I recently interviewed Emma Dixon, an education specialist (aka Check & Connect mentor) at Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit serving 7,000 children in foster care statewide (see more about Treehouse’s implementation of Check & Connect). The organization has been implementing Check & Connect since 2013 to help foster youth graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers. Without a diploma and a plan for their future, these young people experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, early parenting and substance abuse when they leave care. Less than half of foster youth graduate. Treehouse is helping close the gap through its Graduation Success program, and Check & Connect is a big part of that success. I hope you enjoy learning about Emma’s work serving foster care youth as much as I did!
Given your work specifically with students in foster care, can you tell me what your job looks like?
Our overall goal is for youth in foster care to graduate at the same rate as their peers, and so as an Educational Specialist we’re working directly with the youth in the Graduation Success program. [I work with] 23 Check & Connect students at several middle and high schools in Central and South Seattle. We’re working with them at school and providing case-management-type services to get them to graduation and help ensure they have a plan for the future. We also advocate for the students, as needed, such as helping them get access to special education [services].
Do you work with students at school or after school?
Mostly I work with students at school and I tend to pull them out of elective periods in the school day. We also can meet students after school as needed; if they have an activity we can meet them there, or if they are meeting with their family. We also meet the students through the summer. In the summer we’re meeting the students where they are, whether it is at home or at summer school, and do some activity with them.
Can you tell me more about what your meetings in the summer look like?
You know it really varies based on what the student needs. For students who were credit-deficient at the end of the school year, we’re getting them connected to summer school programs and checking in about how that’s going. For those students it can look a lot like the work does in the school year. We also have the Little Wishes program — Treehouse provides funding for things like summer camps or summer activities — so we’re connecting with students about how that’s going. It’s also a good time to work on some of the pieces that are maybe less directly connected to school but definitely connected to overall engagement. There’s opportunities for college visits, for a job shadow, or doing work to prepare for some of those school-based skills and we have a little bit more flexibility. You’re not as tied to focusing on some of the issues that are happening right then, like lower grades or attendance issues. You have a little bit more free time to focus on the bigger goals that are connected to school.
For the family engagement piece of C&C, are you connecting to foster parents? Biological parents? What do family connections look like?
There’s a really wide range of experiences and family settings for students in foster care, so we work with whoever is their guardian. We connect with guardians at least once a month, usually more, and then we’ll connect with any other adults in the student’s life that makes sense for you to be talking to, to collaborate with on school goals.
How do you build a trusting relationship with a new student you are working with?
I think it’s about meeting the student where they’re at, so it looks pretty different for students, especially depending on their age. I work with kids that are 11 up to 18 or 19 so beginning a relationship with those ages can look pretty different. So getting to know them, being really upfront and clear about what your role is, what you’re there for. Students tend to have met a lot of different adults, so giving an explanation of the program and making it really about them. That’s the really great thing about the work we do is it’s really about what the student wants and what they want to work on. The goals we are focusing on with them are the things that they are choosing. Also explaining to them what different adults they might be involved with and who you might share different information about school with, and then going from there. Some students are right away open to the program and you drop right into working. Some take longer to build a relationship, but we’re definitely getting interested in things that they want, learning more about their interests. With some of the younger students it’s sometimes helpful to do “get-to-know-you” activities, different fun things like that, and connecting them to the other resources provided by Treehouse. Sometimes it can be helpful if they may have other adults at school that they work with, sometimes you can get helpful information to build a relationship that way.
Do you attend IEP meetings as part of your role?
Yes, we are usually on the IEP team for the student. So I’m providing some insight and advocacy. I also really like working with students on self-advocacy before those IEP meetings. If the student attends the meetings themselves, talking about what’s going to happen, what kind of questions they might be asked, what kind of things they might want to say. Those meetings can sometimes be intimidating.
If you see a need, how do you approach connecting students to other services?
You know I think it really varies. For instance, if the school has mental health counseling, you can make a referral to the guidance counselor, that can be a direct route. Or a lot of my schools have a media tutoring program and it’s really easy to refer students and get them on those lists. A lot of the students we work with are in foster care so they do have a social worker, so that’s another person you could connect with to make a referral to a different agency. Sometimes it’s just providing information about how to make a referral and then they’re able to do that themselves.
How do you work with students to set goals and build capacity is so that they are prepared to be self-sufficient after high school?
It’s important to first get to know students and get a gauge of where they’re at. Some students come in and have a lot of ideas about what they want to do with their future — they have a clear path — and you’re really just brainstorming and problem-solving some logistical things. Definitely we teach a lot of small goal-setting with students, especially the ones who are more reluctant or less inclined to do the long-term goal setting, even if it’s not directly related to school. I think it’s a practice and the experience of wanting something and working towards it, and [problem] solving when different things don’t work. So that can be small goals, like wanting to make a sports team, or do better in a very specific class, and really taking those small goals seriously. A lot of schools have college and career counselors or afterschool coordinators who can help them meet those goals, so we connect students to those resources too.
Can you talk more about self-advocacy and how you build some of those skills?
I think it’s practice. You can be talking with a student about grades, and they may be having trouble in a certain class, and part of it is they say they’re having an issue with the teacher and they don’t understand what she’s asking. You can role-model and literally practice what they might say, or maybe go with them to a meeting but not saying anything. I sat down with some middle school students and their teachers and I’ve just sort of been there as an extra person. And maybe it’s also setting them up for success, maybe talking to the teacher in advance, telling them, ‘They’re having a really hard time with this; they’d love to come talk to you.’ And that’s great because then if the experience of that goes really well then they can build some confidence in doing that in the future. Working your way up to some of those bigger things. I think it’s really important with all students, no matter how old they are, to give them a lot of choice in the process — really give them back that control and be as transparent as you can about things at school. That leads to greater self-advocacy because they are really involved.
How did you overcome working with a student who was very reluctant to deal with you?
Consistency and time. So if you keep saying you’re going to show up on Tuesdays at 10 o’clock, and you keep doing that and you’re consistent, I think it can go a long way. We have team consultations which are really helpful because different people approach things differently and sometimes when you are just completely stuck, someone else will have an idea that you just did not think of and you try that. You just have to respect students: they can have their own level of how much they are ready to share with you, how involved they want you to be, and you need to be really respectful of that. And give them the space to ask for different things. If things have been really challenging for a while, just calling it out, ‘It seems like these meetings aren’t working for you. What can I do?’ Centering in on them and letting them know they’re not going to hurt your feelings if they don’t like something you’re doing, and giving them the space to identify what would be helpful to them.
What is your definition of success? What does success look like to you?
The biggest thing is that the student is meeting their goals. We want success to be defined by however they defined that for themselves. The main purpose of the Graduation Success program is that high school graduation with a plan for the future, so that’s a big piece of how we measure success, reaching that high school graduation, no matter how many years it takes, and having a plan for the future — however the student defines it.
In your program you can keep working with students until the end of their first semester of college to help with that transition. What does your work look like with students who are now in post-secondary environments?
I have some students who graduated last year who are in their first semester at college and obviously our role looks a little bit different in that setting. At that point you’re working on their goals, navigating the college experience, and connecting them to resources at the college. We talk about managing a college workload and getting a job, some of those pieces that are more specific to life after high school.
How do you approach exiting those post-secondary students from your program?
I tend to be upfront with students about it starting at the end of high school. ‘We’re going to be working together until this time.’ I wouldn’t want that to be a surprise. And then at that point we’re usually not meeting every week. With some students we’ve done a lot of brainstorming around, ‘What are some things that might come up in the next year? Who would you talk to you about those things? Do you have the phone number of the agency that does housing and support? Who in your natural support system would you call to ask about this?’ Also, until they are 24 years old they can still access some of the other Treehouse programs, such as Little Wishes and The Warehouse for Clothing and Other Tangible Needs, so it’s making sure they feel connected to those options.
What advice would you give to a new mentor?
The biggest thing is that it’s OK if it all feels a little confusing at first. You’re doing all these different things. Just have some faith. You will build relationships with the students and the schools, and you will manage the different pieces. And for me, it’s been helpful to use my time management and organization skills. And then consistency is really important and follow through. So if you’re saying that you’re going to do something, it’s extremely important that you do your piece. And remember the goal that they set when you’re checking with them: have a system in place so you can remember their goal.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about the program?
It’s really student-centered: you’re meeting them where they’re at and figuring out what they need. With Check & Connect the goal is never to be mad at them, or make them feel like they’re in trouble for not coming to school, or getting in trouble for failing a class. The goal is always to be student-centered and strengths-based, and to really focus on how to problem-solve, and build them up to make those successes in the future and to focus on moving forward. I think that’s a different feeling than sometimes you’re getting from the school, understandably, because there are different obligations. We get to be a person who is just focused on problem-solving and always being on the student’s side and always being in their corner and their advocate, and I really appreciate that. I think it’s really great! It’s so much easier to build a relationship when you always get to be ‘that person.’ You always get to be a champion of the student. Even if you’re talking about some areas that need improvement, it’s from a space of you already think they’re awesome, here are some things you could do to help them meet the goals that they set for themselves, or the goal of graduating high school. It’s never criticizing them or coming down on them in anyway.
A big thank you to Emma Dixon and the amazing work that she does with the Seattle youth at Treehouse!
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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