Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holiday Cheer

What a fantastic holiday season at Partnership with Children!
Every December we collect gifts and warm clothing for our neediest families. This year we received an over abundance of gifts for every age group. Through the TODAY Show’s Charitable Gift Drive we received gifts from Hasbro and Gymboree among others, as well as from companies that ran their own drives including New York Life, Bloomberg and Prudential. We had little space left in our office with all the boxes and bags of toys and clothing stacked up everywhere, but we still managed to squeeze in teams of volunteers from Bloomberg, Starwood Hotels, High Water Women, and other individuals to wrap up the gifts before we delivered them to the families.

Despite all the lifting, lugging, and stacking involved in the gift drive, at the end of the days it's incredible to involve other New Yorkers in helping Partnership with Children's students.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Site Visit

Great news! We jumped from 40% attendance in September to 90% attendance in October. All of our efforts are paying off. We also had a fantastic visit from a potential board member. Following the protocol for our “site visits” he came with our Directors and met our staff and a group of our students. It was surprising and wonderful to witness the students opening up to someone they had never met before. During the conversation our Associate Executive Director asked the kids why they had previously skipped school. One student answered that he felt bad about his low grades in school and rather than confronting his negative feelings about his performance in class, he choose to skip school altogether. His answer was so self-reflective and honest for a young adolescent! The potential board member also spoke about his previous struggles in school, and the students really responded to his openness.

Most of all I think what allowed the students to share so freely during the site visit is the fact that they have such an honest and caring rapport with me and my team of social workers. The students know we care about their well-being and attendance and that we want to know about any issues that impact them emotionally. One student even said during the site visit “I have never had people care about me, about my life, and how I am doing in school before Partnership with Children.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Training, Observing, and Believing

The majority of my time at present is divided between training my interns (who are all in the first semester of their social work master's programs) and working with school leaders to collaborate on driving attendance rates up among chronically absent students. I want to instill in my social work interns a belief that people can change, because from my viewpoint you need this belief to be a motivated, effective social worker. Since I trained as a community organizer as well as a social worker I also know that observing neighborhoods can offer a lot of information about the different economic and social needs of communities. So I want to have my interns also start using this approach, by observing the specific culture of our school and the Lower East Side, as well as the students' family dynamics. It is still early in the school year and I am new to the Lower East Side, but I can see already the key factors impacting our students: poverty, lack of parental involvement, parentifying of children (a situation in which children and youth take on the role of caregivers), and teenage pregnancy.

On another note we had several students achieve 100% attendance in October! We created certificates acknowledging their attendance which will be awarded to the students at a school-wide assembly. These seemingly small efforts go a long way in improving students self-confidence and belief in the value of education.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Putting an End to Bullying

This week was the start of national Bullying Awareness month. The media is filled with stories about recent tragic cases in which children, teens and even a college student have taken their lives as a result of bullying. I want to write a little about it because bullying is an issue that comes up again and again in my work. From my viewpoint if unaddressed bullying can have a far-reaching impact on a person’s life.

In my peer mediation/conflict resolution counseling group we help kids work on controlling their anger and avoiding conflicts and of course bullying comes up a lot in this dialogue.

Just last week I was called into a class for a crisis intervention which ended up relating to bullying. A female student slapped another student and I was brought in to speak with her individually to find out her side of the story. The first thing she said was “Miss, I can’t help it. I was born like this.”

"No one is just born like this. Something must have happened beforehand,” I said to her. She started sobbing. Through the sobs she told me how the girl she had hit bullied her relentlessly throughout middle school and now that they were in high school she had to be tough and “fight back”. I let her know how much I respected her for telling me about the bullying because I knew it was difficult to speak about. I’m actually already planning to counsel this student to get her attendance up, but we’ll also speak about bulling since I can see now this is something that is impacting her behavior and most likely was a cause of her low attendance and subsequently her poor academic performance too.

This just goes to show how bullying can impact a person if unaddressed. A victim can act out in a violent incident, become a bully herself or get so depressed she takes her life. I think we’ve got to teach kids to have more empathy for each other and a sense of responsibility for their behavior in order stop bullying and no longer look at it as a normal part of growing up.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Every Student. Every Day.

Last Wednesday I felt like a freshman, tense and excited, as I started work at a high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The principal is new, charismatic and happy to have Partnership with Children working in the school. The main objective of my work and the reason the agency is in the school is to raise attendance levels as part of a broader initiative by Mayor Bloomberg called “Every Student. Every Day.” It is no wonder the Mayor is resolute to raise attendance levels. Nearly 20 percent of all New York City school students missed one month of school or more last year. Research shows that three out of four students who are severely or chronically absent in the sixth grade never graduate from high school. (Read about "Every Student. Every Day.")

You might wonder why a school in the Lower East Side would be chosen for the attendance initiative. The neighborhood to some is a beacon of gentrification with its condos, boutiques and wine bars. But there are still pockets of poverty, drugs, gang activity, and family discord which reflect that area’s grittier past. It is the population effected by such issues that makes up my school's student body and community.

Absenteeism rates are highest in low-income neighborhoods. Disregard for education is a deeply entrenched problem in such poor, urban areas and one that carries over from generation to generation. Parents who had bad experiences in school (often the same schools their children are later enrolled in) transfer to their children their own mistrust of education, along with a belief that graduating high school and college is not necessary for personal growth. While adolescents are loathe to admit it they often reflect their parents values. I was not surprised then to find myself, the very first day of school, on the phone calling parents to track down missing students. As a social worker I hope I can help break this cycle of hopelessness that renders school irrelevant for so many youth.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Truant to Scholar: A Great Success Story!

I love hearing student success stories from my colleagues, and I just had to share this particular one with you! It shows how when Partnership with Children steps into a struggling child's life, we can help that young person transform and succeed. Enjoy!

Kevin: A Success Story
Disrupting classes and skipping school were daily occurrences for Kevin as a repeating seventh grade student in the Bronx. He was angry for having been held back and took his anger out on his teachers by behaving disrespectfully to them. He also got into serious physical fights outside of school. Kevin was on track to fail seventh grade for a second time when Partnership with Children entered into his life.

Partnership with Children's social worker started counseling Kevin and enabled him to reflect on how his decisions impacted his life. As part of this process Kevin acknowledged that his choice of friends played a critical role in his negative behavior and poor academic performance. As he started building trust for his social worker, he also revealed that he aspired to become a processional basketball player. Using this aspiration as a means to motivate Kevin, his social worker developed a plan that re-focused Kevin on academics and encouraged him to seek out more positive peers. As an incentive, Kevin was allowed to participate in an after-school sports program, contingent on his academic performance.

Kevin's grades and attendance improved dramatically as a result. Mid-way through the school year he was promoted to eighth grade, and he is now graduating with the rest of the eighth grade class in June. Adding to this great accomplishment is the wonderful news that Kevin has received scholarship offers from two private high schools to join their basketball teams and pursue his academic studies. Congratulations Kevin!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Graduation is right around the corner. For some of my kids graduating means success, completion, celebration and achievement. For others it represents fear, loss and anxiety.

What they all share in common however is leaving the comfort zone of a school they attended for several years with a supportive team of Partnership with Children social workers. Many of New York City’s high schools are large - much larger than our middle school. The social environment at high schools, especially in tough neighborhoods, can also be intimidating. Big classes and limited support from guidance counselors who are stretched thin serving hundreds of kids do not make the transition to high school any easier.

As with so many situations I face as a social worker, there are limitations on how much I can help the children I work with. I can’t walk them through the process of entering high school. Instead I have to prepare them with skills and knowledge. My role is to teach them how to cope with the challenges of entering a new school. What exactly does it mean to transition successfully into a new school? It means making new friends who have a positive influence on you, staying away from those students who are negative leaders, avoiding fights, and of course focusing academically. These may be high expectations for adolescents growing up in tough neighborhoods with tumultuous personal lives, but by showing them I hold these expectations of them I am also expressing that I have confidence in them to meet the challenge.

The truth is that transitions are not any easier for adults. While I am busy prepping my kids to graduate and enter new schools, I also have to ready myself to let go of them. Even after years as a social worker I still have a difficult time resolving the attachment I build for my students. Will I continue to think about them? Yes, definitely. But I have to compartmentalize in order to survive emotionally in my profession and understand and accept the limitations that go along with the incredible rewards of my work.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Loss & Absence

Jose’s mother passed away last weekend. Outwardly he’s coping well but I know he’s a time-bomb. Jose hasn’t expressed his emotions about the loss of his mother yet, but I can speculate that they include a potent mix of abandonment, anger, relief, anxiety, and a sense of being lost in the world.

My greatest fear is that when Jose does finally release his pent up emotions he’ll do so in an explosion of angry outbursts that will land him in trouble at school or even with the law. The fact that the school year is nearly over compounds my fears. As long as Jose is in school, I know I can work with him and help him through the grieving process. Once he graduates however, (which I expect he will despite his suspensions), I will have less control over how much time I can spend with him.

Adding to my concerns about Jose was a disappointing series of events with Michael following my breakthrough conversation with him ahead of the State Math exams. We met for a tutoring session to help prepare Michael for the exam, but both walked away feeling frustrated. I realized Michael was too far behind in his math skills to pass, and that I was ill-equipped to tutor him. Michael’s low tolerance for feeling frustration did not help matters. I ended up coaching him more on  test-taking techniques than on math. The tutoring session clearly did not help Michael the way I hoped it would. After skipping school the day of the exam, he showed up for the make-up test but left after only ten minutes. He has not been back to school since. The hardest part of this situation is that Michael is not technically part of Partnership with Children’s program. My hope is that he will start coming to school again so I can reach out to him and find out more about what his plans are for the future.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Simple Equation

Despite all the counseling, outreach, curricula development and trainings I do as a social worker, sometimes it is an unplanned moment that allows me to make the best breakthrough with a troubled child. That is exactly what happened last week with Michael, a 15 year old student in my school. I don’t know a lot about him, nor do any other staff or administrators at our school. What we do know is that he missed over half of the last school year, and his parents are totally unresponsive to outreach. However, I have had a feeling since I first met Michael that behind his seemingly intractable outer shell, he is intelligent, vulnerable and kind. I got a chance to validate my intuition about him last week.

On Monday the State English Language Arts  exams were administered citywide and Michael took his in Partnership with Children’s class room. He finished early, but had to stay in the room until the period was over. He started asking me about the tattoos on my arms. It wasn’t the first time - he has been interested in my tattoos since he started at the school, probably because he has a large one of his own, also on his arm. I told him about the meaning of mine, and then asked about his. As I suspected he got his done by a non-professional in the projects where he lives. Needless to say I encouraged him to be safe and warned about the dangers of using unclean needles.

I brought the conversation back to school by asking if he was nervous for the upcoming State math exam. What he said next struck me as a metaphor for his life, though he didn’t realize it. “I hate math” he said. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Because, you can do everything right, and then if you do one part wrong, the whole thing turns out to be wrong. Then your teacher thinks you’re stupid. I’m not stupid," he answered. “And I hate my math teacher.” His statements reflect his life experiences. He can try to be good and to do well in school, but he feels if he slips up and makes a mistake, he will automatically be labeled as being a bad kid, lazy and unintelligent by the adults in his life.

I told him I could relate to his feelings because I also disliked math when I was in school. “But,” I told him, “I never let my teachers win. I asked other people to help me, and ended up doing pretty good in class.” By using the terms of winning and losing I knew I would appeal to his ego. I also revealed to him that even I, an adult and “teacher”, could be vulnerable too.

But the best part of the day came later: after classes were released, Michael came back to Partnership’s room and knocked on the door. I opened it, and Michael asked “Do you think you could help me with my math?” I don’t know if I was surprised in that moment – I think it was more that I was overwhelmed by a sense of success. I had made a breakthrough with Michael. You have to see that in the context of Michael’s life, to open up even a little bit to an adult, no less a “teacher” like me, takes a lot of courage, and to then ask for help takes even more. He’s showing that he needs someone else, that he is not the tough, self-reliant street kid he makes himself out to be. I can’t orchestrate these moments, but I live for them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Turning Point

This week marked a turning point for Jose. He made a conscious decision to steer himself away from conflict. The scenario that provoked him wasn’t unusual: he came to school and another student “started with him”. For many inner-city school children fighting is a means of boosting their self-confidence. They are often told at home or at school that they are not good, not smart, not hard working. By winning fights, they get respect. Parents also expect their children to win fights – and punish them verbally and physically if they lose.

In this social context, for Jose to avoid a fight was huge. He also sought out my staff for help. Together we came up with a plan to have Jose “shadow” his favorite teacher as a means to avoid any potential conflicts with his peers. He spent the day helping the teacher in between classes and ate lunch with him. It was amazing to witness Jose consciously avoid a fight, especially since he is struggling emotionally with the reality of his mother’s terminal illness.

Simultaneously to being happy about Jose’s growing self-control, I am deeply concerned about ensuring he is left in custody of a responsible adult when his mother passes away, which could happen any day. As of now, there is no written paperwork that I know of that would give guardianship of Jose to his aunt, who he lives with, or to any other responsible person. The worst case scenario is that Jose will end up in foster care. You may have read the recent New York Times article with its dismal statistics on foster care children

"Study Finds More Woes Following Foster Care":

Even though Partnership with Children places social workers in schools, our work extends far beyond the school building. My staff and I have not been able to get Jose’s mother to respond to us when doing home visits or calling – in fact, we have never spoken to her at all. The only information we get about her comes through Jose, which leaves a lot unknown. The next step will be to visit her in the hospital. Given her rapidly declining health and the fact that we have just over two months left in the school year, I am working as fast as I can to resolve Jose’s custody issue.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

For Some, a Tenacious Grip to a Safety Net. For Others, a Steep Fall through the Cracks.

One aspect of Jose’s return to our class that I worried about was his relationship with another student, Michael. Michael’s own behavioral issues touched a nerve with Jose, and provoked him to fall back on his old “street” behavior.

Michael missed a year and a half of school before joining our class in the fall, and is clearly a high-risk student. He returned to class last week at the same time as Jose, after an out-of-school suspension. Within 30 minutes of returning to school, he had an altercation with the Dean. He was suspended but returned to the school the next day instead of reporting to his suspension site.

According to the law, once a student enters the school building, the school administrators can not force him to leave without a parent signing him out. In Michael’s case, there was no parent to reach during the day, so he remained in school. He then got into a physical fight with a student, and while attempting to break up the fight, the Dean was hit in the head.

Long story short, he will not be returning to our school for the rest of the year.
The reason we, or the school for that matter, were unable to help Michael is that the systems set up to provide students with services require documentation of past behavior. Unfortunately because Michael was not in the school system for the last year and a half, and there is no paper work that shows he has behavioral problems, there was no way for us to push for a faster evaluation. We were restricted to waiting and watching so to speak.

Michael’s situation is a good example of what can happen to students when they fall through the cracks and don't get the services they need. Sadly this scenario plays out over and over again in schools across the city. My soul would be crushed if I thought about this reality too much. Instead, I focus on my school, and on the difference I can make.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Working up the Employment Totem Poll

Someone asked me recently why our kids are so excited to apply to NYC’s Summer Youth Employment Program, even though they have only a slim chance of getting placed in a job. Frankly, the prospect of earning money and being able to shop excites them!

We’re making the process of applying for the jobs challenging. Sometimes in the past, because we wanted the kids to succeed so badly, I think we did too much for them. Example: the kids need to fill out application forms for the employment program. Formerly we would have downloaded and printed out the forms for them. Instead, this year we told the students that they need to find the forms on line, and print and fill them out on their own. We also made our mock interviews tough by purposely having the interviewers (teachers), be abrupt or even curt with the students. The kids have to learn how to behave professionally even when confronted with someone who is impolite. Easier said than done, right?

Then, we also tossed out the idea that, if they do land a summer job, it may involve doing sanitation or other unappealing work. They immediately said “No way, I won’t do that!” The students already have an idea of where they want to stand on the employment “totem poll”. But we drove home the point that they have to start somewhere and work their way up.

My fingers are crossed that at least one student will land a job, and be a role model for the rest.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Summer Jobs 101

Jose finally returned from his suspension last week. I am relieved and tense at the same time. It is of course good to have him back in school so we can keep working with him, but I worry that every day provides a fresh opportunity for him to act out and end up suspended yet again. This may be the first time I have felt such a level of tension about a certain student, but I know it’s because Jose holds so much potential. We put in a lot of effort creating a “re-entry” plan for Jose to help him transition back into school. My hope is that he can quickly fall back into step with the rest of the class.

On another note, I don’t want to ignore all the positive developments happening with the rest of my class! At the moment they are diligently completing their applications for NYC’s Summer Youth Employment program. We also did mock job interviews. It’s a huge development for this group to even think about having careers and to take steps towards that goal. One caveat is that the city uses a lottery-based system to place kids in jobs, so there are no guarantees. BUT, despite knowing this the students are still really determined and enthusiastic about landing their first paying jobs!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Comeback Kid?

That’s what I am hoping Jose will be…the kind of person who rebounds and doesn’t look back, just when everyone is ready to give up on him. Jose, despite his intelligence and desire to go to college, over the past few months landed himself with one suspension after another.

What happened to our self-proclaimed 2010 valedictorian? Three major events in his life de-railed him. (I say that with the caveat that he is responsible for his actions, and he knows when he is doing something that will lead to a suspension, arrest, or worse.)

First, his mother, with whom he has a problematic relationship, came back into his life after a long stint in the hospital. Second, he was not allowed to join our group on the trip to Philadelphia – the sole motivating factor that kept him working hard through his first suspension. And, third, a new student entered our class and challenged Jose’s social authority, specifically his “street” credibility (read: toughness, masculinity, street-smarts).

The crazy thing is, Jose is still getting almost all A’s on his school work and hands all his work in on time! Even though his actions warrant suspensions, all the school leaders and staff truly like him. If he wasn’t so charismatic and smart, this might not be the case.

Right now what Jose needs is a new, attainable goal, a target he can reach: becoming valedictorian is out of the question. I need something else to hook him and give him some perspective. I’m still mulling over ideas for just what that “hook” should be…

Friday, January 22, 2010

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Jose came back to school after his arrest, but quickly started behaving disrespectfully to teachers. Long story short, he was suspended again, and sent to another Alternative Learning Center.

I probably don’t need to say how frustrating the situation is. Jose is smart. He knows what he needs to do to succeed. But he has pent up anger that he is not willing to control yet, and it manifests itself in his belligerence with teachers and school leaders. He knows that his behavior is setting him back. He wants to succeed, but he keeps making the wrong decisions.

But, let me move on to more positive news. Our group is doing great and is very enthusiastic about the Job Readiness curriculum. I think part of their enthusiasm is due to the fact that they are learning real life skills like money management. They can see the purpose in what they are learning, and feel empowered by their new skills.

We also have a new group of students taking a Law and Government course at the local High School, and they love it so far.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Downward Spiral

Here is my latest update on Jose. I wish I had better news to share.

The morning of our trip to Philly, the school leaders surprised me by not allowing Jose to join us. He was crushed. He worked hard through his entire suspension just to be able to go on to Philly and stay a part of our group. He felt betrayed by the school leaders, and ended up flipping over desks in an emotional outburst, and declaring “I’m through with this school!”

As Jose’s social worker, I understood the context of his extreme reaction and the anger he felt. This is a kid who is on the brink of failure in school and isolation from mainstream society. Success in school is truly his key to a better life. He made some missteps this year, but, remained focused academically. To be, in his view, betrayed despite his efforts, was too much to bear emotionally.

Jose’s world is also tied indelibly to the streets. He has had exposure to gangs, and according to their “rules”, betraying the gang results in being killed. It’s a purely black and white scenario, with no room for moderation. Once a person betrays you, he no longer exists in your world. In that vein, the school was “dead” to Jose.

What he did next however was not something I would have predicted. The weekend following his outburst at school, he and a friend robbed a man and were arrested. Jose's actions signified a rebellious disavowal of everything school stands for and a lack of hope for his future.

I ask myself if I could have done more. I don’t know the answer. I am his social worker but not his parent or guardian, and those are the people he really needs to help make the right decisions for him, especially when he is outside of school.

I’ve obviously scaled back my expectations for Jose, but, I have not written him off. My focus now is on getting him back into school and into our group, and to try to rebuild his trust for the school leaders, myself and my team of social workers.