This month’s Mentor Corner highlights the work of Krystal Ferguson and her school’s implementation of Check & Connect at Lewistown Junior High in central Montana. Krystal championed to get Check & Connect into her school and continues to stay committed to its successful impact as a mentor and as the coordinator, while also being an art and social studies teacher and a multi-tiered systems of support facilitator.
We thought it would be helpful to get a glimpse into her experience with planning and implementing in a rural middle school made up of 170 students and just 13 full-time teachers.
What were the driving factors for you to introduce Check & Connect to your school?
Our school was looking for interventions for behavior that worked well. As I researched options, this was my favorite of all of them. Believe it or not, there are not a lot of programs that can be easily implemented into a school. I really liked how the stages of implementation were broken into very simple and understandable steps. Implementation of Check & Connect wasn’t so overwhelming. And to be honest, I loved that Check & Connect [mentoring] was long-term. You have a two-year commitment and that relationship-building is long-lasting and affects students for the rest of their lives. Through my career I found that if I built a relationship in middle school that was strong, those students would come back to me, and come back to me. Even if they were in a tough situation, they’d ask for that guidance. I truly believe in that long-term support. As I’m getting my counseling degree, we know that relationship is the core of everything, just like the relationship is the core of Check & Connect. I really saw all the parallels and how it all worked together. My master’s thesis was on how to create communication and connections within a school to decrease dropout rates and keep kids in school. Check & Connect aligned perfectly with the goals in my research, which included better attendance, positive outcomes, and reduction in high-risk behavior.
How did you get your administrator to buy-in to Check & Connect?
My administrator is a try-anything type of administrator. He is amazing and very supportive. I first received a Check & Connect implementation manual and highlighted what I wanted to do and how it could look. He was then willing to implement the program and make adjustments so it could become spot on.
Where did you start with implementation?
We had previously built trackers to watch attendance because we knew attendance was a key indicator of dropout. And we were also checking in on behavior and grades, but we needed a way to collect all of the data, which we now do within Check & Connect. We then decided to start with two teachers who would serve as mentors. We built a time into advisory, like a homeroom in the beginning of the day. This is where we could meet one-on-one weekly with our mentees for the connect piece. We identified our students, while looking at data from our attendance tracking and utilizing teacher referrals. We began to meet with students for our one-on-one meetings and contacted parents. Additionally, we also created a Check & Connect mentoring class where we could bring all of the Check & Connect students together to do some [life-skills work]. The class includes skills-based learning, motivational interviewing for problem-solving, and cognitive behavioral approaches around routines. We meet with them once a week in their advisory to talk about their attendance, behavior, and grades, and we check-in with their parents, but then we also have this life-skills Check & Connect class where we support them at the end of each day.
How did you explain to your students that in Check & Connect they would meet weekly with a mentor in advisory and then attend the extra life-skills class every day?
At first, the kids, because they have to swap out an elective, thought “Are you kidding me?” I tell them I respect their concern, but Check & Connect is a time period to do whatever we can to help them be successful. I actually asked my students just yesterday how they would describe C&C. One shared, “I would much rather be here than any other class because I know you care and because I can be successful.” Our plan was to phase students out of the additional life-skills class but now they don’t want to leave. One student who has high anxiety found this class to be their time to regroup at the end of the day.
What has been your experience engaging families in their children’s education?
I think we all can get a little nervous [about reaching out to families], but our interactions with parents have been positive. I have found that parents often feel overwhelmed because they are seeing their student struggle and want help and support. I explain that I’m an advocate and an extra person that cares a lot about their student. I want to see their student succeed. I share that our goal is to make life at school easier for their student and for the parents. I ask them if they will let me work with their child and then ask them for anything that might help.
How do you find the time to work with families?
I have found that I want to call a parent and say: “Hey, your student that had 15 missing assignments for the last two quarters just had no missing assignments for 4 weeks!” I will even make a call during our mentor time so the student can be a part of that conversation.
You play a dual role as coordinator and mentor. Being able to see through both lenses, what advice would you give a mentor?
Remember the importance of the relationship, and that just being there, makes a world of difference. Don’t solve their problems for them. We need to give students life-long skills. If we support them in discovering and figuring out how to solve their own problems, they will be life-long problem-solvers.
What advice would you give a coordinator?
Communication, communication, communication. Check-in with your mentors, even if it’s for 5 minutes here and there. The other mentor and I try to sit down weekly as a team to check-in about our kids, figure out how we can support them as a whole, and bounce ideas around.
How has other school staff responded to Check & Connect?
We have seen some amazing success. Kids are coming to school more, having a connection, and smiling. Initially when we introduced Check & Connect, we got some push back from the teachers, but now some are noticing students are turning around. Some teachers are even asking some questions about the program. We are hoping some, even just one other staff, will see that something about this program is working and ask to know more about being a mentor.
Has anything surprised you?
I know Check & Connect is a long-term program so, I was surprised when just after a week, I saw some immediate results. I started to see one of my students, who went from being tardy 3-4 days a week and, after some brainstorming around solutions, has now been on time every day for the last 4 weeks.
And finally, what keeps you motivated?
Like for many teachers or others in education, it’s the students. Taking kids that are so disconnected, that have had something happen in their lives that makes school that much harder for them, and to see them think, understand, and feel respected is very motivating. The opportunity to change kids for their whole life is what motivates me. You are not working with the kids that are perfect all the time; you are working with the kids that just need one person to trust and ensure their success. So, of course, it would be the students.
Many thanks to Krystal for taking the time to share her experience and her work implementing Check & Connect. Thank you for the support of Lewistown Junior High and for investing in relationships and a connection for each of your students.
See more interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors in the Mentor Corner.
About the Author: Ann Romine is a member of the Check & Connect training team at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.
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