Mentor Corner: Maggie Lorenz in St. Paul, Minnesota

Photo of Maggie Lorenz, Check & Connect mentor in St. Paul Public SchoolsI am very excited to present our third Mentor’s Corner interview with Maggie Lorenz.  I met Maggie in 2015 when St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) began implementing Check & Connect at a district level.  Now in her second year as a full-time Check & Connect coordinator and mentor within the Indian Education program in SPPS, Maggie has been a tremendous asset at new mentor trainings, as she honestly and openly shares her experiences with beginning implementation of Check & Connect. She shared that when they were considering using Check & Connect for her position, they decided “We should use Check & Connect for this position because it’s just really in line with our values as native people, the whole relationship building piece.  Once I looked into it I was like, I would love to do this!  I was really looking forward to digging in and learning as much as I could about it.”

Maggie serves as coordinator to 6 mentors and she has a caseload of 20 students across 8 schools.  In order for students to qualify for Check & Connect in SPPS Indian Education, they use a data screening process in which they look at the previous year’s data of all 9th and 10th grade students in Indian Education. Then, they look at 4 data points and if a student’s data shows 3 of these 4 indicators, they are eligible for Check & Connect:

  • 85% or less attendance;
  • 2 or more N/not passing grades;
  • 4 or more D grades at the end of any quarter; and/or,
  • 2 or more behavior incidents the previous year.

One of the biggest reasons that I wanted to share Maggie’s stories with the whole Check & Connect community is, again, her honesty.  She is very open with new mentors about the challenges that they can face as a mentor.

Below is a transcript of the interview I had with her.

Maggie, can you please describe the beginning of your work in Check & Connect?
At the beginning of last year, I was not only new to this position and Indian Ed program, but I was also new to K-12 in general. I hadn’t worked with that level/age of student before.  When I was at Metro State I used to work with all native students, not necessarily just the students who were at-risk of failing or dropping out or having academic consequences from the University.  So I did work with students who were at-risk at the college level, but it wasn’t my main job.  So this position was a really big learning curve for me coming in because all of my time and energy was focused on these students who were having a lot of struggles, not just academically.  Obviously when students are struggling academically there are a lot of other things going on behind that.  And so it was pretty overwhelming for me, trying to learn everything I needed to learn to help advocate and mentor and guide these students so they could start taking some control over their academic lives.  It was also a brand new relationship for me and for the student, so there was all the relationship building going on right at the beginning of the first year and then there was getting to know not only the students but getting to know the families.

It was a few months into the school year where I was imploding internally and trying not to tell anybody about it. And one of my coworkers who was doing Check & Connect came up to me and said, ‘Is this not the most depressing program you have ever worked with?’ and I was just like, ‘Oh, my god!  Let’s talk about this please!’  So it was really good to talk through it because it made me feel a little bit better, it wasn’t just me.  The coworker had been with Indian Ed for quite some time, and I really look up to her as someone who works really well with students in gaining trust and gaining trust with families, to hear that she was struggling a little bit as well was helpful to me in some weird way.  And so that’s why when I come to the trainings I make sure I let people know ‘Hey, it’s not easy.  It can be really tough.’ I remember the first few months doing it and I was like, ‘I’m horrible at this and kids don’t like me they don’t want to talk to me. They’re not listening to anything I have to say.’  I think just talking to the other mentors who were doing the work in Indian Ed and the other mentors who are doing the in Check & Connect was really helpful to me.  To talk through some of those struggles I was going through.

Maggie you seem so confident and positive about the work you are doing. What changed from when you started implementing Check & Connect? What made you stay?
(laughing) Yeah, so I think that it was just that moment when I had that conversation with [the other mentor] that I realized like, ‘Okay, I don’t suck.  This job is tough, but somebody has to do it.’  When I was a high school student there wasn’t an Indian Ed program and I didn’t have anybody in my high school that I felt like took any kind of special interest in me.  No teachers or anything like that. And so I ended up dropping out of high school.  I didn’t make it past 11th grade.  When I went into college years later, right at the beginning of my time as a college student on campus, I stumbled upon the American Indian Student Center and got linked in right away with the advisors and the student organization, and I met some other Native students.  That sense of belonging, I feel like more than anything else kept me rooted and made me feel like I did belong there, and that if I left, people would miss me.  And so I just feel like sometimes with students who are historically underrepresented in higher education or underserved in K-12, I think it’s really important to have somebody or a program on campus that reflects who you are as a whole person and somebody who you can connect to on an authentic real level other than just an advisor who checks off on my class schedule.  ‘This is somebody who knows my mom and I see them at the powwow.’ It’s really impactful.  And I personally have that impact my life, the benefits of having the American Indian student services program in the higher education level.  And so I guess once I got over that hump and I got past the idea that I was just not doing something right or I wasn’t cut for this job.  Once I got over that mindset I got clicked back into, ‘Somebody has to do this work, and I am good at this work.  I am good at just being myself and being able to create these relationships with these students.’  And so I just started trying to focus on creating authentic relationships with these students.  And a lot of them started coming around.  There were a few of them that were digging in their heels, and I didn’t get much traction with [them] last year, but at this point I feel like I have a pretty good relationship with most of my students.

Given that it took significant time for some of your students to develop a relationship with you, how does sharing data with them look in your meetings with students?
I think it depends on the student I’m working with.  Some students really like to look at their data and talk about their data A LOT! And so for those students it’s kinda the focus point of our meeting together.  For other students, it’s more of a jumping off point to get a bigger conversation started.  One student that I recently met with, our whole conversation was looking at assignment by assignment and making a plan for what that student needed to do to get caught up [on each] assignment.  For another student it might be, ‘Hey, your attendance has been doing really great this year and all of a sudden this last week you’ve been not here and skipping classes.’  So the data is always a part of the conversation but depending on the student and what’s going on with them or what day it is, it may go different ways with that conversation.  But it think it’s just really important for a lot of my students that somebody is looking. The minute they know that somebody’s looking and watching everything they’re doing in school, they want to do better because they want to show you what they can do.  Parents want to know what’s going on with their kids, but I’m a parent too, and it’s really hard for me to go out and do my day job and then coming home, and trying to cook dinner, and then talking to the school and looking at every single assignment every day.  As a parent it’s really hard to do that.  Some of these parents aren’t doing it.  Nobody is doing it, it’s filling this gap.  A lot of these students feel like nobody cares, nobody is looking, and then all of a sudden somebody is.  So that in and of itself is huge for some of the kids I work with. A lot of these students put on these fronts and try to intimidate people to kinda scare them away.  They don’t want people to get too close to them.  But they do want to be seen.

A big part of mentoring is working with the families of these students. How do you build relationship with families of students you’re working with?
If I call and say I’m from the Indian Education program I feel like automatically with my students and my families it just kind of lightens them up a bit.  So that’s kind of a built in nice thing I have going for me that helps in building relationships.  When I call, I explain the program a little bit and say, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m working with your son or daughter. And I’m here if you need anything and I’ll be checking on their grades and attendance and if there’s anything you want to share with me about your child that you think will help me better do my job as a mentor,’ and just see what they have to say.  Some parents are really open and want to tell you everything about their kid and their living situation and some parents are just like, ‘Okay great thanks for calling. I’ll let you know if I need anything.’  What’s been really nice is that they do let me know when they need something, for the most part.  And I’ve found that some of my parents that the school has had a really hard time getting ahold of will answer when I call.  I don’t know if it has more to do with the fact I’m calling from Indian Ed or that I call from my cell phone so it doesn’t look like a school number, but either way I’ve been able to get ahold of my parents 90% of the time when I need to get ahold of them when somethings going on.  There have been a few cases when they don’t want to talk or don’t answer the phone or the number’s disconnected.  We have our monthly powwows and I’ve met a lot of the parents and families there.  And we also have our school supplies that we do at the beginning of the year so when parents come in to pick up their school supplies for their student, if I see a Check & Connect student on that list I’m like, ‘Hey I know your student.  Let me talk to you real quick.’  And we have out winter coat distribution coming up and I’ve met a lot of parents there as well.

How do you address outside influences impacting a student’s ability to be engaged while at school?
I go to wherever I need to go to try to figure out what we can do to close the loop because I feel like a lot of times [school staff] knows what’s going on at school but they don’t know what’s going on in [a student’s] home life or what’s going on with their youth program that’s not related to the school but it’s taking up a part of their life.  And so I just try to connect the dots, close that loop, and get everybody talking to each other.  It’s trying to remove those barriers and close the loop and keep everyone in that circle of communication.  Students at this age haven’t yet learned how to communicate what they need to the right people at the right time.  I try to teach them those communication skills.

Do you have any success stories that you’d be willing to share?
(Laughing) I mean, how long do you have?  I have a student I started working with in the fall of last year.  Her attendance wasn’t [too] bad, although she was skipping.  Her graders were getting worse and worse; even as I started working with her, her grades continued to plummet.  She was a little harder to get to the root of what was going on. She was used to lying and hiding when she would get into trouble with her parents, so she was doing that with me a lot and it was hard for me to get into what was really going on there.  Towards the end of the year we stated having some really good conversation about her future and career and job prospects of a high school drop-out vs. a high school graduate vs. a college graduate, and we started talking about college more.  She came back [after summer] and she now has the highest GPA that she’s earned in high school, so far.  She earned A’s and B’s the whole quarter. And her attendance was good.  She hasn’t had behavior incidents this year.  There was a field trip that I helped coordinate for some students to go to Standing Rock as a service learning opportunity, and so she ended up going on that trip and met the chaperone of the trip who does a dance group.  And now she’s in this dance group and learning all these different Aztec dances, and so she’s doing really well in school.  She’s got a lot of extracurricular stuff outside of school that she’s into now that’s positive instead of some of the other stuff she was getting into last year.  She’s doing really great!

What advice would you give to new mentors as they begin to work with Check & Connect?
The advice I would want to share is that in the training you say the kids are like, ‘Just don’t give up on me!  Just don’t give up on me!’ and I can’t stress enough how true I found that to be.  I feel like some of the students who resisted the hardest, once you break through, and you never know when that is going to happen, all of a sudden they are ready to talk and ready to do something.  They have been resistant and not talking to you for so long, for so many months, and all of a sudden they’re ready! And all of those times when you feel like you are talking to a brick wall, you’re not.  They’re listening, but their defenses and life experiences have taught them that people aren’t going to stick around for them so I just can’t stress enough how important it is to stick with it and stick with them.

For example, one student of mine refuses to meet with me.  But I continue to try to talk to him.  At first I felt like he was like ‘I don’t want to talk to you.  I don’t care,’ but after a few weeks I felt like he would look at me a little bit more like, ‘I cannot believe you are still coming around here trying to talk to me!’  And now I feel like when he sees me he’s expecting to see me, and he’s happy I show up and he still wants to say no, but I can tell by his facial expressions and his demeanor.  One time I was home with a sick child and I came to get him the next week, and he’s like ‘Oh, you’re here. I thought you weren’t coming anymore.’  And I was like ‘No, I’ve been here every week trying to talk to you,’ and he was like, ‘Well you weren’t here last week.’  He noticed.  They are paying attention when you think they aren’t, and that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, as well as for taking the time to build relationships and webs of support for her students with families and staff.
Yeah, that’s why I love Check & Connect.  You’re like, ‘Hey, this is going to take a while. And it needs to take a while!’ Some of the habits that these kids have formed and the family dynamic… it takes time to untangle all of that.  I just love that this program not only understands that it takes time but requires people to invest that time.  That’s why I just love it so much!

Related links:

Mentor Corner: Interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors

See more interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors in the Mentor Corner.


Photo of Jana HallasAbout the Author: Jana Hallas, M.Ed., is a project coordinator and member of the Check & Connect training team at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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