Michael’s school career got off to a rough start. It was only the first week of kindergarten, and he started kicking, biting, and pinching his teacher. His teacher tried every technique she knew to stop him. Not surprisingly, Michael’s teacher resorted to sending him to the principal’s office. Soon, Michael was spending less than 20% of his school day in the classroom.
In many other schools, Michael would be transferred out of a mainstream classroom and placed in a special classroom alongside students with similar difficulties. There, despite the best efforts of educators, he would likely continue to struggle behaviorally and academically throughout his school career.
Fortunately, Michael enrolled at Lighthouse Charter School, a partner in Seneca Family of Agencies’ new All-In! school-based approach to support students. Michael’s teacher requested help and the All-In! team at Lighthouse quickly responded with individual therapy and workshops to develop his behavioral skills. Michael’s teacher and his therapist met with his family and provided home support. This comprehensive response to Michael’s challenges transformed his school year. By the time school let out, Michael was spending ninety-five percent of his day back in class. Without Kristi Dahlstrom, leader of the All-In! program at Lighthouse, Michael could not have received this comprehensive, coordinated care.
Here in Oakland and other urban areas, too many students are like Michael: students that arrive at school with serious emotional and behavioral problems caused by childhood traumas. These students are disproportionately identified for Special Education and placed in programs that put them on a different track away from other students, often in separate classes or schools. They frequently end up in remedial schools or juvenile hall and often fail to graduate from high school.
Seneca Family of Agencies is working to change this harsh reality. Seneca, already a recognized leader in providing mental health services for youth, has designed All-In! to provide students with comprehensive mental health, behavioral and academic support in school, before placing students in special education programs. “Schools belong to their students,” says Jessica Stryczek, a regional director for All-In!, “so our program makes schools fit their students.” With the proper care, Seneca believes that many students with emotional and behavioral problems can stay in mainstream classrooms.
Seneca started out as a small residential center for troubled foster kids. Today, Seneca is a powerhouse agency providing a wide variety of mental health services across California. All of Seneca’s work is rooted in its guiding philosophy of Unconditional Care: never give up on a child in need, no matter the circumstances. As a therapist from another agency said to NewSchools, “The students served by Seneca might not realize it, but they have been given a priceless gift, because Seneca will never give up on them.”
The Seneca team is compiling quantitative data about the school-wide impact of the All-In! program being piloted in partnership with Lighthouse Community Charter School, Education for Change, and San Francisco Unified School District. “We’re anticipating positive outcomes that will include improved attendance, decreased suspensions, improved emotional well-being, and increased student achievement,” says Lihi Rosenthal, Seneca’s Executive Director of Education.
NewSchools’ investment in Seneca reflects our commitment to innovation and our mission of transforming public education for underserved students. At our annual Summit in April 2014, NewSchools awarded Seneca Family of Agencies the “Organization to Watch” prize. It is our hope that others in education will watch and learn about this innovative and impactful approach to reaching our neediest students.