Guest blogger Ryan Eisenberg, Ed.D.
As an agency serving children and youth, we pride ourselves on creating lasting change. But what does that really mean? How do we create change in the lives of youth who have experienced trauma and had so much toxic stress that they seem to close every door? What I see Hillsides exceed in is creating meaningful relationships or secure attachments, which provides emotional security for our kids. That is our foundation, which by itself creates a quality experience. Yet, it offers so much more. By providing emotional security and a sense of value in oneself that secure attachments create, this foundation opens opportunity. The opportunity is the willingness to feel safe participating in therapy or to hear life lessons through teachable moments on the field and in the cottages. The opportunity is also our ability to help children find success in their schooling.
There is a significant correlation between life outcomes and achievement in school. Sadly, the foster youth population – which our school and residential treatment program serves — as a whole has the poorest outcomes. They fail at higher rates, graduate far less often then their peers, and roughly only 3% of all foster youth achieve a bachelor’s degree. Beyond those facts, foster youth have lower reading levels, are suspended more often, and experience rapid and repeated school changes significantly more than peers. Research shows that students who cannot read or read significantly below grade level have higher rates of suspension. Students who do not graduate are significantly more at risk for homelessness, early death, being incarcerated, or to having frequent hospitalizations. When I look at creating last change, my focus as the director of Hillsides Education Center (HEC) is creating opportunity to enable our students to move beyond these terrible outcomes.
Recently HEC was honored by receiving accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). This commission recognizes schools that meet an acceptable level of quality in accordance with established, research-based WASC criteria. The six-year accreditation, the longest time-frame available, speaks to the quality of the school and the delivery of our mission. It is a testament to our teaching and education staff and speaks to the hard work they put in every day to ensure our students make academic gains.
Yet, our efforts are by no means over. How can we, as educators, continue to create opportunities for our students? And how can the child care workers who serve in the cottages with the children of Hillsides supplement the work we do in the classroom. Here is what I suggest:
Start with building off of that meaningful relationship you share with the children, and make a school a daily conversation with your clients and students. As you would with your own family, ask how their day was at school, and ask about things they may have learned that day. Encourage and promote reading, both during the year and in the summer. Make story time a habit for younger students. Encourage tutoring services and praise students for making accomplishments in school, regardless of the size of the accomplishment. Show the youth that their education is important to you, because they are important to you, and that it will make a difference in their lives. Take an interest in a student projects. Post student work in the cottages, share educational experiences, and attend school events.
As summer comes to a close, let’s begin to prepare for the upcoming school year. Hillsides staff will look at how we can improve the educational outcomes for the youth we serve, and especially those who attend our local public schools. As a collective group, we can focus on our ultimate goal of creating last change and develop systems where we help our youth in the community build the emotional strength to develop the skills necessary for successful outcomes. A new school year brings new opportunity, and collectively, we can help our kids improve their educational outcomes.