A Houston native, Matt began his career working with populations outside of the mainstream while in college in San Francisco. He has since dedicated his career to helping those without champions. Originally focused on social stratification (the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality) and helping the homeless meet basic needs, he eventually became a teacher. After getting his graduate degree at Harvard in educational leadership, Matt moved to DC in 2009 to join the Maya Angelou team and develop the YALC.
In college, I worked for an organization that did outreach to homeless male, female, and transgendered sex workers in San Francisco. These young men and women worked on the fringe of society, hustling to make ends meet. They were rejected from the social support systems because of the choices they made (drugs, sex, etc). Not many wanted to serve them, yet they were human beings with a story, hopes, and dreams. This work got me passionate about working with those whom no one else wanted to work. Eventually, I moved into education because I see quality education as the only way to level the playing field.
In the last 12 years, I have come to see that many of my students have needs such as mental health issues, incarcerated family members, poverty, negative peer influence, drug use, and limited family support; they come to school trying to figure out how to cope with these issues. Without proper social and emotional support, they struggle with academics. By the time they get to me, many of them are so far behind academically that they need years of support. But each student is unique, so we take an individualized approach to their academic, social, and emotional learning. We meet them where they are and support them to get to the next step, celebrating success along the way.
According to your bio on the Maya Angelou website, you pursued a master's degree in education leadership after your work in California. Since many of our readers may be considering graduate school, what did you learn in school about these populations compared with what you learned through experience in direct service? How did your graduate studies influence your perspective on your work?
Graduate school opened my eyes to the larger school issues that were going on across the country and introduced me to great people who wanted to make a difference in the world. I was able to take courses on leadership development, school reform, and education policy, as well as courses on nonprofit management at the Harvard Kennedy School and entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School. I went to school with the idea of creating a school for dropouts, so I focused a lot of my time studying the dropout epidemic. Those studies, on top of the voices of my previous students, gave me a great foundation for how to work with the students I currently work with. I went to Harvard with an idea and a plan, but I left wanting to get a little more perspective in the classroom. Instead of starting my own school, I found an organization that I was passionate about and believed in, Maya Angelou/See Forever Foundation.
While the networks that I built through Harvard are strong, and the degree certainly opens doors, nothing can substitute for the experience that one gets working in direct service. The research and theory give a good baseline from which to work, but the practice-based experiences, including listening to students and analyzing the data, influence my daily decisions more than my graduate school work. I do still keep current on the research to see what strategies and innovations are out there that could work for my students.
How does your school/organization recruit for students? Do you face a lot of resistance from students who most likely had negative experiences in school when they were younger?
When you build a successful program and develop strong relationships with students, they become your best recruiters, so most of our students come to us by word-of-mouth. We have enrolled a lot of relatives or friends of former students, both graduates and non-graduates. We have also developed relationships with high schools across the city. As students become disconnected, schools will refer them to us.
We have very real conversations with referred students about their future and how we can support them. I never encourage anyone to leave high school, but the reality is that a 19-year-old with few credits is very unlikely to graduate under the current high school system. Some of them choose to enroll with us, and some do not. In order for a student to be successful with us, they need to have some sort of desire to be successful. We cannot force them to go to school, as this is not compulsory education, but we can work to motivate them. All of them have had negative experiences in school. Most of them put up barriers and resist, especially when school gets hard. It's a matter of showing them that they can be successful and giving them the coping skills they need when things get hard.
Tell me more about the support systems in place for your students at the Young Adult Learning Center. What types of academic, social and emotional, and career-oriented supports do they receive when they are enrolled?
We believe that students cannot be successful in the classroom unless they have the supports they need outside of the classroom. Consequently, we take a very individualized approach to supporting our students. Our support services department knows our students inside and out, quickly identifying the barriers that each student has that may prevent them from getting to school and/or being successful. The support services department communicates regularly with the academic department, ensuring that this knowledge is spread to support students throughout the building.
All students start with a three-week Foundations course, which focuses on developing academic, social, and workforce skills, as well as building a supportive student cohort. It teaches them how to be students again and allows our support services team time to get to know them as students. After the Foundations course, students move into academic classes. Placement in classes is based on individual needs, as determined by results from the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) in reading, math, and language. We use a literacy-based approach to teaching the GED, focusing on developing literacy, numeracy, and critical-thinking skills, all within the context of the GED and the work force. We also partner with the Home Builders Institute to provide a facilities maintenance trade and industry-recognized credentials; we are looking to expand to an IT trade soon.
Our teachers work really hard to find items that interest students and relate to their lives, but also push them to think outside of the worlds in which they live. Students are given the opportunity to see academic growth regularly, and interventions are made if a student is not making the progress they should be making.
Our biggest struggle is attendance. We provide transportation assistance, but we have to compete with other priorities and the outside world. We do our best, but it is certainly a growth area for us (and most dropout recovery schools).
Too often, we hear about juveniles in the criminal justice system becoming repeat offenders and having limited options in life. Can you counteract this with a success story that one of your students has had?
When I started in my current role, Michael had been enrolled in the GED program at Maya Angelou for a few months. Michael was a polite, young man, but he had a street reputation and severe anger issues. He was introduced to the juvenile justice system at the age of 13. By the age of 21, he had aged out of this system and any of the “supports” that it provided. He was homeless and spent many nights in shelters. Michael had occasional bouts of anger toward classmates, staff, and himself, but he did really well in classes. He is an artist and worked really well with our art teacher.
The day before he was supposed to take the GED, he got arrested again. We see this self-sabotage occasionally as students become comfortable with us and fear the next step. He was charged with a serious crime as an adult and spent six months in jail before being released on probation. Right before he was arrested, he had become a new father. After his time at DC jail, he came back a changed man. He looked healthy and was motivated. He kept up his studies while in jail and worked hard to get ready for the test.
Four years after entering the program, Michael got his GED. I remember the YALC staff yelling and dancing when he told us that he had passed. It was a great day for all of us, but especially for Michael, who had put in a lot of effort to pass the exam. Shortly after graduating, Michael got a job at Chipotle. He still comes in and calls regularly to say “hi” to keep us updated on where he is. He knows we will always be here to support him. (Once a part of the Maya family, a student is always a part of the Maya family.) A year later, he still works at Chipotle, and he has two other daughters and continues to work hard to be a good father for them. He still struggles occasionally, but considering the path he could have taken, he is a success story.
What suggestions do you have for educators currently serving at-risk or underserved populations? Are there particular supports or strategies that may help their students stay on a path to success? Do you have any suggestions for policymakers?
The current buzzword for the population that I work with is “disconnected.” They are disconnected from the traditional systems that exist in society. Our job is to reconnect them and get them on the right path. Over time, you start to see patterns and can create systems that work with most students, but it is important to remain flexible and understanding while still holding all students to high expectations. This balance is hard sometimes, as these students always have excuses. Sometimes they are legit, and other times they are not, but knowing the students helps get through the non-legit excuses. It is important to believe in them and connect learning to their world. If they do not see the relevance, they disengage quickly.
For policymakers, it is important to understand that these students’ needs do not end at the age of 19 or 21 or 24. They need a lot of supports, which can be costly, but the cost of a dropout over his or her lifetime is much more than the cost of these supports. For everyone, it is important to engage these students in the conversations. They are intelligent, young men and women, but their intelligence does not always translate into school success. They can tell you what is wrong and offer solutions for fixing these things. The more we engage them in the process, the more they will reconnect into mainstream society.
Amanda Klein is a community school coordinator in Baltimore, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send her your suggestions for future interviews via email.