By Jeremy Tepper, ALLEGHENY INTERMEDIATE UNIT
About a year ago, McKeesport Area’s administration had heard about Pressley Ridge’s YESS (Youth Engagement Support Services) team model.
The YESS team — which was piloted at the Penn Hills School District — focuses on helping address issues like truancy, while also assisting in de-escalation, interventions and generally trying to create a more positive environment in schools.
While McKeesport was intrigued by the idea of contracting their own YESS team, budget concerns left them putting the idea on the backburner. Fast forward, and McKeesport now finds itself developing its own YESS team, thanks to funding from Project SEEKS SES, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that addresses trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts.
“SEEKS has been wonderful in providing these opportunities, because without it our school district would probably not have been able to implement it this year,” said Angela Cale, McKeesport Area’s Coordinator of Special Education and Alternative Services.
McKeesport’s YESS team will be comprised of seven members — six youth engagement specialists and one lead youth engagement specialist. The team will focus on grades 6-12, with three of the members spending their time at Founder’s Hall Middle School and three at the McKeesport Area Senior High School. While accessing strengths and weaknesses after the COVID-19 pandemic during asset mapping for the grant, McKeesport found that they had an acute need for further support in their targeted grades.
“As we did our asset mapping, we saw that we had a lot of supports in our elementary school and those supports kind of fall off once you hit 6th grade,” Cale said. “We saw that when we compared suspension data, expulsion data and overall discipline data, that where those supports dropped off was where our greatest need was at.”
Cale said decreasing out of class time will be a primary aim of the YESS team, helping address truancy and issues in a classroom that might ordinarily result in an office referral. Cale anticipates the team will assist with student entry in the morning and dismissal at the end of the day, while also hanging around in high traffic areas that might not usually have too many adults present. During classes, they will walk through the halls and keep their eyes and ears alert for issues inside or outside the classroom.
The YESS team, Cale believes, will be tremendously helpful in not only helping support students, but taking some burden off of teachers.
“We hope that they impact our students in school to have an increase in better grades, a decrease in behavior issues brought into the school, but also to provide support to the students about things that are available and constructive in our community, so that we eventually decrease some of the behavioral incidents that occur in the community,” Cale said.
“They could take things that are happening in the community and meet with small groups in the school to try to quell some of those situations. They will also look at some of the students that have a higher incidence of behavior issues and work with reaching out to families and making sure that they’re checking in with those students to provide daily support.”
Regardless of the student, providing regular check-ins and being a consistent presence is key to the YESS team’s success, said Michele Woodward, the satellite program director at Pressley Ridge. All Pressley Ridge staff is trained in de-escalation skills, restorative practices and trauma-informed care, which makes them particularly effective in being able to earn trust.
“We take on the approach of meeting the students where they are and working from there. We don’t push them before they’re ready but we are a constant presence for them,” said Woodward.
“We give them an opportunity to seek us out when they need to. We do daily check-ins. It could be a simple just saying hello, but if you do that consistently, then over time that trust gets built and they start seeking you out.”
Jesse McLean, Pressley Ridge’s Executive Director of Pennsylvania, added similar thoughts, noting that Pressley Ridge data indicates that a child is much more likely to be successful if they have trust in an adult in their life.
“We do this by trying to be very proactive in engaging with the students, and building that relationship and rapport so that they feel comfortable talking to us about things before they occur,” McLean said.
“As the saying goes, it takes a village in order to create an impact. We’re just trying to be that one layer, so they know when they come to school, they have an adult that they can trust.”