Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Social services and schools as partners

How does your school support students who have unique living conditions? Our school has recently made some excellent partnerships with community agencies that I’d like to discuss.

I doubt the situation is unique to Penetanguishene, and would hazard a guess that it’s province wide. We continuously run into a similar situation with some of our 16 and 17 year-old students. They have nowhere to live. For various reasons their parents cannot care for them, or are non-existent and children’s aid cannot place them or even work with them at that age (they are short beds for their little guys as it is). 

Laurie (Child & Youth Worker) and I recently sat in on a community meeting designed to work towards ending homelessness. We explained our concern with the gap between children’s aid support and becoming an adult. Representatives from all around the community sat at the table (YMCA, Ontario Works, LEAP, Salvation Army, churches, etc.). All agreed the need was widespread. This resulted in the creation of a sub-committee with the first task of determining how widespread the issue is (how many homeless students, non-attending school age students and couch-surfers). While this will take time, I am extremely happy to be working towards some potential solutions. 

This morning Wendy, a Caseworker with Ontario Works programs for the County of Simcoe Social Services Division volunteered came into the school to explain the whole process to Laurie and I. Much to my surprise four other educators pointed out that they would like to have been invited. They all promised to not hold a grudge as long as I share what I’ve learned with them. ☺ The guidance counselors, special education teachers, vice principal and attendance counselors were all interested in how the system works. This on its own demonstrates a need for community agencies like Social Services and the schools to communicate more often. 

Here is a summary of what I’ve learned:

  • There are two main social service programs
    • Temporary care - for those living with other people (example: grandparents)
    • Ontario Works – for those living independently with a mandate to develop employable skills
  • The monthly money provided in all social service programs is for rent and food ONLY. No other costs are covered with the exception of medical and dental coverage.
  • Temporary care provides approximately $200/month to cover food expenses and also includes medical and dental benefits. There are some one-time “community set up” funds that can be applied for (example: to cover the costs of a bed). In this case the caregiver also gets the child tax credit for the child.
  • Ontario Works is more complicated. Youth (under 18) need to find a trustee who is an adult that the cheques are written to, who then disburse the funds and hopefully teach some budgeting skills.
  • Students often show up for Ontario Works appointments with a trustee who will also be the landlord (ex. Friends, boyfriend, girlfriends parent). This is NOT a good idea because if something happens to a relationship in this case the student loses their trustee and place to live. Their entire support system comes crashing down.
  • Caseworkers will call the parents to check up on the living situation and use a “reasonableness” scale to determine if the student qualifies. If the parents say that the student CAN live with them, they are asked questions about what would be required. If they state that the student cannot live with them they are then asked what they can contribute to the students living expenses. Sometimes parents give some money from the child tax (which they should not really be receiving if the kid is not living there, but that is between them and the CRA – the Caseworker will always point this out). Parents submit a financial form to determine how much they can pay (it is sometime zero).
  • A trustee MAY be asked to speak with the parent to ask for money to support the student. Very rarely will the situation go right to court. Because the process takes years and these students are almost 18, it never actually makes it to court.
  • Every month the trustee gets the cheque for the student along with an income reporting card (to be filled out and returned with attendance report from the school) and a drug benefit card.
  • This money is in no way taxable income for the trustee – it is money for the student. The trustee position is voluntary.
  • The max amount of assistance is around $585 ($221 for food and the rest is for rent). Room and board rates are a bit different at a max of $400/month for room and board with a $60 allowance for incidentals (deodorant, hygiene, etc.)
  • If the student is pregnant or a mother, under 18 and without a high school diploma they are signed up for the LEAP program automatically. This program has a SIGNIFICANT amount more support, both financial and personal.
  • To access Ontario Works the student needs to call a local phone number (in our area the head office is in Midhurst). From there they make an appointment at the appropriate office to go in person.
  • From a landlords point of view, rent is taxable but room and board is not.
  • Biggest barriers to getting assistance for youth is having an appropriate trustee and place to live. Student must also be a FULL TIME student, which provides some barriers.
  • Income from a part-time job is deducted from benefits at 100% for the first 3 months on Ontario Works and at 50% from four months onwards.
  • If you do the math Ontario Works “pays” $4.18 per hour (at $585 for 140 hours of full-time work). If minimum wage is just above $9.00 the job would bring in $1280 per month with full time hours. Even 20 hours a month would result in $630. Even if a student is only eligible for $2 of Ontario Works funding per month (because they earn money through part-time work) they still get the drug card and medical benefits.

After this very informative meeting my head spins at the knowledge of how difficult it is for some of these students. I also see many opportunities for teachers and schools to support these students. I see an opportunity to be a trustee for a student as a possibility. I think it needs to be looked at in a case-by-case situation, but is doable in some cases.

Schools can also play a role in making “full-time” education more accessible. We can offer many different versions of creative programming that allow the student to be “full-time’ and still meet all of their needs (and the schools).

I also see an opportunity to continue working with the local subcommittee working on creating solutions. These solutions might include media campaigns to alert the general population to the need for supportive homes, working with local church populations to identify some potential opportunities before the emergencies arise or even acquiring property and funding to run boarding house type situations.

I’d LOVE to know how other communities and schools are dealing with these situations and your thoughts on how social services and schools can work together.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

It's scary where a bowl of soup can lead

It’s scary where a bowl of soup can lead. In the fall of 2008 a colleague and I decided we needed a bowl of fresh-made soup at a local establishment. What started as an innocent conversation about literacy and the OSSLT (grade 10 literacy test in Ontario that is required for graduation), turned into a flurry of excitement and a stack of notes on napkins. We were discussing the amount of untapped potential in students that just isn’t activated by the literacy test. The majority of our students that do not pass the test, only miss the mark by a few points. Unfortunately, these students often do not connect the literacy test to their lives and therefore do not put in a 100% effort. If only we could tap into that potential…
We decided that we would like to create a 1-day symposium for our grade 10 students that would help them see the connection between literacy, the OSSLT and their lives. The result was the first annual reaLITy symposium hosted at PSS. Our first task was to secure our keynote speaker. I called an acquaintance from my previous life in Moosonee, Joseph Boyden. He was generous enough to agree to spend the day with us. Even with the increased demand on his time after winning the Giller Prize, he volunteered his time with us for the day.
We included breakout sessions by local radio hosts, cartoonists, bookstore owners, activists, sports analysts, journalists, blogger/wiki’ers, authors, etc. Each session involved the presenter describing their careers/experiences and how literacy is connected. A literacy test activity was connected to each one. Students chose their workshops, had name-tags and were treated like adults. It was a great day.
This year our 2nd annual reaLITy day is on Friday March 26th and we have author Ojibwe Drew Hayden Taylor as our keynote. The community has once again stepped up and running a variety of workshops for us.
Our school does the other general OSSLT prep activities like a diagnostic OSSLT in the fall for grade 9 and 10 students, prep activities in grade 10 english classes, prep activities in all grade 10 classes during the week before the test and an after-school “TIPS” prep program.
I am NOT a literacy person – meaning my background is in biomedical science. Before student success I taught bio and science. Recently though, i’ve been co-ordinating a PLC that focuses on literacy activities and am slowly learning. I’d like to know what type of creative literacy activities are done in other schools? I will not turn this into a rant about my feelings towards the OSSLT test and how it is used, but recognizing the need for students to be literate, am interested in what other types of creative activities are going on out there!
Press about reaLILTy:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Building Relationships in the Classroom

After reading NY Times “Building a Better Teacher” I wonder if becoming a teacher isn’t too easy? Teaching can sometimes be viewed as a “fall-back” career. What if teachers college was as difficult to get into and get through as medical school? Would that change anything? Would we get more buy in from teachers? Would more of them continuously try to make themselves better? Or, would it simply get the academics only into the profession and eliminate those who are efficient educators not because of their academic knowledge, but because of their ability to relate to students?
One of the biggest dilemmas in teaching right now is how to train teachers and how to set up effective, efficient professional development. Before that can happen we need to define what makes a good teacher. Is it student scores on standardized tests? Is it achievement or success in courses? Is it preparing them for the next step whether it be the workplace, university or college? Or, is it reaching and motivating students?  I think many educators would argue that it is a combination of all those. Yet, we are only really held responsible for two – the standardized test scores and course achievement.
More and more research is being done and it often comes down to the “magic of teaching”. The biggest indicator seems to be the relationships in the classroom. This has been stated by Dr. Russell Bishop in his astounding research with Maori education in New Zealand. Time and time again, I hear it eluded to. All the teaching strategies in the world will only work with limited effectiveness until the relationships in the classroom are working effectively. And yet, to date (to my knowledge), no one has identified how to monitor, record or document these relationships. They will be varied for sure, each teacher has a different way of relating to students. This is not an easy task.
It would need to start with a clear understanding of what makes an effective educator, finding those educators and studying how they build relationships in their classroom. 
There are many benefits to being a teacher. We get summers and holidays off. We can leave at 3:30 pm if we do some planning and marking at home later on. We also have a lot of control over our work environment (at least in our classrooms).
On the other hand, there is a lot of crap that goes along with teaching. A lack of resources and restrictions on when you can use the washroom are but a few. How many other professionals do not have access to a computer to plan or have to move their office every 75 minutes to a new room? Even so, I think that the quick bandaids thrown in to “fix” teachers just might have the worst impact compared to all. Instead of looking to the root of problems (relationships in the classroom) we jump in and push teachers to try this activity, this technology, etc. We inundate teachers with new things to try, time out of the classroom, more, more, more, more… without ever supporting them in the one thing that research is starting to tell us makes the biggest difference. Relationships. Basically, we’re setting them up for failure.
We need concrete details on how to build relationships in the classroom ALONG with the strategies and tools.Teachers aren’t idiots. Even ineffective teachers are passionate and work their butts off. It’s simply that no one has ever demonstrated how to build effective relationships in the classroom.  
If anyone knows of research in the area of relationships in the classroom and effective teachers, please point me in the right direction.