I recently interviewed Emma Dixon, a Check & Connect mentor at Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit serving 7,000 children in foster care statewide. They’ve been implementing Check & Connect — an evidence-based student engagement intervention developed here at the University of Minnesota in the 1990s — since 2013 to help foster youth graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers. Less than half of foster youth graduate, and Treehouse is helping close the gap through its Graduation Success program, and Check & Connect is a big part of that success.
Q: What does your job working with students in foster care look like?
A: Our overall goal is for youth in foster care to graduate at the same rate as their peers. I work with 23 Check & Connect students at several middle and high schools in Central and South Seattle. We’re working with them at school and providing case-management-type services to get them to graduation and help ensure they have a plan for the future. We also advocate for the students, as needed, such as helping them get access to special education services.
Q: Do you work with students at school or after school?
A: Mostly I work with students at school; I tend to pull them out of elective periods in the school day. We also can meet students after school as needed; if they have an activity we can meet them there, or if they are meeting with their family.
Q: For the family engagement piece of Check & Connect, are you connecting to foster parents? Biological parents?
A: There’s a wide range of experiences and family settings for students in foster care, so we work with whoever is their guardian. We connect with guardians at least once a month, usually more, and then we’ll connect with any other adults in the student’s life that makes sense for you to be talking to, to collaborate with on school goals.
Q: How do you build a trusting relationship with a new student you are working with?
A: It’s about meeting the student where they’re at, getting to know them, being really upfront and clear about what your role is, what you’re there for, and making it really about them. That’s the really great thing about the work we do is it’s really about what the student wants and what they want to work on. Some students are right away open to the program and you drop right into working; some take longer to build a relationship. With some of the younger students it’s sometimes helpful to do “get-to-know-you” activities, and connecting them to the other resources provided by Treehouse.
Q: How did you overcome working with a student who was reluctant to work with you?
A: Consistency and time. So, if you keep saying you’re going to show up on Tuesdays at 10 o’clock, and you keep doing that and you’re consistent, I think it can go a long way. You just have to respect students: they can have their own level of how much they are ready to share with you, how involved they want you to be, and you need to be really respectful of that. And give them the space to ask for different things. If things have been really challenging for a while, just calling it out, ‘It seems like these meetings aren’t working for you. What can I do?’ Centering in on them and letting them know they’re not going to hurt your feelings if they don’t like something you’re doing, and giving them the space to identify what would be helpful to them.
Q: Is there anything else that you want people to know about the program?
A: It’s really student-centered: you’re meeting them where they’re at and figuring out what they need. With Check & Connect the goal is never to be mad at them, or make them feel like they’re in trouble for not coming to school, or getting in trouble for failing a class. The goal is always to be student-centered and strengths-based, and to really focus on how to problem-solve, and build them up to make those successes in the future and to focus on moving forward. We just focus on problem-solving and always being on the student’s side and always being in their corner and their advocate, and I really appreciate that. It’s so much easier to build a relationship when you get to be ‘that person.’
Check & Connect is a student engagement intervention implemented primarily by schools and community-based organizations with students who show warning signs of disengagement. For organizations with existing mentoring programs — such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Communities In Schools, and Treehouse — Check & Connect is chosen to enhance their programs because it offers an evidence-based and structured model to help students engage with learning and be successful in school and in life. The University of Minnesota offers products and services to train and support Check & Connect coordinators and mentors in the implementation of the model around the U.S. and internationally.