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.
This was an unusual Thanksgiving for my family. My parents have always hosted Thanksgiving at their house; it is one of the few family traditions that remains since my Grandma passed away. All was set to continue as usual this year, until last week, when my Grandpa -- the effervescent, 89 year-old patriarch of the family -- began experiencing significant back pain. It quickly became evident that the trip to my parents' house would be too much for him. Like good evaluators, we continually monitored the situation and used the data we gathered to determine what changes we could make to ensure that the family would be together and that my Grandpa would be as comfortable as possible.
We ended up bringing Thanksgiving to him. Different family members were nervous for different reasons. My parents now had to factor in a one-hour drive into their cooking schedule, and others had to adjust their travel plans. Some were skeptical about having Thanksgiving in a different location, and given that we all adore my Grandpa, we were worried about how he was feeling. Afterwards, when I reflected on how the day went, I realized that most of the questions on everyone's minds had been fairly quantifiable:
To determine the success of our Thanksgiving dinner, we could track these metrics or others, such as the number of family members who came (11) or the amount of time everyone spent at my Grandpa's house (approximately three hours). These are all important details that help us craft the story of our Thanksgiving dinner. Yet these facts could never describe the contentment on my Grandpa's face as he sat at the head of the table and listened to the family's jokes and conversations. A series of data points would never suffice to explain how happy we all were to see him acting like his usual, wonderful self because he had just had a wonderful day. No spreadsheet in the world -- and I LOVE a spreadsheet -- could have ever captured the hope that my Grandpa had after a day with much less pain and far more happiness than he had had in a few weeks.
Of course, I would never methodically evaluate our family dinner -- but isn't this exactly what we try to do when we try to measure family engagement in our schools? We host events and programs, offer services and supports, and build relationships like pros, but we struggle to figure out how we can capture the impact that we have made and share that impact with others. We count names on sign-in sheets and have participants rate their satisfaction, and we hope to show that we made a difference in our students' and families' lives. Those pieces of information are critical -- we need to track those metrics to track our progress over time and demonstrate growth in our programming and our reach within school communities. Yet, our standard documentation cannot capture the joy on a mother's face as she gets a relaxed moment to play and learn with her child or the pride that a father exudes when he has just completed his first professional resume. These are two examples from my work as a Community School Coordinator that have stayed with me to this day -- and neither came from one of my beloved spreadsheets.
This is why stakeholder voices and qualitative data are so important. Certainly, if the turkey never cooked or if no one showed up, our Thanksgiving would have been very different. However, what made Thanksgiving so special for me was watching my Grandpa's joyful reactions during dinner and hearing him speak happily on the phone for days afterward. For those of us in the field of family and community engagement, these are the types of reactions we live for and the motivation we need to keep doing the tough work. To best capture our impacts and tell our stories, we must take this mixed-methods approach, enhancing our traditional measures with rich stories and perspectives from our most important stakeholders. For me, this is what makes evaluation -- even of a Thanksgiving dinner -- most powerful, interesting, and even fun.
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.