During this past spring, when schools were shuttered for months only recently to re-open, residential schools working with the neediest of children did not have that luxury. For programs like the Massachusetts-based Walker schools in Watertown and Needham, providing a safe, supportive academic environment was not something they could put on hold.
Working with children with complex emotional, behavioral and learning challenges, the administration at Walker (and other residential schools) was faced with both providing services and keeping students and staff safe.
New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Walker president and CEO Gene Takahashi, Ph.D, LICSW, about the schools’ pandemic response, goals for the future and what makes Walker as an organization a place he fixed on more than 20 years ago as the ultimate goal for his personal career path.
It’s been a tough year. How has Walker handled the pandemic so far?
Overall, Walker Therapeutic & Educational Programs has done a nice job managing the pandemic. We have remained open throughout the last seven months and continued to provide high quality programming.
More specifically, we have regularly followed and assigned staff to stay apprised of guidance from Governor Baker, local town officials, and our funding bodies to ensure that we are up to date with mandates relevant to our locations and types of services provided.
It is important to note that our residential program has continued to provide 24/7 residential services throughout the pandemic. [Walker has given] two rounds of “hero pay” to frontline essential staff (i.e., staff who work directly with the children on a daily basis) for all their hard work and dedication during this time.
In working directly with children, what changes did the pandemic force you to make?
We quickly transitioned to remote learning for our two therapeutic schools in mid-March and recently resumed in-person learning for both schools. We conducted virtual tours of our programs for potential clients; increased communication with parents/caregivers of children receiving our services; conducted bi-weekly food drop-offs food for families in need; and created a dashboard on our organization’s intranet to inform staff of COVID data.
We also created a furnished, private space on campus for staff to stay in individual rooms if they wanted to lessen the risk of potential exposure to others in their homes. And, we improved on-campus programming and resources for children who have been restricted to campus including replacing an older playground and re-surfacing the basketball court.
While this all has been a tremendous lift, we are proud to have had no interruptions in the services we provide. This is, in large part, thanks to the commitment and dedication of our frontline staff.
You have been CEO of Walker for two years. What were your goals in taking over the leadership and what are your goals moving forward?
When I took over, my goals were to continue providing the high-quality services that Walker has long been known for. I also wanted to increase transparency and communication with children and families…and build strong relationships with the board to create synergies between the board and our senior leadership team.
[The plan was to] expand the scope and breadth of our services, specifically our community-based services. In doing so, we are creating a stronger continuum of care, increasing revenue, and diversifying our funding sources.
We also plan to make improvements to all of our facilities, including and perhaps especially those where children learn, play, and live. In this time, we have completed a major building plan on our Needham campus, which included updating our classrooms and residential spaces and creating a new recreation center/gym in the center of campus.
My goals moving forward are to continue to provide excellent services; continue to maintain our beautiful residential campus and make on-going improvements to all our facilities. Also to increase Walker’s brand recognition across the state and nationally and become a thought leader in the field of child welfare.
For what is Walker particularly known?
Walker’s legacy is and will continue to be its extraordinary commitment to the children and families served. Walker maximizes to the fullest extent possible its funding, and all annual profit goes directly back into programming.
Also, Walker is extremely data-driven. We have a robust data set that is maintained in our electronic record and routinely reviewed and reported on. I know this firsthand not just through my employment but also as someone who worked closely with Walker data while completing my dissertation!
We invest heavily in technology and employ some of the best performance evaluators I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
Finally, Walker has an amazing residential campus, with exceptionally beautiful grounds and clean and safe physical spaces. We are proud of the environment we have created, and our commitment to maintaining a well-manicured and well-resourced campus is regularly validated by others who visit.
Moreover, with respect to specific aspects of our program, we are particularly known for our commitment to permanency, reunifying children with their parents/caregivers when possible or finding a new family when reunification is not possible.
We are known for getting “stuck” kids back home or into new homes. We believe that children best develop and are most able to reach their full potential when they grow up in safe, nurturing homes and this belief drives our clinical work.
While children are sometimes in our residential programs for longer than we’d wish, we always maintain hope that we will able to transition them to a family/home setting as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so.
Similarly, for our two therapeutic special education schools, we are known for getting “challenging” students back into schools in their home districts. Our work is especially validated when students return to and are able to effectively learn in a less restrictive, public school setting.
Can you talk about Walker’s commitment to diversity and how it plays out in what you do?
This has been a major focus at Walker for the past couple of years. We launched a Diversity, Equity, and Belonging (DEB) committee with members representing both our staff and Board of Directors.
We developed a new strategic plan, effective in fiscal year 2021. We are committed to creating an inclusive workplace driven by our employees’ unique viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, and experiences.
Personally why did you choose to work in a residential school setting?
I am a strong believer in the value of residential care and special education. With respect to residential care, I have worked in residential programs for over 20 years, having started off as a milieu worker and then working in roles that have included clinician, clinical supervisor, clinical director, etc.
Residential services meet a critical need for some children and families, at specific times in their lives for specific periods of times. I have seen firsthand children who have come through a residential program and not just stabilized during their time in care, but left care with greater hope for their future and with a greater set of skills for regulating their feelings and behaviors, connecting with others, and engaging in the larger community.
Can you talk a little about your own path coming to Walker and how the school differs from other organizations with whom you’ve worked?
This story begins in the 90’s, which both feels like yesterday and a long time ago! I moved to Massachusetts in the 90’s to get my master’s degree in social work from Simmons University.
While in the field of social work, I regularly heard about Walker and all the great things they did. When people talked about Walker, they would talk about the innovations in services, the committed staff, and the opportunities for growth and learning.
I eventually pursued a Ph.D. in social work from Boston College, and sought out an opportunity to complete my dissertation using data provided by Walker.
I decided then that my ultimate career goal was to one day return to Walker and become its CEO. Before that, though, I wanted to get an MBA so that I would have the skill set needed to be a truly effective CEO if and when that time came.
Today, I’m proud to say that I made good on the career goal I made while working on my dissertation. I came to Walker seven years ago as chief operating officer and then transitioned to the role of CEO two years ago.
Walker is a great organization, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.