At Risk Kids: Wrap Around Services for Troubled Folk

Summary: The work of one non-profit and one Seattle Schools program showcase the intensive human support of at risk kids needed to bring those troubled kids along into the academically successful mainstream.

Fine hors d’oeurves and good wine greeted us at the door of the downtown Seattle financial institution, Northern Trust, one evening recently, courtesy of restaurateur Tom Douglas. Inside, the conversation was not about finances or the culinary contributions of an elite world, but about the welfare of foster care kids in King County.  All present, financiers and chefs, social workers and donors, were focused on bringing to high school completion, college and beyond, the many foster kids in the county at high risk of dropout and ensuing marginal lives.

My wife and I had been invited by the folks of the nonprofit foster support organization, Treehouse. The event was their bash as a connector of those who have supported their services and those who work with the organization, both within and without, and for all hands as an update on some of the current nuts and bolts work of Treehouse.

On the panel that focused the event were individuals who worked directly with foster kids in Seattle, all with direct or indirect Treehouse connection. A couple were “Educational Specialists,” young professionals employed by Treehouse whose daily mission it was to make consistent contact in school with a caseload of perhaps 25-30 foster kids, and facilitate them through the various crises and discouragements kids down on their luck are prone to. Nineteen such workers focus on foster kids in schools countywide, about 400 kids at most recent count, but a number projected to grow toward 500.

Another panel member was formally a Seattle Schools counselor, dubbed a “Check and Connect Mentor” by Treehouse, whose salary was funded part time by Treehouse in order to provide a point person inside the school membrane to work foster kid issues. Twenty similarly funded and tasked colleagues populate other schools in King County.

Others on the panel were social workers tracking caseloads from the state foster apparatus.

All workers assigned to each kid have regular conversations with one another, toward resolution of problems large and small that cropped up in specific lives, whether of a school nature, or in life outside of school.

One Treehouse goal is to improve the on time graduation rate from high school of local foster kids from the currently dismal 35%. For all the angst about the graduation rate of low income kids, or African American or Latino or Native American kids, this group rate is the most deplorable, and no wonder. It is the group that has faced the most relentless barrage of slings and arrows that society can toss at our young ones, and still be trudging along.

Treehouse provides foster kids the proverbial “wraparound” support, from school clothing to supplies to counseling, and the like, though to my taste the human intensive support of the Educational Specialists and the Check and Connect Mentors, both whom make very regular contact with each kid, is the most critical. Think about it, you are a kid scared and feeling alone in the world, when out of the blue appears someone also youthful who represents some power and expertise in your corner. And, yeah, it’s nice to have nice clothes (from Treehouse’s own kid store), so you don’t stand out…..

The point will be not only that organizations like Treehouse are doing yeoman service in what can seem a quixotic quest, but that the kind of comprehensive services they provide is what it will take to salve the wounds of their clientele, and to empower the kids’ own natural resilience to the point where they can one day take full command of their own lives.

BUT. This kind of advocacy and comprehensive service does not come cheaply, whether in non-profit sector hands such as those of Treehouse, or in the public sector hands of schools – just more cheaply than the alternative cost to society of incarceration or a lifetime of welfare for a foster kid who doesn’t reach independently successful trajectory.

I feel like a broken record. With this tale of the heavily impacted foster population and the importance of comprehensive services such as those offered by Treehouse, I do not mean to diminish the importance in the work with school kids of improved instruction, or of the use of technology, or of a number of the other experiments ongoing in schools around the country, whether these be from federal, state, or local impetus.

But the improvement in kids’ lives and in their academic advancement is primarily a people business. It will take more people to develop on-going relationships with struggling kids, whether low income, or abused, or of divorce, or of African American, Latino, or Native American heritage, or maybe simply boys.

The panel discussion the other night, which tracked the complex interweave of interactions that the state social workers and the educational specialists have with their charges and with other school personnel laid down the same theme in spades. The foster kids involved have financial angels of the likes of Northern Trust and Tom Douglas, but many at risk kids do not fit into the foster category, and so are not supported in a similar fashion.

Too much of formal school reform too little allows the kind of human enfolding that Treehouse manages, because the money simply ain’t being funded while battles over taxation and size of government rage on. Sometimes it feels a little as though the politicians fiddle while Rome burns.

Fortunately in the microcosm the public sector has some spunk. Some of that pluck affirms the themes of the Treehouse effort. In one such example, the use of City Year Americorps members by the Seattle Schools to get chronically absent kids to school more regularly is the subject of the Seattle Times’ “Education Lab” piece by Claudia Rowe, “Attendance Counts.”

The Rowe article and the use of City Year workers have been inspired by the work of Robert Balfanz, a researcher out of Johns Hopkins University.

Balfanz studies at risk youth and schools, and in particular looks at linkages between school attendance and graduation rates. As he phrased it in a recent op ed piece in the Seattle Times, research “shows that chronic absence is a strong predictor of who will eventually drop out of school. And the problem starts early. One study estimated that one in ten of the nation’s kindergarten and first-grade students (is) chronically absent.”

Whether in Seattle or nationwide, the most intransigent of deflated test scores are those in mathematics. Think closely – math is a sequential exercise in many dimensions. What comes later builds directly upon what has been mastered before-hand. A student who misses one day of school is immediately behind the eight ball for the next day of math instruction. What looms as a one day problem expands rapidly for a student who misses a day a week, for example. Keep that same kid in class more regularly and his chances of mastering the concepts presented become greater.

Parenthetically, in a classroom where on average three or four students are absent, and those absent vary from day to day, all of whom miss instruction, and one starts to understand by this simple equation the enormity of the task facing math teachers who chase those ever elusive math goals posed by the No Child Left Behind legislation, let alone their own standards.

According to the Rowe EdLab report, in response to the conclusiveness of the research, Balfanz started Diplomas Now, which uses the power of relationships young college graduates can generate with school age kids to lure them to school and involved with their studies on a consistent basis. In Seattle, and in particular at Aki Kurose Middle School and Denny International Middle School, these human connectors come from City Year, an arm of Americorps.

Each City Year worker tracks ten kids with chronic attendance problems. Twenty are assigned to each school, which provides a glimpse at the dimensions of the attendance issue. As the program became ongoing, at Aki Melrose student attendance showed dramatic improvement in the first year and has continued to improve. At Denny, the effort has contributed to an eighteen point rise in eighth grade math scores.

The human interest angle in Rowe’s reportage is even more compelling. She briefly relates the story of one eighth grade boy from a large family who just plain thought no one cared about his attendance until his City Year mentor started inquiring and building rapport. Now he shows up at school because the mentor “is waiting for me.”

Read these stories.

I cannot help but draw a parallel between these modern day pied pipers and their predecessors (not spiritual analogues!), the old time truant officer, decidedly a more intimidating worker who had the same portfolio, but whose work was more based in fear of authority than in the power of relationship, probably a tale of two very different eras.

Truant Officers were well on their way out by the time I began my teaching career in the Boston Schools. While the technique leaves something to be desired from a contemporary point of view, the importance of attendance was well grasped in that old school perspective.

The City Year, Diplomas Now initiative is a relatively low budget program that makes creative use of the federally funded Americorps program to target a very large problem, but simple in its impact on academic growth. While it is convenient for Seattle Schools to tap into federal money, ultimately the takeaway is that innovative efforts supportive of classroom instruction have a huge role to play in whether or not even enhanced classroom instruction has a chance to meet its targeted learning.

Without these types of supportive efforts, whether for the complexity of struggles foster kids face and which Treehouse engages, or for the chronicity of absence that City Year workers encounter, it seems clear to me we simply will not meet our unifying goal of reform of our kids’ education, so entrenched are the problems of poverty and the weights of history that burden the work.

That such scaffolding will cost money at a time when legislatures, federal and state, have a firm hand on their respective wallets can be demoralizing. Despite such roadblocks, I would not be the first to comment on the vitality emerging at the local level in educational issues. Treehouse and the City Year initiative are two such examples.



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3 Responses to At Risk Kids: Wrap Around Services for Troubled Folk

  1. Deb says:

    Interesting. My colleagues and I were just reading an article about raising a helpless generation, one that does not learn to manage in failure thus experiencing several failed marriages and jobs in their lifetime.

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