This is part two of a two-part series on how to develop partnerships across sectors in prevention efforts, highlighting examples from our work with education and social services.

For this blog, we’ve summarized stories and extracted four key learnings from three partners who shared their experiences and insights from collaborating with schools. Profiled within this blog:

  • Charlotte SmithPeer Researcher with MtS Scholars With Lived Experience Network (LivEx)
  • Clovis Grant - Chief Executive Officer of 360°kids, a homeless youth organization in the Greater Toronto Area
  • Monique Lavallee- Annishinaabe Kwe from Neyaashiingmiing First Nation & Executive Director of Niwasa Kendaaswin Teg, a multi-service Indigenous agency

Learning #1

Engage In Issue Identification With Youth To Establish A Foundation For Schools And Partners To Build Upon

“Schools don’t realize that young people are experiencing homelessness,” shared Charlotte, “and even when they do realize, they often treat them as deviants who need to be disciplined and punished.” 

Charlotte’s advocacy begins with her research findings that reflect her own experiences: that schools don’t talk about homelessness. Monique identified a similar starting point for her own work on school-community collaborations with Niwasa and the Indigenous community-led recognition that youth were facing barriers and feeling unheard, with schools failing to address student retention and graduation rates. Clovis, similarly, referenced the integral involvement of youth as part of the York Region Youth Homelessness Prevention and Housing Stabilization Strategy led by 360°kids, who identified the need for earlier supports in schools. Throughout these efforts, youth themselves were the drivers of identifying the ways that schools could support students through education on homelessness—not only for staff but for students and families. 

Learning #2

Take Time To Build Meaningful Relationships That Will In Turn Uphold Strong Collaboration

Taking time to build meaningful relationships was emphasized as key, particularly with the knowledge that these concepts may be new for many schools. Monique shared that efforts to have culturally relevant supports for Indigenous youth in schools was a new concept for many. Through building strong relational ties, her organization

worked to build a relationship that is grounded in reciprocity. We facilitated dialogue and presentations on Indigenous cultural safety and understanding the unique needs of Indigenous students and families. The educators and administration would come to realize that by supporting the Indigenous students and families, some powerful meaningful discussions were taking place.”

Monique pointed to network building as a key driver of success. An Indigenous Education Council was struck, which included “representation from Niwasa Kendaaswin Teg, Indigenous community members, youth, agencies, the Public and Catholic school boards and the Hamilton Community Foundation. Eventually, the Hamilton Community Foundation funded a pilot project for a stay in school initiative which would later be titled: Native Youth Advancement with Education Hamilton (NYA:WEH).”

Through discussing lessons learned from other organizations such as The RAFT Niagara and Hamilton’s Good Shepherd’s (part of Making the Shift Demonstration Lab) Youth Reconnect programs, Clovis emphasized the importance of finding a shared language and alignment in the goals and intended impacts of community and schools. Clovis shared that he is currently working to engage various school departments, to increase their overall awareness of youth homelessness, integrate efforts and facilitate a broader community response to the issue.

Charlotte was honest that she has “always been afraid of the school board.” However, she has found that partnerships built on a specific goal— for example, establishing a Bursary for youth with lived experience of homelessness at university, could lead to broader awareness and action. She emphasized the importance of sharing lessons across different communities, raising awareness of the prevalence of students experiencing homelessness from “kindergarten to a PhD.”

Learning #3

Understand The Context And Priorities Of Your School, And Get To Know Who Might Be Your Champions in Schools

Monique shared the strategy of understanding and navigating the unique structures of school environments, “One of the most important learnings was trying to unpack the hierarchy and politics within a school environment. In my naivety, I would engage with folks in the system without realizing the communication protocols in place and I would unintentionally follow the wrong path.”

Monique emphasized the “key steps in building partnerships with schools is to begin the conversation. Start reaching out to any contacts that you have, find champions and folks who have a vested interest in your project...Try to find a common goal where your project aligns with the school plans.” Clovis shared the need to work with all levels of the board, wherever there is interest, adding that this interest may stem from previous participation in educational and awareness events. For example, the participation of a Director of Education in a 360°kids overnight on the street event led to a better understanding of the challenges homeless youth face, and this led to continued commitment and support for prevention activities. Charlotte echoed the need to find common ground with those in schools, particularly those who held decision-making power, emphasizing the usefulness of not only finding shared goals but also shared experiences.           

Learning #4

Demonstrate Results And Highlight Impacts To Motivate Schools To Take Action

Monique and Clovis stressed the need to start in one or two schools. They referenced that small pilots and projects have, in their experiences, grown to be applicable in larger contexts, for example 360°kids’ iGrad program, an Alternative Education school located in the Drop-In and the NYA:WEH program expansion to four secondary schools and six elementary schools. Monique shared, “[she] believes when the school community began to see the early results of the impact of the project and that student retention, credit accumulation and graduation rates were on the rise, the administration began to see the value in the program. This sparked conversation and also supported the expansion of the program.”

Clovis and Charlotte share similar approaches to school engagement, things like “assemblies at the start of the school year; building awareness as part of the curriculum; presentations to Administrators and Professional School staff” have all been approaches used by 360°kids. Charlotte’s work shows us that small shifts can have big impacts, particularly in educational and awareness building, as she shared,

“As I began working with youth experiencing homelessness in participatory research projects, I began to focus on advocating for immediate impact for participants…Importantly, we have found that several students disclose their own experiences of homelessness after hearing us speak. This shows the value of discourse on homelessness in creating it as an issue that is safe to disclose.”  

Youth engagement is a key driver of this work, and she demonstrated the immediate impacts youth feel when they are given a platform to share their experiences and solutions, rather than feeling disconnected and silenced within schools.

If we can look at schools as more than just a place of education, we see them differently within the community response to youth homelessness. These learnings are proof that there is progress in this area, but we need to continue to do our homework.

Our guest bloggers will expand on their experiences in collaborating with schools during an upcoming webinar. Register here.