Mentorship – A Community-School Partnership

This past weekend I attended a parent engagement workshop (see my reflections here), and since then I have been thinking about an example that I provided where our Intermediate Student Success Teacher (ISST) is reaching out to local businesses to establish a program aimed at keeping our most at risk students engaged and committed to school.  Shelley Neill, our ISST, has spent the last several months researching and developing a program that will run in cycles throughout the year, targeting students who are at risk for a variety of reasons, including their own or family members’ mental health and/or substance abuse issues, learning disabilities and lack of success in school, behavioural concerns and a variety of other factors that mix and mingle to make school a more difficult place for these students to spend time.  The bottom line is that these kiddos are the ones that are most likely to consider dropping out prior to completing high school.  In a recent blog post on truancy, I blogged about the importance of a caring adult who will hold tight to our at risk students, through thick and thin, to keep them in school.  For many of our at risk students, Shelley is that person at our school.

The connections that she is establishing with local business owners, while a project in its early days, is one that I think will serve at least 2 purposes and one that I think holds the promise of many unexpected benefits.  To begin with, local businesses will have a connection to our school and will know more of our students as individuals.  My hope is that this will create an atmosphere of greater trust between the school and the businesses, some of which are less than 100 metres from our front door.  When our students are out and about beyond school hours, they may be seen in a more positive light.

The second positive of the project, and the one that is more immediately a benefit to our at risk students, is that the partnerships will provide opportunity for mentorship.  If Shelley is successful in matching students to businesses, there will be a human connection made, and imagine the impact of having a member of the community, previously a stranger, becoming another caring adult to advocate and support the students.  As students meet with and work with the business owners and community members, they will be learning the skills that they will need to undertake similar endeavours after their schooling.  It may be that for some of our at risk students, these mentoring relationships will give them the fuel they need to continue on with their schooling.

Ultimately, I believe that many of our at risk students feel that they are powerless to change their lives.  Shelley’s program will marry the business/community partnerships with an in school program aimed to encourage students to see themselves as agents of change within their own lives.  Her program, the result of several years of working with at risk students as well as research into current trends and practices, is rigorous and frank in its approach.  She tells students that she is going to “stick to you like a wet kleenex” to ensure that they are successful in the program.

While students will miss some in class time — a few hours per week — while working with Shelley, the benefit of their participation will spill over into their studies as they become more committed and engaged to making change for the better in their lives.  Also, with Shelley playing an integral role within our intermediate team, all staff members learn from her in her approach and dedication to our most vulnerable students.  I feel very hopeful and optimistic about the potential for real change as students work with community and business partners through this incredible program.  I’ll keep you posted ;o)

image  –  Steel Bridges cc by ilkerender
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Note:  I used the image of a sherpa carrying a heavy load because I think that as caring adults this is sometimes our role when working with students – carry the load so that the journey can continue.

a new looking glass

There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

–Lewis Carol “Through the Looking Glass”

This morning I spent a few hours imagining new possibilities with a group that included parents, school administrators, teachers and our interim Director of Education.  The “Building Relationships” event, co-hosted by the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils and Ottawa Carleton Immigration Services Organization, asked participants to focus their energy on identifying what is working really well to foster and recognize effective parent and community engagement in our public schools.  The approach, based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), assumes that every organization holds within itself the kernel of potential for positive change.  David Cooperider explains the generative and constructive nature of Appreciative Inquiry:

In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.

Appreciative Inquiry stands in stark contrast to traditional strategic planning where the focus is on the problem and the search for solutions.  Instead, with AI, the focus is on what is working really well and how we can create the conditions that will foster more of the positive.  AI asks us to leave behind our preoccupation with all that is wrong and bad within the organization and to direct our efforts towards recognizing the very best of our organization’s activities.

I first began to think through the AI lens when I was planning an event last spring.  The approach really appeals to me because I have witnessed and experienced the stress that comes with zooming in on the negative.  The typical problem-solving approach has, in the past, left me feeling powerless to change a situation because it feels too big, it seems to be external to me, or it doesn’t seem to have a solution.  Since shifting to an appreciative approach, I have seen how it opens space for new possibilities and I have felt empowered to make changes for the better, both in working with students, staff and parents.

The event this morning saw approximately 40 individuals “give up” their Saturday morning to be together to generate the beginning narrative of greater community and parent involvement in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  Participants were self-directed in leading, joining and leaving several conversations happening throughout the room.  As I moved from one conversation to another, I heard examples of projects and events happening throughout the District where parents and the community play an integral role and where the students benefit from the partnerships.  One of the sometimes overlooked perks of an AI approach is that once we begin discovering the best of what we are as an organization, the experience becomes truly productive and infectious:  We begin to imagine new possibilities that we might otherwise have missed or dismissed.  A few of the ideas shared during discussions included:

  • approaching the Ottawa Citizen about running a regular column dedicated to highlighting positive events and projects occurring throughout the District.
  • compiling a database of ideas and examples of partnerships between the school and the community
  • principals using synrevoice to send out weekly or monthly announcements of upcoming events and / or recent successes
  • opening schools in the evening to more community use
  • providing opportunities for students to teach technology skills to parents and community members
  • increasing the use of Multicultural Liaison Officers to help break down barriers to immigrant parents

As a wrap-up, our facilitator brought us back together as a whole group to share what we had taken away from the morning.  To me, the AI approach itself fosters greater engagement because it shifts from a view where we are looking externally at problems and searching for solutions to the recognition that we have within ourselves the ability to make a positive impact and bring about change for the better.  In short, it asks us to look into the looking glass first.  The seeds for several new partnerships were sown this morning and it will be interesting to witness the ripple effect as participants go back to their spheres of influence with a renewed commitment and a fresh perspective.

image “sunflowers”  CC by marcomagrini
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“I got this one”

What are the variables that play into student truancy?  I’m thinking about this because a colleague on twitter recently posted the following question:

Our classes need to be engaging but can School Admin support teachers with a program designed to encourage attendance? yes / no ..examples ?

via @sadone

I was confused at first and asked for clarification.

@sadone do u mean can admin design the program or support the teacher who designs the program?

via @shannoninottawa

And the response that got me thinking about the causes of truancy:

@shannoninottawa admin design a program to support student attendance

via @sadone

So, why do kids skip school?  I suppose that it depends on a number of things and the causes could be myriad, including the following:

  • Kids skip school when they have mental health and/or substance abuse issues that prevent them from functioning in a typical way.
  • Kids skip school when they are dealing with heavy issues at home, such as parents with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
  • Kids skip school when they encounter bullying there.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t experience success.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t see how it is relevant to their lives – both current and future.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t connect with an adult in the building who cares whether or not they are there.

I am sure that a quick scan of the research would provide several more causes for student truancy, but my point is that there are a number of possible reasons, each with its’ own logical antidote, but with one bottom line.  No incentive, no amount of coercion and no individual “program” will address the causes of truancy.  Appropriate academic and student success programming and partnerships with outside agencies can address mental health and substance abuse issues, bullying, lack of success and lack of engagement.  And all of those pieces must be put into place by a team, which definitely includes the administration.  However, the absolute bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is the connection with an adult in the building who is going to pledge to be “in the kid’s corner” regardless of how bumpy the road becomes.  No one individual in the school can design a discrete program to remedy truancy.  The causes are unique in their combination, manifestation and effect.  Before anything can happen to fix the situation though, one caring adult needs to say, “I got this one”.  I guess the question becomes:  Who will that be?  Who is in the best position to get to know the kid — to find out why he or she isn’t attending and to dig deep to make it better?  Regardless of who it is, this much I know:  It is as unique and individual a solution as the kiddo who isn’t walking through the door.

image “I wanna hold your hand” cc by franeau

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