Check & Connect Plus Truancy Board (C&C+TB)
*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the CrimeSolutions.gov website.
In considering the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows some evidence that it achieves justice-related goals when implemented with fidelity).
Of all the reviews of mentoring programs done for Crime Solutions, this variation on Check & Connect is one of only two that have received different ratings of effectiveness based on variations of the program (the Brief Instrumental School-Based Mentoring Program, which has undergone several improvement cycles over the years, being the other). Clearly there are things about this version of the Check & Connect model that allowed it to be more successful around the core program goal of improving graduation rates for truant students. So what was so different about this version of the program?
1. The partnership between the school and truancy courts seems powerful.
The biggest difference in this version of the Check & Connect model is the direct partnership with the community truancy board, a group of community leaders, school officials, and representatives of juvenile courts. Other implementations of the Check & Connect model have been focused solely on school personnel to develop and lead the program, whereas this variation adds the full weight of the juvenile court system to the effort.
Mentees in this version of the program begin their involvement by getting a summons from the court regarding their truancy, in which they are asked to appear before the truancy board with their parents or guardians. This meeting is described in the associated journal article as “5–10 board members sit behind a horseshoe-shaped table and the student and family are seated facing them…they seek to convey a helpful and collaborative attitude in seeking out with the family the obstacles that make school attendance challenging. Following a discussion of the state’s truancy laws and the legal consequences of continued truant behavior, these issues are identified and discussed over the course of a 10- to 20-minute question-and-answer period.”
This is clearly a more intense beginning to program involvement than a typical Check & Connect program, which often starts with a meeting with the very same school personnel who have not been able to support a youth’s consistent attendance already. In this version, youth and, perhaps crucially, their parents are approached by an external group with some legal authority over the circumstances. This is likely to be a more jarring experience, especially for parents, and this aspect of the program alone might spur a more rigorous attempt by parents to address barriers at home that may be influencing their child’s attendance. These meetings also result in a contract between the family and the board that details specific steps they must take to improve attendance and be in compliance with what is, essentially, a court order.
Once they have completed this appearance, the student then begins meeting with the school mentor to get the more traditional “check” and “connections” of the model. But in this instance, the mentor is not a school employee or a community volunteer. They are an employee of the court, once again representing that system in partnership with the school. Placing this type of juvenile court role literally in the school may send a powerful message to youth and families. It also, as the authors note, builds on research that has shown the value of more holistic interventions around truancy and illustrates some of the power gained by forging this school-juvenile court partnership.
The services offered by this mentor closely resemble other versions of Check & Connect: tracking of school data and progress toward graduation; monthly meetings for low-risk students, bi-weekly for more higher-risk students; an emphasis on the relationship and rapport; referrals to other services if needed. But those interactions just might have a bit more heft by placing a representative of the courts in that role. Unfortunately, this study did not test a variation on this that included truancy board but then used school staff or community members as mentors, so it is unclear whether it is the board or the in-school board representative (or a combination of both) that is driving the results here. But given the results, clearly adding the truancy board as a partner in this model produced good results.
2. But there are risks in that approach…
This study involved comparing the youth at one high school in Spokane, WA, with truant youth at three other are high schools using a matched comparison design. The one school received this embedded court representative in the “mentor” role while the others did “business as usual.” It is highly likely that having that court representative embedded in the school as part of this program had an impact on school culture at some level. They had an office in the building, met frequently with students there and, while the article doesn’t directly address this, likely met with teachers, administrators, and other school staff in the course of their work. Adding someone in this role would likely have a ripple effect beyond just their own actions, perhaps spurring more collaboration between teachers and families, or influencing other aspects of the school, such as the work of the counselor or fostering more check-ins with students by other adults.
But there is also a huge risk in this model because this one person was the mentor for every single youth in the program. We know that not every mentoring relationship will “click” and that sometimes rematching can help a student find someone who is a better fit for them (the work of Amanda Bayer and colleagues1 in this area has highlighted the importance of compatibility in school-based matches and how that may influence both relationship closeness and program outcomes). This version of the program places the full weight of all of the program’s mentoring work on the shoulders of one person. Undoubtedly, this person might not connect well with all of the students they must meet with and it’s likely that they won’t have the close, mutually-rewarding relationship we commonly associate with mentoring outcomes with such a wide variety of students. This role would require a truly exceptional individual who could offer their mentoring in a variety of flexible styles and adapt their approach to the needs and personalities of each mentee.
While that clearly worked well enough in this instance to generate positive results, it does beg a question about the scalability of this approach and concern about instances where an embedded, court-provided employee happens to not be a great “fit” at a school or the students with whom they work. While the emphasis on the “check” portion of the intervention might still be helpful in those situations, the lack of what might be considered truly authentic mentoring might make positive outcomes hard to come by. So practitioners intrigued by this approach may not want to risk putting all their eggs in the basket of one individual mentor.
3. Replicating something similar in other program settings.
Clearly there is power here in this type of school-family-juvenile court partnership. Not every school is well positioned to make this type of partnership happen. But they might be able to recreate some of the magic here by:
- Developing a truancy “commission” or some other entity comprised of community leaders, law enforcement, youth development programs, and school staff that could mimic the role that the truancy board played here. In thinking about the many efforts happening around the country to use mentoring to combat chronic absenteeism, it seems as though starting that relationship with a formal meeting with the youth, parents, and a group of caring individuals who collectively bring some authority to the proceedings might jumpstart this work in a way that simply providing a mentor would not. So even if a school or program can’t forge a true integration with the juvenile courts as was done here, they might still be able to create some kind of formal kick-off that carries similar weight.
- Embedding an “external” mentor (or more) in the school. As noted above, making one person responsible for all the mentoring may not be the best approach, but there is potentially power in having the people doing the “checking and connecting” be external to the school staff. They can bring different resources to the work, look at issues from an outsider perspective, and advocate for the youth in ways that might be precluded for school personnel. And, as noted earlier, bringing external partners into this work by giving them physical space and a role in the building may also have an influence on school culture and the behavior of school staff.
4. A lack of information about mechanisms of change.
Frequently in these “insights” pieces, we lament aspects of study design or reporting that make it challenging for practitioners to learn more about how to replicate results. This program’s evaluation is no exception, as several critical pieces of information are underdiscussed or absent from the article we have to work with:
- Although the program did a comprehensive needs assessment using a standardized instrument when youth entered the program, there did not seem to be an attempt to see if the students had improved in any of these measures (or at least the ones that might have been changed in a pre-post sense by the program). So while they assessed youth on aggression-defiance, depression-anxiety, substance abuse, peer deviance, family environment, and school engagement, we don’t know if the program’s mentoring changed any of these things for the better. In fact, there is very little in the report about the mechanisms of change that would lead to improved attendance and, eventually, graduation.
- We also lack information about the delivery of the program. The article contains little information about the frequency and duration of check-ins beyond what is stated as the program ideal. The article also offers little information about the steps parents took in response to those board-provided action plans, the amount and types of referrals to other services, or the types of barriers that the mentor worked to overcome. So while we know that the program seemed to work in terms of improving graduation, we have to “read the tea leaves” a bit to try and figure out exactly what was provided to youth, how that might have influenced their attitudes and behaviors, and the exact program components that drove outcomes.
In fact, this evaluation is one of the more cautious program investigations we’ve examined through the work of the NMRC. Rather than looking at a variety of youth outcomes or digging deep into what drove program changes, this evaluation looked at one outcome, graduation rates, and that’s it. In some ways, this is a safer approach if the goal is to boil down a program’s effectiveness to just its core outcome. In fact, there are many programs in these Crime Solutions reviews that had positive impacts on some outcomes, but were rated as “no effects” because the bulk of their outcome areas showed little difference between treatment and control. They were, in essence, perhaps done in by their own attempt to look at many outcomes, rather than hanging their hat on one.
But the evaluation here is so focused as to arguably be of limited use to practitioners beyond what we have covered here. Clearly there appears to be power in using truancy boards and court-appointed staff embedded in schools to do this kind of Check & Connect style program. But it would be nice if we understood a bit more from the study about why it appears to have worked, how it worked, and ways that it could work even better. Perhaps future iterations of this successful model will illuminate these issues and allow this work to grow to scale.
1 Bayer, A., Grossman, J. B., & DuBois, D. L. (2015) Using volunteer mentors to improve the academic outcomes of underserved students: The role of relationships. Journal of Community Psychology, 43(4), 408–429.
For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.