Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
For those of us trying to prepare students remotely for college access and success, this past year has posed unique challenges. Yonkers Partners in Education (YPIE) wants to share a solution for breaking through the Covid fog and Zoom fatigue to spark passion and help students get ready for college—academically, socially and emotionally. We have found three key initiatives have made a measurable impact on students: individual learning plans (IEPs for All), YPIE Majors, and a team-embedded mental health professional.
YPIE uses data to create individual learning plans with students. At the beginning of every school year, students design their “YPIE Blueprint,” where they identify their goals and develop a plan to incorporate YPIE and other supports to empower them on the path to college success. Some students may find that they are struggling in a particular subject and would benefit from participating in a YPIE-facilitated study group or tutoring. We at YPIE know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to success, and firmly believe that every student deserves a holistic, individualized support system behind them as they pursue their personal goals.
Student goals and supports are recorded to keep students on track for the year and help YPIE College Readiness Managers more effectively identify where and when students need intervention. It also empowers students to identify what they want to accomplish in the academic year, and recognize the supports in their lives that can help them achieve those goals. Through the Blueprint, we bring data down to the individualized student level to more effectively advise and provide targeted interventions.
Using YPIE’s Amber Alert system, staff are able to easily identify students that need intervention using a Red/Amber/Green status based upon attendance at YPIE events, last meeting with an advisor, and GPA. YPIE uses data to advise and track large caseloads of students to identify where students need support and refer them to our community-based mental health partner, Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS). Especially now, as the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, first generation students face even greater obstacles than usual to accessing mental health services.
YPIE has been keeping students engaged with an innovative approach to learning. Since going into lockdown, high school students in YPIE’s college readiness program have collaborated and published eighteen editions of the YPIE QuranTimes, a student written, illustrated, and produced journal. While learning important social and emotional skills such as time management, meeting deadlines, and teamwork to publish each edition of the QuaranTimes, students have been improving their academic reading and writing skills. By focusing on the production of a publication to share with the world, students are building college readiness skills without the pressure of formal tutoring or college prep classes.
In addition to Journalism, YPIE offers ten other hands-on learning experiences in its Majors Program. YPIE has leveraged community partnerships to create a career pathways program that incorporates academics, twenty-first-century workplace skills and social and emotional learning into what appears to students to be fun, enrichment activities. The YPIE Majors emerged as a critical aspect of our programs when the devastating health and economic impacts of Covid-19 reminded us again of the enormous obstacles our vulnerable communities encounter, especially when it comes to equity in education and access to mental health services. The program was designed as a way to keep students engaged without the pressure of formal academic commitments and to keep a pulse on student’s well-being in this emotionally challenging time.
If students need additional mental health support, we are able to leverage our partnership with our community-based mental health partner, Westchester Jewish Community Services, to help students access the care they need. WJCS has trained YPIE staff and volunteers in trauma-informed practice to create an underlying framework for meeting with students and helping them understand the impact of trauma on young people. WJCS has also provided YPIE with a clinician that is fully-integrated into the College Readiness team to meet weekly with staff and consult them on mental health concerns presenting challenges for students. YPIE staff also have training in youth mental health first aid for emergency situations.
YPIE and WJCS have partnered to create a Case Conference Protocol where YPIE staff bring cases to the WJCS clinician to reflect and gain guidance on working with the student or bringing them through a more formal referral process to meet with a licensed clinician. It is under the auspices of this integration of a mental health clinician into the team of College Readiness managers that we’ve been able to create a strong referral protocol for ensuring students are able to receive the care they need.
By giving students a forum to improve their academic skills without the formalities of school through the YPIE Majors program, we are seeing promising results for addressing mental health needs without shortchanging academics. We believe that by using data to guide practical, personalized advising, students who may be left behind by this pandemic will have a real chance to succeed in college and beyond.