By Jeff Mortensen
President & CEO
Last school year, 55 Dakota County students graduated high school with support from 360 Communities’ Partners For Success program. When one of those students crossed the stage in June to receive his diploma, few in the audience understood the mountain of obstacles he overcame to reach that milestone. 360 Communities partners with students from birth to graduation to help them achieve student success.
Jacob was a junior when school staff introduced him to Samantha, a 360 Communities family support worker. Family support workers are part of the 360 Communities Partners For Success program with staff in 32 Dakota County schools. They help students and families overcome barriers to school success and support 360 Communities’ mission of delivering safety and stability that improves lives. They partner with educators and families to implement effective home-based strategies that increase parental involvement, improve academic performance, and connect families to community resources.
At only 16 years of age, Jacob had already experienced a lifetime of trauma. He survived domestic violence, family drug addiction, and his family rarely had enough resources to stay financially stable and healthy. He lived through multiple periods of housing instability, requiring stays in homeless shelters and couch-hopping. This negatively affected Jacob’s physical and mental health. He was frequently sick, developed asthma, and was self-conscious. He had difficulty spending time in class, at lunch, and being with other students. Doctors diagnosed him with a general anxiety disorder and PTSD.
Jacob had a history of truancy, and his family needed resources. To the school staff, Samantha was a welcome partner who could build trust with Jacob and his family in a way that they could not. She could provide the extra supports needed to help them gain stability and achieve graduation.
Partnering for student success
At first, communication with home was difficult, but with persistence and consistent follow- through, Samantha established trust with Jacob’s mother, Jennifer. Samantha began by connecting Jennifer with community resources that established financial and housing stability for the family. Samantha worked with Jennifer to understand her family budget and set achievable financial goals. She accelerated progress by providing school supplies, food shelf access, and holiday gifts. Jennifer was relieved to have the safety of stable housing and a manageable budget for herself and Jacob. Samantha also met frequently with Jacob to develop a plan that supported his emotional and academic well-being by learning about his perspective and strengths. Samantha kept Jennifer informed of Jacob’s progress at school so Jennifer could follow up with support for him at home.
Jacob was in therapy but needed emotional support in school. Managing his anxiety would be crucial to improving his class attendance and engagement, as well as his social skills. When Samantha first met Jacob, he suffered panic attacks just attempting to go to the cafeteria, and anxiety hindered his ability to attend classes regularly.
Samantha partnered with the school support team to build his coping skills through an incremental plan. Samantha worked with teachers to arrange a time at the beginning of each period for Jacob to meet with them so he could be comfortable before class began. He was more likely to attend class when he took this first step. She invited him to have lunch in her office at first and gradually encouraged him to take steps to go to the cafeteria. Jacob trusted Samantha so much that he brought one of his friends who was having a problem to meet with her because he knew she could help.
To graduation and beyond
With the help of 360 Communities, Jacob’s attendance and grades improved. He took positive steps to control his panic attacks, and his overall health was better. In addition, Jennifer had achieved greater financial stability. By the end of his senior year, Jacob had significantly improved his ability to manage his anxiety. He attended classes regularly, made new connections with teachers, and handed in most of his assignments. Jacob ate lunch in the cafeteria with friends and displayed an air of confidence, including a sense of humor. He even found a part-time job to help his mother with living expenses. Jacob graduated high school with the knowledge that he is resilient and feels in control of his future. It took a team of school staff, Samantha, Jennifer, and most importantly, Jacob to alter his trajectory and achieve graduation.
When we partner with families and schools to provide help today, we inspire hope for the future. And Jacob’s story is just beginning. This fall, he will attend community college, where he will continue to build on his high school student success.