Happy Back to School! Did you know that CASA volunteers are appointed by judges as the official "education advocate" to the school-aged children we serve each year? Advocacy in the school system is even part of our mission statement. Advocates meet with counselors, teachers and school administration to closely monitor a child's educational progress and to help schools better serve children with behavioral issues or specific education needs. As the education advocate, volunteers can especially help children who change homes and schools, ensuring the child does not fall behind during the transition and connecting new schools with previous ones.
Through this aspect of our work, our staff members have learned a lot about how to be great advocates for kids’ education. Today we wanted to share our top tips and tricks with our volunteer advocates who make sure kids needs are being met and crucial information is being carried over. Even if you’re not yet volunteering with CASA, parents with school-aged kids may find some of these tips and tricks helpful!
Get Going and Keep Going
Child Advocacy Specialist Danielle Nevin suggests that you “start early, as soon as you get onto a case. Meet with the teacher right away and review any school records you can to see if needs are being met. It's easy to put this off with so much to do early on a case, but before you know it 3 months have passed, you haven't talked to a teacher, and the kid is struggling in school and no one knows about it.”
"Be focused on educational advocacy and be assertive."
Teen Advocacy Specialist Michael Edwards shares that you have to “be focused on educational advocacy and be assertive. Some schools are really cooperative and easy to contact. With others it takes more effort and the response may be less immediate. Don’t give up. That’s the key.”
To help with not giving up, Advocacy Program Manager Brooke Hathaway suggests that “any time you're having trouble getting information you need from the school, go in person (bringing your CASA order of appointment and badge). Go to the office. In person they have to deal with you and it is a great way to form relationships with people in the front office.”
Advocacy Program Manager Michelle Miles reminds us that once you get information, “follow through with that information, don't just hold onto it until the next court hearing. You should be advocating month to month to help move educational issues forward and get things in better shape for kids.”
Senior Director of Program Innovation Catherine Jones wants you to make sure you “give the teacher credit. Approach teachers in a spirit of collaboration and with empathy. We hope that they have a lot of understanding of trauma behaviors and trauma-informed interventions with kids, but even if they do, they're having to do that with 25 other kids at the same time. Empathize with that challenge and collaborate with them to reach creative solutions.”
"Approach teachers in a spirit collaboration and with empathy."
Intake and Retention Manager Tess Gillespie talked about the importance of “listening when talking to teachers. We can sometimes come in with guns blazing, knowing what we want out of a meeting. It’s important to get the teacher’s perspective as a person not involved in the CPS system and who is with the kids for hours on end. Listening can also help you identify barriers if there’s a lack of information around trauma behaviors, or if language they're using shows they're not aware about this child being in foster care.”
Don’t Forget the Guidance Counselors
Child Advocacy Specialist Jen Cosman advises “going beyond talking to teachers. Get in touch with guidance counselors, particularly for older kids in high school. Sometimes they know the kids better than the teachers.”
"The counselor is the key. If they have an investment in the child, they're going to fight 100% for them."
Teen Advocacy Specialist Hollie Toups reiterates this: “If possible, as soon as kid is put into a school, meet with the counselor. They’re going to have the keys to the kingdom. Even if they can't make decisions on everything, if you build a good rapport and relationship with them, they have a lot of information about the kid and they can help you move mountains to get kids into programs. The counselor is the key. If they have an investment in the child, they're going to fight 100% for them."
Respect the Child’s Space
Michelle Miles wants to make sure everyone is “respectful of a child's wishes. If they're embarrassed to have people come visit the school, think of other ways to communicate with the teacher. Maybe you need to meet face to face separately with the teacher, and not when you see the child at school. Be thoughtful about what kids are going through, and what they may not want their classmates to know.”
Brooke Hathaway adds that you should “be careful about how you identify yourself and your relationship to the kid in front of other students. Some kids love their CASA volunteers coming to have lunch with them, others are super embarrassed by the circumstances.” Make sure you’ve talked with the child about their preferences and that they don’t have any big surprises that might make them uncomfortable at school.
Communicate with Other People on the Case
One of the best ways you communicate what you learn is to make sure your kids’ school information is up to date in CASA’s Optima database! This ensures that everyone at CASA has that key information.
Michelle Miles advises that you “don’t make any assumptions that family members or caregivers have the same level of communication with the school. Make sure you share the information you gather with them.”
Volunteer Recruitment Specialist Ola Jobe also recommends communicating with the CPS caseworker and asking to see the educational portfolio. “This portfolio should tell the child’s story. It’s important volunteers see it to get the info, as well as to hold CPS accountable and ensure it’s being kept up to date,” says Ola.
Trust But Verify
When communicating with family or placements, Michelle Miles urges volunteers to “make sure we can actually see their grades, whether it’s the placement showing us the report card or the teacher. Verify the grades, don't just rely on what someone told you they were.”
Extra CPS/CASA Tips!
Ola Jobe wants everyone to know that “there's an educational specialist at CPS. This person is someone to call when you don't know what to do, especially when we have ARDs and meetings. Any time you have communication with the school and you don't understand it, she can be your consultant at CPS.”
Tess Gillespie highly recommends you check out the Texas CASA webinar on being a surrogate parent. “Even if you don’t need to become a surrogate parent or if the child doesn’t have special education needs, knowing the policies and what students are entitled to is really important information to have.”
We hope you have a great back to school, whether it’s for the children you advocate for through CASA, or children in your family! We know you can put these tips and tricks into action and make the school year stronger for kids.
2019 Advocacy August