I know I'm in good company when I say that I'm not sad to say goodbye to 2019. I also know that the challenges I faced this year pale in comparison to the experiences of so many others whom I have read or heard about throughout the year. Yet personally and professionally, this year seemed to have a never-ending supply of curveballs to throw my way. I am happy and thankful to report that 2019 has ended far better than it started, but looking back, I can admit that I learned a lot of important lessons over the past 12 months.
Lesson 1: I've got a lot of good people in my corner. Here's a short list of who I'm especially grateful for:
Lesson 2: Sometimes you need a different perspective on the problem. Transitioning my business from Baltimore, where I lived for over a decade, to Columbus, where I didn't know anyone, was more challenging than I anticipated. After a number of frustrating months, I realized that there were other ways to run my business than the few tried and true strategies I was using. I started reaching out to people from different fields and points in their career for new insights.
I learned about search engine optimization, value-based marketing, and customer relationship management software. I joined the Ohio Program Evaluators Group (OPEG) and went to my first American Evaluation Association Conference. I gained a huge network of like-minded and supportive people who have opened up a world of ideas and opportunities for me. I learned that there is always something I can try to reach new potential clients, expand my impact on schools and communities, and grow my business. These experiences lit a fire under me to continue trying new things to make Structured Solutions better than ever.
Lesson 3: It's never ALL bad. I can't even tell you how many rejections I got this year. I felt so defeated and unclear about how to move forward. However, a lot of great things happened in 2019 too - they just get clouded by the discouraging events of this year. Here are some awesome things that happened for Structured Solutions in 2019:
I'm glad to put 2019 behind me, but like all challenging experiences, I know that it has helped me grow as a person and as a business owner. I am optimistic that 2020 will be a better year (hopefully for everyone else too!), but I aim to continue the spirit of character-building, self-improvement, and continuous learning that 2019 necessitated.
Happy New Year!
It's funny where the most interesting and engaging conversations can happen. At the gym last week, I had a few random, but passionate conversations with other members of the educational (and martial arts!) community about youth experiencing trauma and how it impacts their ability to participate in school, learn effectively, and handle their emotions.
Trauma is something I wish I had learned about when I became a teacher over ten years ago. Like many new teachers, I struggled with classroom management. It is probably not surprising to learn that as a 5'2", 22 year-old woman, I did not have a natural authoritative presence. However, there were many other reasons for the challenges I faced -- ineffective and harmful administrators, a lack of shared expectations among our middle school team, and my own battle with anxiety. These all contributed to what often felt like turmoil in my classroom. While I always empathized with the challenges my students faced in their own lives, I never fully understood the ramifications of the trauma and hardship they experienced -- nor did I know where to connect them or their families for additional support.
I was lucky because the school had a wonderful social worker and part-time psychologist to whom I could refer students. They also served as great supports and sources of advice and knowledge for me as a new educator. Yet, there was little capacity and no infrastructure at the school for understanding and responding to trauma. I remember being told that students were experiencing homelessness, hearing stories about families who were involved in gangs, and seeing that students were extremely impoverished, but I had no tools to process these situations or fully support my students. I felt anguish about the situations they were experiencing, but I know I did not always respond effectively.
Years later, after working in a community school and supporting many others, I know what more effective and comprehensive supports can look like. I have seen the benefits of wraparound services for students and families, including a full mental health team; meaningful enrichment and engagement opportunities for students and adults; connections to resources for basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, and adult education; efforts to track and review data on engagement, attendance, and supports provided; and most importantly, a loving and affirming approach to working with students and families with the greatest needs. Community schools -- schools that become a hub of the surrounding community and provide these wraparound services for students, families, and community members -- are well-supported by research. This model has been shown to be beneficial in reducing chronic absenteeism, improving school climate, increasing student achievement, and more. One of the findings from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report states that:
"The evidence base provides a strong warrant for using community schools to meet the needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools and to help close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities."
So when my friend at the gym, a high school guidance counselor, told me that his school effectively did not have any mental health clinicians available to students, I was taken aback. I talk to him frequently about his school and the amazing ways in which he supports his students, so I was shocked to learn that this large high school was so under-resourced in this area. The school seems to be on its way toward providing wraparound services, with a brand new food pantry and the dedication of counselors like my friend. Yet this conversation made me realize that the services I took for granted in Baltimore City schools -- which were still often insufficient to meet the high level of need -- did not exist everywhere.
This was a critical and humbling realization. Of course, if we could make students' barriers disappear -- or at least provide them with the resources that they need to overcome these barriers and thrive -- we would. But in the absence of a magic wand, what can we do? From my lens, this is where needs assessments and data tracking can play a huge role. Imagine if we collected stories from students, families, and staff about the challenges faced by the school community, each stakeholder group's perceived needs, and their recommendations for meeting those needs. Now think about if we used factual data about the community and student population to support those stories. What we would get is an intensely compelling, collective narrative about what this community needs and how its members feel those needs could be met.
Could a needs assessment or set of data instantly bring on a full slate of mental health workers at this school? Of course not. But when we tell our story effectively, people (read: funders, decision-makers, influencers) listen. And when people start listening, we can inspire them to make change.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.