It was the fall of 2014. Drs. Celeste Hawkins and Sarah VanZoeren were both starting their first year at Eastern as assistant professors in the School of Social Work, but they were hardly rookies. Each had more than 20 years’ experience as a social work practitioner assisting children and families, and they found plenty of shared concerns to discuss.
One day in the School of Social Work break room, “We were talking about all the great things we’d like to do to support the schools,” says Hawkins.
It was a chat that bore fruit. “We envisioned what it could look like if the social work program could support our K-12 educational system,” says VanZoeren. “It seemed like pie in the sky, but we both really saw the connection.”
“And we took the idea to our director, Dr. Lynn Nybell, and she said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” recalls Hawkins. “I thought, ‘let’s start planning so we can develop this program and implement it.’ ”
Did they ever. The Making Youth Matter Mentoring Program, in collaboration with Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), is now in its third year and already getting attention as a model for addressing what’s called the “school-to-prison pipeline” that propels young students, particularly youth facing challenges in school, toward a future of crime and incarceration.
“We were both practitioners for so long that we really saw that need for a connection between research and practice,” says VanZoeren.
“The overarching goal of the program is interrupting that pipeline,” says Hawkins. “We know what the factors are that put a student at risk for entering the juvenile justice system, so we structured the program to address those three areas: student achievement, attendance, and discipline issues.”
This year, 13 BSW and 3 MSW students who are completing internship requirements are participating in the field unit to support YCS students, teachers, and families. After a month’s training in mentoring skills, the graduate students support the families and the schools, while each undergraduate student is paired with a middle school student and expected to spend at least 10 hours a week with him or her: in the classroom and a variety of enrichment activities in the community, and at Eastern itself, where youngsters can attend study tables at the library and have free access to the student recreational facilities.
In addition to the intensive one-one-one mentoring provided to YCS students in middle school, the program also provides academic support to over 75 elementary school students each week through an after-school reading and math support program at Holmes Elementary School. EMU students also support and participate in Restorative Practices adopted by the district. Since the program’s inception, EMU students have provided over 10,000 hours of service to support Ypsilanti Community School students.
“Many of the youth we support have never been on campus,” says Hawkins. “We try to expose them to as many opportunities as possible.” Thanks to funding support from the College of Health and Human Services, the School of Social Work, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, YCS youth are able to gain access to a variety of enrichment and educational activities in our community.
Gaining familiarity with local social service agencies is an important part of that. The program holds an annual Resource Road Rally, which is a scavenger hunt in Ypsilanti where YCS youth and their EMU mentors solve clues that lead them to agencies providing resources in the community. The event ends on campus with a reflection and dinner. “One of the goals from the very beginning was that every student we mentor becomes familiar and connected with one resource in the community, so they feel comfortable going on their own once their relationship with our program has ended,” says VanZoeren.”
One YCS student mentee had a reputation as the class clown, so his EMU mentor’s suspicions were aroused one day when she arrived to find him in the middle of a cluster of students during class. She soon learned that the reason wasn’t worrisome: thanks at least in part to the habits his mentor had instilled, he had prepared note cards to study for a test. “From when he started to when he ended,” says VanZoeren, “where he saw himself was completely different.”
Eastern’s students share in the benefits. “They’re in a placement with 15 other people,” says Van Zoeren, “so that peer piece, the support they’re able to give each other as they learn what it means to be a social worker, is what makes the field unit model so strong.”
The opportunity to impact youth in our local schools and the communities we serve is rewarding and humbling. The goal is to institutionalize these efforts. “We are proud to have developed a collaborative relationship with YCS and present on our field unit at a variety of national and local conferences,” says Hawkins, “and all the feedback we get from participants is, ‘How do we duplicate this?’ ”