that said, HERE4Justice recognizes that city governments and school districts are institutions with values and missions–encapsulated in law–to which they are beholden. We understand that Mayor Ballantyne has named education as a key priority for her office. In her inaugural address, the Mayor acknowledged how poverty impacts children and students in Somerville, with two-thirds of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Many of these students attend WHCIS, but are not able to attend school the week of June 5, 2023. The structural integrity of the building has been in question since 2008. The Somerville Educators Union has been in talks with the Mayor and City Council for the last three years over concerns for the physical conditions of this school. The city has failed to address parents’ and educators’ concerns despite their ongoing awareness of the unsafe school building. In 2022, the Mayor promised to invest in Somerville schools, and stated that equity in schools will drive us toward progress. HERE4Justice applauds the Mayor’s sentiment that “equity” is not just a buzzword, and agrees it is something we must actively work toward, every day, to ensure the health and wellbeing of all people, including WHCIS students. However, we have yet to see action that will support the structure and safety of the school building.

Not only is the closure of WHCIS an unimaginably stressful situation for students, parents, and staff, but it is also an issue of racial and social injustice. Compared to both the school district and the state, WHCIS has higher percentages of students whose first language is not English (57.3%), English language learners (35.8%), students from low-income families (59%), students with disabilities (23.5%), and high-needs students (75.6%). The school also has more African American (9.5%) and Hispanic (49.3%) students than both the district and the state. Additionally, WHCIS is a Title 1 school that receives federal support for low-income students. The school is home to the Adapt, Include, Motivate (AIM) program which provides structure and inclusion for students on the autism spectrum. Newcomer Academy is also embedded at WHCIS; this Structured English Immersion Program (SEIP) provides both general and special education to students who are newcomers to the country and are learning English. The majority of the population that attends WHCIS are people of color and low-income communities; therefore, by prioritizing other issues before investing in the school, you are neglecting communities most in need.

Failure to address this issue in a timely manner could result in poor physical and mental health outcomes for students. Students with less access to education may be at risk of obesity, substance misuse, and injury. Structural racism, low socioeconomic status, and disability status amplify these risks for many students. School connectedness is associated with good mental health for students. When a school community is disrupted, it may negatively impact students’ mental health. Prioritizing the school building should include utilizing social justice, racial justice, and cultural humility lenses; centering community voices; and include the affected population at all levels of decision-making. We know that education is power, and by making the WHCIS building a top budgetary priority, the city will empower Somerville youth by showing them how important their education is to the city. As the Mayor witnessed on Friday June 2nd, the youngest WHCIS students are already leaders and activists in the community. Students, parents, and staff appreciate any opportunity to share concerns with the Mayor’s office. Children and families in Somerville have already been through so much in the last few years, including a pandemic, witnessing police brutality, global displacement, a migration crisis, community violence, and more. Children are resilient, but they shouldn’t have to be. 

At this time, HERE4Justice urges Mayor Ballantyne and the City Council to make the WHCIS building the top budgetary priority for the city of Somerville. Please ensure that a plan to address the building’s structural issues are communicated to the school community before the end of the school year on June 16, 2023. HERE4Justice urges the city to continue listening to community voices and collaborating on plans for a new home for WHCIS. Thank you for your consideration; if you have any questions or would like to discuss further please contact Cassie Walston, cassie.walston@simmons.edu. 



Master of Public Health Program | Simmons University

300 Fenway 

Boston, MA 02115

Cassie Walston

Director of Campaigns

Simmons Student, MPH

Ward 1 Resident

Brett Zimmerman

Director of Logistics

Simmons Student, MPH

Theresa Tran

Simmons Student, MPH

Sage Rosenthal

Simmons Student, MPH

Leigh Kamore Haynes, JD, MPH

Adjunct Professor, Public Health, Simmons University

Shantel Mercedes

Simmons Student, MPH

Caitlin Worthington 

Simmons Student, MPH

Emily Orlando, BSN, RN

Director of Digital Engagement

Simmons Student, MPH 

Stephanie Gómez

Director of Research

Simmons Student, MPH