Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reverting, Re-entering, Progressing

I’m worried – but still hopeful – about Jose. His in-school suspension turned into an out-of school suspension after he got into a fight with another student who was distracting him while he was trying to do his school work. There are two ways I view what happened. On the one hand, that Jose would actually be focusing on doing school work after getting suspended is a total 360 from last year. On the other hand, he reverted to his old behavior by letting the situation with the other student escalate into a physical fight.

Students on out-of-school suspensions are sent to Alternative Learning Centers (ALC). In Jose’s case he had a seven day suspension at an ALC. I worried a lot about him during this time, specifically that the ALC environment might provoke him to revert even further to his old aggressive and erratic behavior. While some ALCs are well managed and orderly, (and Partnership with Children works in several of these), others are mayhem. Unfortunately, Jose was in a more chaotic ALC.

The situation at the ALC was out of my control however. As a social worker I sometimes find myself in a circumstance where I have to accept that I can not control the situation or make it better in the future. In this case, I knew all I could do was plan to make Jose’s re-entry to our school smooth and to make sure he did not have any lingering anger issues from the suspension.

Bottom line, I want to see Jose succeed. We provide a supportive environment in our PACE group (for students that have been held back), but Jose has to eventually learn to handle himself without our support. Maybe I was swayed by the impressive advances he’s made in class and with his peers, and I lost sight of the fact that he is still a teenager working through his emotions and learning to control his behavior. How much can I expect him to grow in just a few months? I have to continue to praise and support him but also check my expectations.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Jose, our self-proclaimed valedictorian, who has shown so much growth this year, academically and emotionally, got suspended this week. He got a 5 day in-school suspension for being rude to a teacher and walking out of school. At first I was shocked, but I knew he would stumble at some point.

When I walked into the suspension room, or Accountability Studio as they call it, he was in the corner doing work. Normally suspended students run amok in the Studio, so, to see him working quietly in the corner showed me that he realizes he made a mistake, and he doesn’t want to fall behind in school.

This past week I dealt with more crisis than usual overall, and I think it has to do with the Thanksgiving holiday. For a lot of the children we work with, the holidays bring up all the tension, insecurity and anger they try to suppress. The holidays are stressful for kids in broken homes, living in poverty, or dealing with any types of issues with their families. This week that a lot of kids were on edge emotionally – even the smallest event could set them off. One girl had her hair pulled and ended up weeping in our office for an hour. On any regular weekday, she would have gotten over the situation a lot faster and with less emotion.

I also noticed this week that Jose was wearing a button of his uncle who was in a Puerto Rican motorcycle gang, and was killed. He used to wear the button last year, but stopped since September. I’m not sure why Jose started wearing it again this week, but I think perhaps it’s because of the holiday. He’s still not living with his mother, and this family-centered holiday must be difficult for him. His uncle is a male role model –albeit a negative one – and maybe he needs the thought of a male figure to help him get through the holidays without his mom, or dad.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Report Card

A quick and exciting update! I just found out that Jose got a 94% overall on his report card! At this time  last year his average was probably about 65-70%! He's feeling pretty proud right about now. In fact, he already has his heart set on being the school valedictorian.

I'm including a photo here from our recent after-school trip to the International Center of Photography. We paired up our kids with volunteers from Transatlantic Reinsurance, and took part in a digital photo program about self-portraiture. The kids loved it, and, even got to take home prints of their photos.

A Moving Success Story

I want to share this great success story from one of my colleagues working on Staten Island. I'm inspired to hear about the great job my co-workers are doing. We're making an impact, one child, one school, one borough at a time!

Carol, a shy twelve-year old student, and her family were living in extreme poverty. They had several recent immigrants from their village in Mexico staying in their small, basement level home on Staten Island. Her family lacked basic household items like clocks, and there was no structure and healthy boundaries in their relationships with one another. Carol was often made the scapegoat for the family’s problems. Her mother suspected that Carol was stealing some of the few possessions and food items they had at home. She forced Carol to take on parental responsibilities not appropriate for her age, including making her stay home from school for a month to watch over their guests to prevent theft, and to walk her younger siblings to school. Carol struggled socially and academically as a result of these issues.

A Partnership with Children social worker started meeting with Carol and put together an action plan to improve her school attendance and situation at home. She bought an alarm clock for Carol and helped her reorganize her morning routine. Our social worker also called Carol’s home each day to make sure she would attend school, and made frequent home visits to assess changes in the family’s relationships. She also helped Carol’s family by referring them to local food pantries.

Simultaneously she provided Carol with individual counseling to help strengthen Carol’s self-esteem. Before long, the shy young girl who lacked confidence started to reveal her more bubbly, extroverted side. She smiled and greeted Partnership with Children staff as she showed up to school, and was proud of her academic achievements. Carol’s grades improved, her attendance increased, and she developed positive relationships with her peers and family.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

That Triangle Thing

Food, water, air. These are the basics people need to survive. Then comes shelter and a means of income, then family and friends, and finally at the stage of self-actualization, we experience creativity, morality, and an ability to problem-solve. At least, this is according to The Hierarchy of Needs, a basic outline of what motivates humans to fulfill their needs, created by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. All social workers and psychology students learn about the "hierarchy".

In my job readiness class this week, I asked my students what they think they will need in order to succeed in life. While I wanted them to think about the basics, like paying rent and buying food, I wasn't thinking specifically about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. So, when Jose responded, "Do you mean that triangle thing?", I was speechless. I realized quickly what Jose was referring to. He had obviously learned about the Hierarchy of Needs in his high school psychology class. What shocked me for a moment was that he retained information from one class, and correlated it to the subject matter in another. This may not seem impressive, but in the context of Jose's life, and the fact that he failed the last school year, it's a clear indicator that he is making tremendous strides academically and personally.

Had we not created the overage kids class, and if we were not giving Jose individualized counseling and positive reinforcement, he would not be learning about basic psychology principals let alone thinking ahead to how he can achieve in a career and support himself financially. For me, Jose's reference to "that triangle thing" was one of those small moments that proves that social workers are conduits for change.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


You think Wall Street’s CEOs are under stress these days? Our kids start suffering from stress in early childhood, whether or not there is an economic downturn. The emotional pressure from stress builds in them over the years, compressing any emotional space they have for happiness and filling them instead with anxiety and anger.

Popular culture would have you believe childhood is carefree, filled with joy, free time to play with friends, and the comfort of having a stable home with two parents who love you unconditionally. That is the image presented by media: it is not the reality for many youth.

For the kids I serve as a Partnership with Children social worker, stress is an everyday emotion. It is the underlying emotion that provokes other pervasive feelings I help my kids cope with, like anger, depression and fear. What is causing all of this stress among inner-city children? I see a lot of it as being tied to poverty and the associated effects of poverty: living in low-income, dangerous neighborhoods; being itinerant or even homeless; having bad diets and sleep habits; experiencing parental discord and/or living in single parent homes; and other issues like substance abuse and gang violence.

Imagine trying to navigate your way through all of these issues as a young child. It is no wonder my kids show up to school already at the breaking point. The smallest things can set them off, like having a teacher who reminds them of a parent who they have lost or an adult who harmed them. Many of my kids also do not have relationships with their fathers - or, their fathers have been killed or incarcerated - and they are teased relentlessly by other students because of this. Their reactions are predictable: angry outbursts, physical fights, or skipping school altogether.

I feel I’m painting an overwhelmingly despondent and hopeless picture of life for poor, urban youth. But, to tie back into my first blog post, one of the most powerful things I have learned as a social worker is that children have an incredible ability to rebound from emotional and social trauma. In fact, I think they are much better at overcoming trauma than adults.

This is why you can see a young man like Jose go from nearly failing out of school to becoming a positive school leader, responsible young adult, innovative thinker and dedicated student. In fact, he even came up with the name for our Job Readiness group this year, and the name was so good none of the students voted for their own suggestions – everyone knew his was the best: Scholars on the Rise. And rising they are, to the task and challenges presented to them in school, in society, and in life.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Baseline of Trust

You’re looking into the face of a thirteen year old girl. She’s avoiding making eye contact and is staring at the floor with her arms crossed. She failed the last school year, and is now repeating eighth grade. Last week, her older brother was shot in a gang fight. She started skipping classes again, and is on probation. If you don’t intercede, she will most likely drop out of school.

It is just the two of you in the counseling session. How do you create a baseline of trust so that she’ll open up to you? This is a typical scenario that my social worker interns will face in their first one-on-one counseling sessions. Creating trust with our students - or “clients” as we refer to them - is the main objective in the first session.

The kids we work with have tumultuous lives and few people they feel they can trust. How do you connect with a child or adolescent who is experiencing severe emotional turmoil due issues like poverty, neglect, violence and/or is the victim of drug and alcohol abuse at home?

It sounds strange, but, it’s the small things that work best. For instance, always be on time for meetings you set up with a student. If you’re late, our kids will discredit you immediately. You said you would do something, and you didn’t do it, and now you are crossed off their list of people they will respect and open up to.

Then, there are trust-building games. I trained my social workers in this one called The Feeling/Talking/Doing Game. Sounds corny but, it sets up a framework for both the social worker and the child to talk about their feelings and experiences in different types of situations. The students are given 10 tokens to start off with, and those tokens can be used to buy items in the school bookstore or for snacks. There is a stack of cards and a board. Each card states something you must either say or do. For instance, a card could say “name a time when you felt frustrated”, or “sing your favorite song”. Essentially the actions are meant to put the children a little bit outside of their comfort zone in order to get them to start opening up emotionally.

Of course, they have the right not to do whatever is requested on the card they pick up. But, if they refuse, they lose one of their 10 tokens. It is up to them, but the incentive is obviously there for them to participate. The game helps social workers identify students’ vocabulary of feelings. Students may only be able to identify a few basic ones, like anger, happiness, and sadness. Throughout the game, the social workers try to discover the feelings that children most commonly experience. But we also help them develop an understanding of many others types of emotions, like ambivalence, exhaustion, contentedness, etc. Students may never have heard of these types of emotions before, so we are helping them to understand themselves and their many different emotions in a more complex way.

In turn, the social workers can use game-playing as an opportunity to find ways to relate back to the child, to show that they have shared certain experiences and feelings. After, I regroup with the interns and we talk about the feelings that the students identified. If they are seeing that certain students are predominantly feeling anger for example, then we devise means for working on anger management with the student. And, with our kids, anger is the predominant emotion.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Stepping Up and Breaking Through

Jose is in high school! He was one out of five students selected to take high school freshman level psychology classes as part of a program with PACE. Every day during 8th period he and four other students take the bus over to the high school. Last year during 8th period he was either wandering the hallways or not in school at all. Needless to say this is a huge accomplishment for Jose. He’s loving it and totally stepping up to the plate.

I’ve been holding off from asking him about his mom. For one thing, and this is one of the challenges of my job, I can’t do intensive therapy with students. I also don’t want to open a Pandora’s Box at a time when he’s excelling so much. I don’t want to dig up the emotional turmoil he is managing to cope with right now.

Part of why he’s doing better this year, besides the fact that his mother’s health is stabilized, is that he’s still living with his aunt. Jose was fighting with his mom’s boyfriend so much last year that he started staying out all night. He was finally moved to his aunt’s house and she actually has legal custody of him now. She is 23 years old, a mother of three, works full-time and goes to school at night. I thought I was juggling a lot! She literally gives us hugs she is so happy to see Jose’s improvements. It is good to know he is in a stable home environment with a positive role model. But, I also know his aunt is overwhelmed with responsibilities and has limited time for Jose. For now at least he’s keeping himself on track, and if and when he shows signs of slipping, I know his aunt will do all she can to help us keep him focused on graduating.

The main challenge I am facing now in class is finding a way to break through to a group of girls who are feeding off each other’s apathy. They are struggling to keep up with the class academically. It’s a combination of weak skill sets and a lack of interest. They are already on probation. If they do not improve they will be asked to leave our class, and most likely that means they will be held back another year or drop out altogether. I have to break through the apathetic wall they have up. Each one of them has to have some interest, something that I can use to get them reinvested in school. I know one likes to write, so I signed her up for our newspaper group. Hopefully by my next blog post I’ll have “cracked the codes” of the others. Stay posted.

We also hooked up with Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentoring program. Every week five of our kids will travel to this one company’s offices to meet with their mentors. They’ll take part in workshops on everything from drugs to college preparedness. This was the missing piece of our program. We wanted our kids to do something outside of the schools, and Big Brothers, Big Sisters is perfect program for us.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Uniforms, Introductions, and Rewards

It’s been an incredible week. Every single kid in our “overage” class showed up, each day, in full uniform. It may not seem like a big deal, but for me it’s clearly a huge gesture of respect and determination from this group. It’s a sign that I succeeded in breaking through to these kids on a personal level, that I tapped into their sense of hope and got them to buy-in to Open Heart-Open Mind’s program. On some level, I ignited their desire to change their lives.

Jose in particular blew me away. He’s not turning a new leaf – he’s just being his true self - a young gentleman, a strong leader, a determined and hardworking person. I knew last year this was his real nature, and that all the angry behavior and blowing off school were effects of his stress. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t worry that he’d still end up in jail, despite the counseling. Luckily his arrest this summer sparked him to do some serious reflection on his life, and now he’s determined to graduate from middle school.

Its clear to me he’s not going to let anything get in the way of reaching this goal. He’s already emerged as a class leader, keeping the other kids in check. He even spoke to a few on his own that were showing disrespect, telling them that they need to take the class seriously or they will ruin this opportunity for everyone else. Jose also took it upon himself to walk right up to our new interns who were sitting in the school cafeteria during lunch. He stretched out his hand, looked them in the eyes, and introduced himself, following up with “Pleasure to meet you”. Amazing. I’ve never seen him or any other student I’ve worked with behave this way.

I can’t put into words how rewarding, and nerve-wracking this is. Now that I’ve got Jose and the other students to buy-in, I need to deliver. I need the steps I’ve laid out for them to graduate from middle school to actually work and I’ve got to keep them engaged even when they stumble, face hurdles, and feel the sting of disappointments.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Overage Kids"

“Overage kids”. The term sounds like an oxymoron. In social work speak, it means kids who have been held back in school. Sixty percent of the students in my school are overage! The big unknown for me this year is how Partnership with Children is going to play out in a new program designed to help twenty overage kids in the school. It’s a first for me and the school to have a curriculum and class solely dedicated to these kids.

Over the last year we applied for a Middle School Betterment Grant to fund the program. A lot rides on it– either we’re going to succeed in bringing the kids up to speed, or they’ll lag further behind and most likely drop out, which statistically speaking means they’ll face higher chances for incarceration.

There’s a stigma - a sense of shame - for overage kids. They’re outcasts. Literally on the “margins”, they talk back to teachers who’ve given up on them out of frustration, and allow them to walk out of class and spend most of their time wandering hallways. Graduating from high school looks to them (and, their parents and some teachers) like a distant if not unattainable goal.

These kids are struggling academically because of social and emotional turmoil in their lives, and without the support of their parents, teachers, and school administrators, they fail their classes and get held back, sometimes for a few years in a row. Take Jose (not real name) for example. I worked with him last year, during a time when he was dealing with personal issues that any adult would find stressful.

His mother was so ill “Jose” had to serve as her caretaker. The roles between parent and child were completely reversed. He had to feed, bath, and dress her. His parents split up long ago. His mother’s illness was probably contracted from his drug-using father. All this was happening against a backdrop of drug use and gang violence in his neighborhood. When he came to school, he could not handle adult authority, particularly his female teachers. He cursed at teachers, failed tests, got into fights. At the same time, he’s this totally charismatic, intelligent young man.

Since he failed last year, “Jose” is now an overage student. It sounds bleak, but I see two options for him – either our program is going to help him turn his life around or he’s going to drop out and end up in jail. He was already arrested this summer. Right now, he’s at the fork in the road, and I’m the sign. I can help point him in either direction. Getting arrested this summer was his wake up call. He knows he’s been tossing his life away.

Is “Jose” going to turn things around and graduate from school or is this a short-lived enthusiasm that is only going to set him, and me, up for disappointment and failure? That’s what I’m waking up thinking about every day. And he’s just one out of twenty kids in the program.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Close the Achievement Gap

Join the Cause to close the achievement gap between New York City's at-risk students and their peers.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

First Day of School!

Today was the first day of the school year. I’ve been a social worker for Partnership with Children for several years, and still I feel excited and anxious the first day of school. I woke up before my alarm rang at 6.30, got ready fast and hopped on the train uptown, and made it into school before the rest of my staff.
What most filled me with anticipation though was wondering about the children I will work with this year. It seems insurmountable at times the hurdles children in the inner-city have to overcome just to survive. Name an issue, they’ve faced it. Violence at home, on the streets, homelessness, drug abuse, practically from day one in their lives. Pressures and trauma come at them from all sides. One thing I do know is that children have this incredible ability to rebound. I love being a social worker - despite the pressures and stress of the job – because I know that kids can overcome almost any challenge.
A kid who was on the verge of getting suspended for getting into fights, skipping school and not doing his school work, suddenly finds out after working in our leadership group, that he likes being a team leader. He starts showing up for school every day, doing his homework, and using the positive leadership skills we’ve taught him to not only avoid getting into fights himself, but also to resolve other kids’ conflicts. That’s one kid I’ve kept in school and away from gangs and violence. That’s what keeps me committed to social work. I wake up and I know I’m going to change lives. To me, that’s the real bonus.