This month for Mentor Corner we bring you an interview with another passionate and skillful Check & Connect mentor, Keima Davis. Ms. Davis has worked for Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina (CIS-Charlotte-Mecklenburg) on the Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership & Investment For Transformation) team. The Project L.I.F.T. team works in the Charlotte-Macklenburg Schools with a goal to change the way traditionally underserved students are educated, supported, and empowered to realize their full potential.
Ms. Davis is busy, to say the least. She has 50 at-risk students on her caseload at West Charlotte High School, 20 of whom are receiving Check & Connect. West Charlotte High has a population of almost 1,700 students — 98% are considered minorities and 86% are economically disadvantaged — and a graduation rate of 78% (up from 54% in 2011).
Here Ms. Davis shares her experiences and lessons learned as a Check & Connect mentor.
Tell me about your Check & Connect implementation.
I think Check & Connect has really provided a structure to what many site coordinators are already doing. It gives you a great focus point, a way to show your work and tell the story. We can look at the forms for a month and see, “I really did make a difference! I was able to do complete a home visit, a classroom observation and small group activity.” In a snapshot for one month for all of the hard work that you’re putting in. You can go through monthly and see the progression with grades and attendance, decrease in suspensions and referrals. It provides great guidance on how to use the data to make the most impact for a positive change with student and families.
How do you work with parents of Check & Connect students?
The cornerstone of the work that I do is parent engagement. Parents are your best ingredient to a successful student. My core belief is that all parents want their child to succeed. So regardless of the parent’s situation, I will treat him or her with the same respect as I would a parent that’s the president of the PTA. Just coming to the parents with respect and partnering with them and not telling them what needs to change, will yield success. I feel like I have great relationships with my parents. It can be challenging to get anywhere with the student if I don’t have a relationship with the family and that also includes the community.
The community is also critical in the growth of students and families. We partnered with the community and created a “No Skip Zone” campaign. Through this campaign we partnered with local businesses and encouraged them to post flyers that [encourage students to] be in class each day. Our goal as a school and community is to decrease truancy and increase the school’s average daily attendance which overall supports graduation.
How do you approach a parent and start building a relationship?
I always start out with my observation of what the student or parent is doing well, such as, “You know he’s doing really great in this subject,” “He’s a really great artist,” or “Thank you so much for making sure they have the school supplies that they need.” Then when I discuss the challenges I use ‘we,’ like a team. It’s not, “You need to…” it’s, “So we really need to work on attendance. What can I do to help you ensure your child arrives to school on time?” Or “What are some of the barriers you are facing? How can we decrease or eliminate those challenges?”
I try not to put the parent on the defensive with a judgmental or punitive tone. Parenting is a challenge I want to use my platform as a Site Coordinator to eliminate barriers, not create them. I use ‘we’ a lot because I want the parent to know it is a collaborative effort. I need the parent, the parent needs the school, and the school needs the parent and the community. Using motivational interviewing to get to the core issue and helping families to make healthy positive changes adds a therapeutic layer while encouraging parents to create goals.
When would you do a home visit?
A home visit can take place at various times throughout the year (new student enrollment, summer visits for incoming freshmen, or following a hospital stay for a student). I always prefer to prevent a fire than put to out one out. Home visits can often be utilized as a great preventative intervention or a way to re-engage families following a suspension or change in family dynamics. Through Check & Connect I am constantly reviewing data which is a great advantage to catch patterns with academics, attendance, or behaviors. With the constant check-ins you are able to pull the parent in before a small problem creates a major barrier for the student.
Do you schedule home visits with the parents or go unannounced?
It is a combination, depending on the situation, however most visits are scheduled. There are times when I may visit with a family unannounced. This can occur if I don’t have the correct address or a number has changed and the student has been absent for a few days. I may pop up with a supportive co-worker to verify the address and check in with the family to discuss supports needed to get back on track with attendance and grades.
Tell me about your meetings with students.
I try to start all check-ins with students by allowing them to talk about their world and any updates they would like to share. With high school students you don’t want to scare them off by immediately jumping into the data or talking about grades and their attendance. Each student I work with have identified short-term and long-term goals. When I discuss the data I encourage the student to assess how their current behaviors may be helping or hurting their goals. So instead of me saying, “You have to pass this class,” or “Your attendance in this class needs to improve,” I facilitate goal setting and decision-making with the student so they’re able to identify barriers and make changes they feel are necessary to help them reach their goal.
What role does data play in your work?
I always say numbers tell a story. If I see a student and I look at their previous year’s data and they have missed several days and failed several classes, I’ll ask, “Is there anything you wish you could change about your previous school year? What were your challenges last year?” And we’ll review and see if this was a challenge last year and what we can do this year to overcome that challenge. I’ll say, “Waking up every day on time was a challenge. What are some ways that we can overcome that? Do I need to get you an alarm clock? Or do you need a wake-up call in the morning? Is transportation an issue? Or stable housing?”
I can also use data to make positive changes for the student or push them towards setting and achieving new goals. If I have a student that had As or Bs in a course, I will recommend that student be placed in honors or AP classes to ensure they are challenged and reaching their full potential. A student that was able to maintain great attendance, I might match that student to an enrichment activity or encourage them to share helpful tips with other students to continue the momentum of positive decision-making and adding natural supports from the community.
I like to understand the data and look at the big picture to see what story it’s telling me.
Can you share a success story?
The students I have graduating this year… I think they are all success stories. A lot of them started out their freshman year very shaky: missing a lot of days from school and very unfocused. Most of the student this year are extremely focused, and have less than 10 days absent for the school year at this point in the year. Many of them passing with a C or above in their classes, they are really great role models for the underclassmen. Many of them are able to discuss their various plans after graduating high school with pride and excitement. They are just hopeful for the future, to know they have gotten this far and they are actually seeing the light now; that a high school diploma is important and having a plan for their future is even more critical for their growth and development. The great success is when a student sees and feels hope for their future and willing to make positive changes to get there.
How do you think they went from that shaky freshmen year to such a successful senior year?
It all goes back to parent, school, and community engagement. I have a great relationship with all of their parents. It took a lot of phone calls, a lot of checking in with the parents and students updating them about the grades, and cultivating the relationship. Consistency is critical to success through the up and downs with each student as it relates to educational or family challenges. I have remained focused on their education while showing compassion and empathy without excuses. Some students I have connected to part-time work which helped to provide extra money and increased their self-esteem and motivation to come to school. Exposure is also key — exposure to colleges, cultural events, or enrichment activities — to improving soft skills and providing the students with choices in life outside of their current living situation.
What advice would you give a new mentor?
Stay focused on the goals and use the data to your advantage and to guide your work for the school year. Pull in as many supports as possible from the school, student’s family, and community to ensure various parties are invested to maximize opportunities for growth and exposure for the student. You get more done when no one cares about who takes the credit. You can’t do it all alone. You need to pull as many supports as possible. Students and families are more resilient than we know, and they often can benefit more from someone showing compassion then someone trying to be a superhero.
Many thanks to Ms. Davis for sharing her stories with me and the work she is doing through Communities In Schools at West Charlotte. Keep up the great work!
Note: CIS-Charlotte-Mecklenburg is an affiliate with Communities In Schools of North Carolina (CISNC) and part of a statewide initiative to implement Check & Connect across North Carolina.
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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