Behind the smile of a 15-year-old Hastings Girls’ High School student lies a young woman dealing with distress, grief and domestic upheaval. She finds it hard to concentrate on her school work, but every Friday she meets with her Check and Connect mentor, and it’s one of her favourite times of the week.
‘A couple of weeks ago, it was a Friday, and I didn’t want to come to school,’ she says. ‘But then I thought I’d better go and tell her my stuff that is going on.’
Check and Connect is a trial two-year mentoring programme funded through the Prime Minister’s Youth Mental Health Project for students at risk of disengaging from school. Hastings Girls’ High School (HGHS) is one of 24 schools in Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and Wellington taking part.
Hastings Girls’ High School nominated 12 students for Check and Connect based on risk indicators like absenteeism, incomplete homework and not achieving at their ability level. The students were matched with mentors – youth workers employed by a non-governmental organisation, in this case, Dove Hawkes Bay.
Mentor Tumema Faioso says that the weekly catch-ups are an opportunity for participants to express anything they want. ‘My role is to simply listen, and over these first few weeks, we have built up a trust relationship.’ The pair’s rapport is strengthened by a mutual love of hip hop music and guitar. ‘I am not really an open person. I take a while to get used to someone, but we both love [American rapper] Tyga and the guitar, so that’s cool,’ the student says.
Setting academic goals is vital to the success of Check and Connect. For example, Tumema’s 15-year-old student is focused on passing six Reading Response assessments this year. If successful, she’ll earn four credits for NCEA English Level 1 and can progress further next year. Tumema helps by using lesson activities that draw on the student’s interests. ‘It’s different to the classroom work. It’s tailored and is eye-catching and fun. It doesn’t feel like work,’ says Tumema.
If any health or other issues arise in a session, students are referred to Guidance Counsellor Amanda Greville, who is also the school’s Check and Connect champion. She can refer the student to the school-based nurse or visiting school GP. Amanda says the strength of Check and Connect is its duration. ‘Check and Connect is once a week for two years for each student – and two years feels ethical. It’s about making a difference in a girl’s life. When you think about quality time, this is it, and that can make a huge impact.’
Participating schools get permission from parents before students become part of Check and Connect. Amanda says, ‘When I rang those parents, they all thought it was a good idea. No matter what is going on in their own lives, they all want the best for their girls.’
The success of the programme is measured by looking at school attendance and engagement in the classroom as reported by teachers. The 12 HGHS students’ attendance has tracked upward. Amanda adds: ‘I am seeing these students out in the school grounds. Their heads are up. They are smiling. It’s sometimes hard to assess the success of something when what you are counting are the things that didn’t happen.’
Check and Connect complements other Youth Mental Health Project programmes running in targeted schools: the school-based health service, including on-site nurses and visiting doctors, health and wellbeing assessments for Year 9 students, and the Positive Behaviour for Learning school-wide programme.
At HGHS, Positive Behaviour for Learning takes its form as a unique and engaging rewards programme called the Akina Awards. Principal Geraldine Travers says award categories are based on the school behaviour code: Be Respectful, Strive to Succeed, Show Resilience and Be Honest. ‘The literal translation of Akina is “strike hard, as you would with a waka ama paddle”. We interpret it as “strive hard”, and so the Akina Awards reflect our school’s philosophical basis,’ she explains. Students receive tokens when spotted displaying Akina behaviour. They keep the tokens in specially made boxes and strive to collect enough to earn a stunning bronze, silver or gold Akina Award badge. ‘We have had terrific buy-in from the girls. It has made everything tidy and organised when it comes to rewarding good behaviour. It’s put everything under one umbrella,’ says Geraldine.
Tumema recently rewarded her 15-year-old Check and Connect student with an Akina Award token for ‘showing resilience’. As Tumema says, ‘She deserves so much credit for her bravery and strength. She keeps doing her school work and keeps that million-dollar smile on despite everything. She inspires me.’