Changing the Spotlight on RFK School

| May 1, 2014

By Ann NeedleW RFK5K6

For years, the Robert F. Kennedy Lancaster School has worked with young people who have survived traumatic childhoods at home, and an average of 10 foster home placements per student. And, as more of these students are being placed in Nashoba District schools due to state funding changes,  the school that has gone relatively unnoticed, finds itself in several spotlights. Two local  groups are determined to bring a greater understanding and local support of the school and its students.

RFK is part of the RFK Children’s Action Corps, founded shortly after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s death by a group of his friends “because he [Kennedy] felt every child should reach their full potential,” according to RFK School Director of Operations David Tivnan. He stressed that, while RFK receives a majority of its funding from state contracts, this does not come close to covering expenses for this residential school and its group homes. Tivnan clarified that the school doesn’t receive any funding from the Kennedy family.

“All of the kids here have experienced significant abuse and neglect,” explained RFK School Principal Valerie Paen. “Through no fault of their own, they’ve been set back developmentally.” She added that none of RFK’s students has a criminal background.
The school’s group residences are all located in a modern building on the RFK campus in the center of Lancaster. Paen reviewed the four groups of children, generally ages 11 to 17, who are spending anywhere from a week to a year at RFK. The highest-need group attends school entirely at RFK, while children in the other three groups often attend other schools, including Nashoba’s, she said.

A cutback in some state funding has triggered the increased visibility for RFK. Tivnan noted that the state recently stopped funding some of the highest-need placement facilities, forcing the school to take in more students in the lower-needs groups.

As a result, RFK placements in Nashoba schools have risen this year, from a past average of five to a total of 14, Paen reported. Of these, three attend Lancaster’s Luther Burbank Middle School; the rest are at Nashoba Regional High School. She noted that, while RFK students attend school in their home districts whenever possible—given the aim is for the students to return home—they attend Nashoba schools if their own districts are more than an hour’s bus ride away.

Given that each of RFK’s four programs is at capacity, at 16 students per group, Tivnan remarked that the number of its students placed in Nashoba schools will likely stay steady.

Though the number of RFK students in the Nashoba system is relatively low, it is apparently enough to warrant recent attention. The Bolton police have been called to NRHS several times over the past month—for incidents ranging from cafeteria arguments to attempted assault—with word swirling that “the RFK kids” were involved.

While privacy laws prevent officials from offering details, Bolton Police Chief Vincent Alfano commented that, in some cases, “There was fault on both sides [RFK and NRHS]. In the case of the kid who was arrested for posting threats on social media, it was a student from RFK on the receiving end” of those threats. This refers to the arrest of a student for posting a picture of himself with a realistic-looking fake gun on social media, along with threats to certain students.

Alfano was quick to stress that “we really don’t like calling them ‘RFK kids’ and ‘Nashoba kids’–that just  promotes an us vs. them attitude. The kids from RFK are just as much Nashoba students.”

In light of these recent events,  both the NRHS administration and students now are reaching out to help RFK students feel more welcome. Paen reported that about 100 enthusiastic NRHS staffers came to RFK for a recent tour. By the tour’s end, Tivnan said,  “We immediately had a few teachers volunteering to tutor here.” And, before April vacation, Paen said NRHS Principal Dr. Parry Graham and Nashoba Director of Athletics Tania Rich got several of the varsity captains together to discuss how to make RFK students more comfortable at the high school.

5K Spotlights RFK
It’s not only the high school staff and students that are looking to put a positive spotlight on RFK.   The Bolton 5K Organizers hope that thousands of dollars will flow into the residential facility next month as the second annual Bolton 5K race steps off from Nashoba Regional High School on June 14. Liz Davis-Edwards, one of the race’s founders and organizers, reported that the 5K organization aims to raise  $40,000 for RFK.

The Bolton 5K race was started last year after the Boston Marathon bombing, to help Bolton’s White family after several family members were injured in the bombing. Response to the 5K was overwhelming, with about 600 runners entered and $30,000 raised, according to Liz Davis-Edwards.  “We never intended to do it another year, but we received a ton of requests to do it again this year,” Davis-Edwards said.

Valerie Paen and David Tivnan  in the bright pink lounge of the girls' wing of the RFK residential building.                                                                                                                                       Ann Needle

Valerie Paen and David Tivnan in the bright pink lounge of the girls’ wing of the RFK residential building. Ann Needle

In selecting RFK earlier this year as the 5K beneficiary, race organizers talked with local leaders and groups to find out who in the Bolton area could use a hand, acccording to Davis-Edwards. “When we met with the folks at RFK, we were blown away by what they do over there. It was kind of shocking, because we had no idea that that kind of organization existed in our school boundaries.” Speaking with the school’s directors, she recalled, “We were so impressed with the staff’s empathy. They move quickly, they understand the kids’ needs, they’re all about actions.”

Davis-Edwards explained that the race’s proceeds will go toward building the    “Fly Zone,” a series of zip lines, ropes courses, and bridges that has been a dream of the RFK center for many years. After years of abuse and neglect, David Tivnan explained, “Trust is a big issue for these kids. The course would be part of working with these kids to build relationships.” Team-building exercises would be a natural part of RFK’s use of the Fly Zone. And, while the targeted $40,000 would not pay for everything RFK ideally wants in the course, Tivnan assured it would purchase enough equipment to get it going. In an effort to continue building stronger ties to NRHS, Tivnan said he has talked to high school administration about allowing Nashoba High to use the course.

Davis-Edwards echoed Tivnan’s hopes for strengthening RFK’s ties with the community. “We feel this race can be a catalyst,” she reflected. “It’s essentially saying to these kids that we have their backs.”

Anyone looking to run the Bolton 5K or to donate, can go to More on RFK can be found at

Category: Features

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