Education Opinion

To Reach Disaffected Youth, Push for ‘Credible Messengers’

By Contributing Blogger — June 21, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools(Harvard Education Press).

Carlos was nine when I first met him, in the company of his mother, who cleaned the apartment of a neighbor. I invited him over to browse my children’s bookshelf; two hours later he was still immersed in a classic dog story. He came by again occasionally, and we would talk about the books he liked best--outdoor adventures, with some threat from man or nature that heightened the plot’s suspense.

I was confident that he would do well in school. His mother was articulate and attentive, his father strict; they both worked hard at whatever they could get. Carlos was their middle child, born after his parents and their first child had crossed the Mexican border and made their way to Queens, New York.

But in his middle school years, Carlos met with bullying, and by ninth grade he was in trouble. He often left school grounds and kept out of sight until he could go home. In his 10th grade year, I ran into a couple of his teachers at a workshop I facilitated. They seemed baffled when I described him as a great kid with a good mind. From what they saw, he was headed nowhere, fast.

The district’s rules made a transfer unlikely, his mother was told. At 16, Carlos only wanted to drop out and get a job, maybe something working with animals. Near his home, we discovered, a community college trained veterinary technicians. But Carlos was failing his high school classes.

Mentoring from Personal Experience

In school, Carlos absorbs negative judgments and feels humiliation and disconnection. At home, he both resists his parents and dreads their imminent deportation. On the streets, truant peers draw him in to high-risk activities. What kind of bond does he need in order to think more deeply and fulfill his considerable potential as a learner?

The answer, according to many social scientists, lies with older youth who have crashed in similar situations and can share the wisdom they gained from experience. A growing movement is showing positive outcomes from training and employing such “credible messengers” to inform, support, and guide other youth who have started down dangerous paths.

Such peer mentoring is not a breakthrough discovery; groups that support recovering alcoholics, combat veterans, and former gang members have used similar counseling techniques for decades. It relates to the “positive youth development” approach that guides thoughtful schools to promote students’ success by building on their positive attributes.

But establishing credible messenger mentorships in schools has important differences, both for youth and for the mentors. What if, just by going to school, Carlos could spend regular time with a somewhat older person with ties to his own community, who had also experienced disconnection and dangerous choices like his own? And what if that person was now a competent professional in a paid position? If Carlos felt recognized and validated--and if he could trust someone at school who exemplified a hopeful future--his thinking and his learning might deepen day by day.

Supporting School Re-entry and Completion

Building on that premise, Joshua Laub, who is the Director of Youth Development at the New York City Department of Education, recently ignited a bold pilot project that is already sending up sparks citywide. It focuses on the needs of students who return to school after suspensions of more than 20 days, often after involvement with the juvenile justice system. In 2016, more than 9,500 NYC youth fit that description--and historically, very few of them make it to graduation. As with Carlos, earning the high school diploma presents them with an uphill battle on many fronts--social, emotional, academic, and work-related.

In recent months, a dynamic group of leaders and stakeholders have begun to work together with Laub on a volunteer basis, aiming to design a comprehensive approach dubbed TRACE (for “Timely Reintegration to Accelerate the Completion of Education”). Their group includes not only principals and staff from NYC schools but also leaders working in community and justice-related organizations, and university and workforce educators. Among them is Reverend Dr. Alfonso Wyatt, an early advocate of credible messengers who is now partnering on a project with The New School for Social Research’s Institute for Transformative Mentoring.

By fall 2019, this task force hopes that six to eight community schools will have created TRACE teams, consisting of school and community professionals who work intensively with students re-entering after significant setbacks. Well-trained, full-time, salaried credible messengers--older youth who have faced down similar challenges as the returning students--would play a key role on those teams. A university partnership could offer them opportunities for further credentials in social work, creating a pipeline for badly needed professionals in youth development.

A bracing optimism pervades TRACE’s ambitious work, whose pioneers must persuade agencies with long-separate infrastructures to work together toward a common goal. To fund their vision will also require far-seeing and committed benefactors in every sector. And to carry it out will take a new look at a problem once deemed intractable.

These days I am thinking of Carlos, and imagining a credible messenger at his side. Whom are you thinking of?

Photo by Nick Whalen

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.