We bring you the story of another passionate and impactful mentor who both coordinates their Check & Connect program and mentors students.
Ann Jones works with the Youth Educational Support Services (YESS) program in Granite School in Salt Lake City, Utah as a Check & Connect (C&C) coordinator and mentor. C&C is part of a statewide implementation effort working specifically with foster-care (85%) or adjudicated youth (15%) in the custody of the state of Utah. Ann has about 15 students on her caseload and supervises 4 other full-time C&C mentors, each with a caseload of 25-30 students.
Here are notes from an interview she was kind enough to offer.
How does your program get connected to the students you’ll be working with in C&C?
Ideally, before a child is enrolled in our school district (if they are in the custody of the state of Utah), we ask them to come in for a screening meeting to determine the best placement for them. But frequently we’ll get an [emergency] call from the school, which is not ideal because then we are coming in to put out fires rather being proactive and taking care of things before the child is registered in school. Another way is if a student is placed in custody during the school year, the school will let us know and we will immediately begin services with that child.
How long do you typically work with students?
There are some kids we will see 10 years, and other kids that will come and go and be with us for just a few weeks or a few months. That’s probably one of our challenges is how frequently, how transient, our foster-care and adjudicated kids are. I would say on average they stay with us for six months.
Can you tell me about what a “typical” day or week might look like for you?
I usually try to see elementary kids one day and secondary kids a different day because it is such a completely different skillset.
With the elementary kids we become really familiar with the teachers so they can give us a real pulse of what’s going on with that student. The teacher usually has something for us to do: “Would you like to read with him? Take him into the library? He’s really falling behind, can you go over his math facts with him?” So we’ll help them and then discuss how they are doing.
We set up goals with all of the kids, and we go over those goals and ask how they think they’re doing. We have a reward sheet with each student and they can earn rewards from us as they’re meeting their goals. I will go over goals that we set with about three or four students per day spending about an hour with each. And then I come to my office and that’s where all the background happens. I contact the teacher and say, “I noticed he’s still struggling with his times tables. What’s happening? How has his behavior been?” If it’s a child who has behavior problems, I’ll communicate with the principal or the special education staff and report that information back to the case workers. If I see anything that isn’t working [in terms of school success] for the child in their foster home, I can talk to the caseworker so they can address that with the foster parent. So about 50% of what we do is with the student and 50% is connecting all of the other things so that they’re all working together to help that student.
With the secondary students I’ll call them down to the office and I’ll pull up their grades on my iPad and we’ll go over what assignments they’re missing. If there are any, I’ll print out missing assignments for them to do. If they’re falling behind on anything I can contact the teacher immediately and say, “This student is really struggling in your class. It seems he’s not understanding this concept. Do you have any time you can sit down with him individually?” I just try to address whatever they need. Then I come back to my office, contact the caseworker, contact any teachers that need to be contacted, contact the foster parents and find out what’s going on. In addition we also attend court if we’re asked to, we attend all the child and family team meetings to make sure educational needs are being addressed and to get an overall view of the child. Again, about 50% of our time with the student and the rest of it is just making all of these connections so that the student can be successful.
Let me to share with you something that just happened yesterday. I went in to see one of my students over at the high school and I pulled up her grades and she had two Fs. I said, “I was in here last week and these were both Ds. Tell me what’s going on?” And she got big tears in her eyes and she said one of the girls in her group-home tried to commit suicide over the weekend. She said, “I don’t know why it’s affecting me this badly, but I am really struggling with this,” and then she pointed at my iPad and she said, “I don’t give a s*** about math right now.” I said, “Of course you don’t honey, let’s talk about what’s going in your life.” So often with foster kids there are so many other layers of stuff. You can be that person for them that is listening. “I know you still have to pass math and we will work on that, but I will listen to you, and I’m going to validate you, I’ll help you to navigate this.” I’m not her therapist, I’m not going to give her any great advice or anything, but I can say, “Would you like me to call your caseworker and have her set up a meeting with your therapist? Would you like me to talk to your math teacher and tell her that you have really had a rough weekend and if you can turn that assignment in late?” So I can’t fix anything but I can connect her to people who can. It’s like I tell my mentors: “We are a Warehouse. We are just the building and everybody comes and puts things in our building. We have case workers here, after-school tutoring, the school therapist, etc. We can pull [resources] off our shelves and help the students that we work with, but in and of ourselves, we are just a warehouse.”
How do you build intrinsic motivation with students who are facing such tremendous challenges?
One of the things that I think is really powerful is doing what we say we will do, right when say we will do it. Building that trust is something that we really emphasize, especially when we’re first meeting the students and trying to establish that relationship with them. When we say that we are going to do it, we’re going to do it, and not only are we going to do it, but we are going to do it quickly so that they can see that we are somebody to trust.
The other thing is that that they know “we know.” These kids are trying so hard to hide so much. They don’t want people to know they’re in foster care, or that their dad’s in prison, or that they’ve been sexually abused. They don’t want anyone to know any of this stuff. If we become a person that knows and can be trusted, that engenders a lot of trust. Once you establish that relationship then you can do all the other things. Then you can connect them, then you can encourage them. You can help them, but until that trust it is established, you’re just another adult that’s probably going to be gone in a month anyway.
Can you give an example of “immediately doing something” for them?
Sure. One of the mentors found out in the screen meeting that a new student was very shy. He had been moved around 8 times in the last 4 years, so he really wasn’t good at establishing friendships but really enjoyed basketball. She met him at the school when he registered and she had arranged for the student-body officers at the school to be there when he registered so that they could be the ones to show him where his classes were. After they showed him where his classes were she took him over and introduced him to the basketball coach and [the coach] invited him to start working out with the team. So there are things they will ask of you, but we can even do things for these kids without being asked to do it that establishes that trust. So now she is to him the person that is there and is trying to help him be successful. She listened to what his needs were. He’s doing so well right now! He’s only been in school a month-and-a-half, but he’s working out with the basketball team, he’s got friends. He came to us with a 0.6 GPA and right now he’s on track to pass every one of his classes.
Yesterday when [meeting with] one of my girls, things kept falling out of the bottom of her backpack. So I ran over to Walmart and bought her brand new backpack took it back over to her and said, “I noticed your backpack was falling apart. Will this help out?” We got the trust. Just doing something at the very beginning. We’ve got to look for ways to establish that trust to let them know we really truly are there for them.
What advice do you have for a new mentor?
I think the biggest advice I would give is this: Don’t ever measure your success by anybody else’s standards other than just that child’s. Sometimes we have expectations for the students that we work with that are just not reasonable. We have some students that are never going to pass all of their classes. There are some students that are never going to get above a C. There are other students that are struggling so much with home issues that just to get them to show up to school is a success. There are some students that are so detached that you can sit with them for an hour and they won’t say a word to you. So where some people would look at a student telling the mentor to ‘go F themselves’ as a failure, if that’s the first that we have heard out of the mouth of the student, that’s a success. If a kid gets all Fs and one D that might be a success. If a kid is attending half the time that might be a success. So we can’t judge our success on what it looks like on paper, we have to judge our success on: Have we taken them from point A to point B? Have we moved the ball down the field in any way? Have we made a positive difference in any way? That is what we should measure our success on. Not the world standards or the school standards but just what we know is success. If you’re showing up for these kids, if you’re fighting for them, if you’re in their corner, if you have even a drop of trust with this kid, you’re doing it right!
A big thank you to all of the work that Ms. Jones and her mentors are doing for the children of Utah, and for her taking the time to share her experiences with us. Keep up the good work!
Editor’s note: See more interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors in the Mentor Corner.
About 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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