Project SEEKS SES Blog

  • Highlighting the latest happenings of the grant-funded collaboration with the ACHD

  • The AIU and Project SEEKS SES hold SEL day

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 6/8/2023

    As Shannon Wanless reflected on a unique day of social-emotional learning collaboration and discussion, she came away beaming with optimism.

    Wanless, the Director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, has long been a champion of SEL and its importance in well-functioning societies and school systems. On Thursday, she served as the keynote speaker for the AIU’s and Project SEEKS SES’s SEL day at the Comfort Inn Conference Center.

    “I am so optimistic,” Wanless said. “When I see all the energy in this room and all the potential resources, it feels like we’re connecting people and getting all of that together in a way that serves our kids well. I feel good about it.”

    The day was well attended, seeing 50-plus participants from Allegheny County school districts and higher education universities, as well as 12 vendors. Those vendors included Satchel Pulse, Imagine Learning, CharacterStrong, Rachel’s Challenge, Move This World, TeachTown, Waterfront Learning, Committee for Children, MindUP, UPMC Western Behavioral Health, Digital Bridges International and 7Mindsets.

    Vendors came from across the country to participate, including companies from Washington, Illinois and New York. Such an exhaustive collaboration of school districts and vendors doesn’t happen often, Wanless said.

    “It usually looks like one school district or one program at a time. To get everybody together helps us know we’re not alone,” Wanless said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel and we can learn from each other. This is how momentum really starts to build.”

    Wanless led the day with a presentation about the ins and outs of SEL. Shanna Bradfield, a Behavior Training and Consultation coordinator at the AIU, then presented on how to best select a SEL program. Both presentations included plenty of time for discussion and collaboration. Those discussions left Wanless impressed and excited about the direction of SEL in Allegheny County.

    “I was hoping to inspire people to think outside the box, but also to say there is a place to start, wherever you are. There is a step right in front of you,” Wanless said.

    “I could hear it in the questions in the audience, like ‘what are you noticing?’ and ‘what are you doing in your district?’ Hopefully that continues.”

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  • "I’m very optimistic and excited": Project SEEKS SES and the Office of Child Development partnering together

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 5/23/2023

    Shannon Wanless gestures while speaking into a microphone

    A few years ago, the University of Pittsburgh and the Office of Child Development started pitching a program about positive racial identity, entitled P.R.I.D.E (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education).

    No institution felt comfortable taking on the program, so the University of Pittsburgh started it themselves, slowly easing it into the systems they work with. Now P.R.I.D.E has started to pick up steam, so much so that it’s become more systematic and built-in without needing the University of Pittsburgh to facilitate the work.

    Shannon Wanless, the director of the Office of Child Development, sees Project SEEKS SES in a similar light, except for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), a type of learning that aims to foster social and emotional skills within school-aged children.

    “It’s really trying to bring a focus on it and say we have these resources. I’m hoping what we can do is push people’s thinking beyond what seems possible right now in their institution right now,” Wanless said.

    “I’ve been longing for this moment for this to happen in Pennsylvania, and it feels like we’re at a crossroads where this can really happen, so I’m very optimistic and excited about what this can mean for the children we have in school right now.”

    Wanless sees the goals of Project SEEKS SES and the Office of Child Development similarly. They both want to help support children and communities in an equitable manner, and they both want to make these supports more systematic. As Project SEEKS SES moves forward, the Office of Child Development will be a key partner.

    “We definitely align. The Office of Child Development has been around for over 35 years, and everything we’ve done over that time has been to try and push the local institutions and systems to go beyond what seems possible right now to help children and families thrive,” Wanless said.

    “Our role is to convene these folks, give them a lot of information and training on SEL and give them a chance to work together to start supporting that goal and support the school so the school doesn’t feel like it’s in isolation in teaching SEL, but rather its in a SEL rich ecosystem in their neighborhood.”

    As the research on SEL has piled up, its importance has become apparent, Wanless said. As school districts and systems progress, Wanless believes teaching SEL is crucial.

    “There have now been decades of research studies showing that attention to SEL skills in developing children relates to their academic and lifelong success,” Wanless said. 

    “If schools view their ultimate goal as helping kids read, write and secure careers and be successful later in life in the workplace, then you can really see the tight connection to having social and emotional skills.”

    Although realization of the importance of SEL has grown, Wanless said integration hasn’t been as seamless. School districts might be overwhelmed with the amount of SEL curriculums available to them, and might have trouble figuring out exactly how to fit it into a school day. There is also an interesting dynamic between SEL and those teaching it.

    “It’s maybe the only topic in school where we’re asking adults to teach something that they never really learned themselves,” Wanless said.

    For proper SEL integration, Wanless said schools and systems need all hands on deck. If schools and the resources around them can work together and speak a similar language in regards to SEL, then it can be effectively integrated.

    “We put an enormous amount of weight on schools, but in reality, children are not only developing when they’re in the school building. They spend a lot of hours in other places as well, and there are a lot of resources in Allegheny County,” Wanless said. 

    “We have an incredible amount of resources and programs floating around the county, and the more they can work in partnership with the school, then you get synergy, rather than isolating schools and telling them to figure it out while the kids are there.”

    As things move forward, the Office of Child Development and Project SEEKS SES will both attempt to act as connectors and facilitators, connecting school districts with the resources around them, so that SEL and mental and behavioral health supports become more built-in.

    “Wrapping an ecosystem around them of all of those folks that have more skills in SEL, that have resources like clinicians when mental health supports are needed and are already in the neighborhoods that the schools are in, then the child and the family really get access to the full breadth of supports that are needed,” Wanless said.

    “We really need to make these relationships a lot more systematic and sustainable among the community organizations and schools.”

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  • SEEKS-funded V.I.B.E program making a big impact at Sto-Rox

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 5/19/2023

    The V.I.B.E team stands together for a picture


    The V.I.B.E program — a three-person violence intervention and prevention team at Sto-Rox— stands for Violence Intervention Building Empowerment, but Hassain Estes, the leader of the program, likes to sometimes refer to them as something else. 


    “Personally, I feel like we’ve got the dream team,” Estes said. “We work together well, and that builds everything else around us.” 


    The V.I.B.E team started at Sto-Rox in February and is funded by the Project SEEKS SES grant, 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. In a short period of time, Estes said they’ve made great headway. 


    “I feel like we’ve made a big dent in what we do here. The kids have connected with us, and they understand that this isn’t just a job, it’s like a lifestyle for us. We’re really doing everything we can to push a better influence on them and create better mindsets,” Estes said. 


    “I think the program has made a big impact. Teachers have come up to me and said, ‘since you’ve been here, there’s been so many fewer fights and situations.’” 


    The V.I.B.E team consists of Estes, Ronesha Stephens and Ed Pierce. Estes grew up in the East Hills and has regularly spent time in McKees Rocks taking pictures and shooting videos. Stephens owns Just Jemini, a clothing and accessory store in McKees Rox. Pierce is a Sto-Rox graduate and has spent years coaching football and baseball in the area. 


    While Estes, Stephens and Pierce’s backgrounds are all a bit different, they share a common ground of genuinely caring about the kids and their future. 


    “I personally feel like I’m talking to myself when I’m talking to the kids. We really relate to them and know where they’re coming from. We understand the help that they need. We understand the issues going on at home and that some might not have certain resources,” Estes said 


    “I feel like because we understand that we know how to talk to them, and really move around the issues that they have. We just know that gap that we need to cover. It’s a natural thing.” 


    The V.I.B.E team regularly spends time in the school district and in the community. Collectively, they’ve become familiar and friendly faces. But simply being around hasn’t been the catalyst for this group’s success. As Estes said, their ability to relate to the kids has been key. 


    As a student, Estes said he was oftentimes angry and misunderstood. In Stephens’ words, “there’s not too much that I haven’t been through.” Life experience has taught this group a lot, and they now want to pass on life lessons they’ve learned. 


    “We understand that bad days can come from things at home and certain traumas that we go through in life. Most times, they just need a little love,” Stephens said. “We just love how open the kids are. If there is an issue with a child that day and we’re securing the hallways or cafeteria, they’ll come straight to us and we’re ready to mediate.” 


    Estes, Stephens and Pierce have very much embraced a team mindset since coming into their roles. They each might know and relate to a different group of students, but they’ve tried to bring those groups of students together. 


    That team mindset has stretched onto the Sto-Rox staff. Estes said that the V.I.B.E team tries “to build relationships with everybody here because they complement us and we complement them.”  


    A strong example of that collaboration has been the team’s relationship with the district’s security, who Pierce said will now relay to him when a situation might be bubbling. 


    “The security will come to me like, ‘Ed, I think you need to talk to them, instead of just trying to restrain or pull them out. They know that’s what we’re here for,” Pierce said. 


    “We talk to them, but don’t talk down to them. Even when they make a mistake, we still treat them like young adults. We know that we have to treat them with respect to get that respect back.” 

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  • Duquesne to expand Pressley Ridge services through Project SEEKS SES

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 5/8/2023 8:00:00 AM

    Pressley Ridge


    The Duquesne City School District makes equity a priority. On a day-to-day basis, the district is constantly looking for new ways to properly access and educate each and every student equally.


    Lucy McDonough, the district’s special education consultant, has furthered those efforts since joining the district this school year. 


    “That’s been a goal of mine, to build the resources and the capacity within Duquesne to be able to educate all of their students in the district,” McDonough said. “That’s what we’re working toward and we’re going to keep building on that.”


    McDonough has helped connect the district with Pressley Ridge, who provides districts with specialized education services, among other things. This school year, Duquesne City and Pressley Ridge have partnered to have two behavioral support staff. The support staff has been so successful that Duquesne City has planned an expansion. 


    Currently, the district has Pressley Ridge behavioral support staff in one classroom. The plan is to expand that support staff to three classrooms. 


    “Pressley Ridge has been instrumental in supporting our teacher and the K-2 students as they display mental and behavioral issues. They have helped the students be able to self-advocate, as well as create a schedule that helps the students gain an understanding of their day and what the expectations are,” said Duquesne City superintendent Dr. Sue Mariani. 


    “The students and the teacher have been able to establish a structure within the classroom where the students are starting to feel successful inside the classroom. We are thrilled with our partnership and look forward to expanding in the future.”


    Such an expansion is possible through Project SEEKS SES, an AIU and ACHD grant-funded collaboration to address social and emotional health issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Duquesne City was picked by the ACHD as one of ten districts to receive funding from the grant.


    “We partnered with Pressley Ridge to provide a higher level of service within our emotional support classrooms, so that we could keep kids in the district, and hopefully make it a quicker return to their regular education classrooms,” McDonough said.


    “They have a model they use with two behavioral support staff in one classroom that work alongside the teacher to address the social skills and the emotional needs of the kids, behavioral interventions, and provide a level of support that we don’t typically have here.”


    Currently, the support staff is just in a K-2 classroom, which generally affects 8-12 students. With next school year’s expansion, the district will be able to impact roughly 24 or 25 students. Michele Woodward oversees all of Pressley Ridge’s satellite programs. She said her staff’s training makes them particularly qualified to handle the support that Duquesne City needs.


    “All of our staff in satellite programs are trained in CPI (Crisis Prevention Intervention). They get training on trauma-informed practices and we also train them on restorative practices,” Woodward said. “We try to take on a more restorative approach with all of the students.”  


    Woodward said there has been a greater need for emotional and behavioral support staff in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


    “I think it has come to the forefront since COVID. The students spent their time learning and socializing through electronic devices,” Woodward said. 


    “Now that they’re back in the classroom for in person learning, it has been a challenge. We’re really seeing it with some of the younger students who started school during the pandemic. They’re adjusting to what it is like to be in school. For some of the older students, I just think it’s something they have got used to. It’s taking some time to transition back.”


    Pressley Ridge’s staff and Duquesne City’s staff collaborate as a team by identifying the needs of each student in the targeted classroom and making a plan for them. Pressley Ridge then keeps track of behavioral data and meets as a team with Duquesne on a weekly basis. 


    Beyond providing staff, Pressley Ridge has also provided some of Duquesne City’s staff with some of the same trauma-informed training that they have, and Woodward said they were very receptive to it. McDonough is hopeful that this collaborative spirit will help raise the skill level of the district’s staff.


    “The goal is that we get immersed in hands-on behavioral interventions and we see it in action,” McDonough said.


    “Always the goal of doing anything like this is that we’re able to sustain this and build the capacity in the district to do this.”

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  • Logic Models: A necessary and important element of Project SEEKS SES

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 4/18/2023

    Years of experience in the grant and evaluation realm have taught Sheila Bell a number of things. Chief among them: good intentions can’t reach their potential without fully formed plans.


    Project SEEKS SES is an initiative that started off with good intentions. The ACHD identified post-pandemic social and emotional challenges with school-aged children and aligned with the AIU to facilitate a grant-funded project to address these challenges. 


    Since then, the AIU has followed through with thorough plans, identifying needs in the 10 participating districts in the grant. The projects to address those needs will be tracked by Bell and the AIU’s Evaluation, Grants & Data team, who developed a logic model template for grantees to use as part of their project planning processes.


    “A logic model is a visual representation of how a program works,” said Project SEEKS SES coordinator Shannon Fagan. “It is a map of what you hope to achieve, who you will serve, what you will do, the change you want to achieve, how you will measure it and how you know if you met your goal.”


    Before fully implementing their projects, Bell and Falon Weidman are working with each district to train them on what makes a good logic model and how to create one. Putting together a logic model before implementation is important so projects can establish outcome measures to track their success, and to give the districts a scaled-out view of what they’re hoping to achieve.


    “It’s important to create a logic model before you start so that you can plan it out and head off any roadblocks that you might not see initially. You want your implementation to be as successful as possible,” said Bell. “It just puts everything into a neat package, and then as you move forward, the logic model can keep everybody on the same page.”


    The following logic models will be reviewed by the AIU every 6 months and reviewed by the ACHD bi-anually. As data is gleaned, the models and the projects will be fluid in making sure the school districts are getting their intended results.


    “The really critical piece of a logic model is how you use it. It’s actually a document that you can build off of and go back to over and over for communication purposes and to make program refinements,” said Bell. “You want to make sure that it’s a document that’s meaningful and you can change it as the program changes.”


    Over the years, Bell said grant evaluation has changed. In the 90’s, Bell said she started to notice a change, when funders started requiring more data on the success of a program, instead of just looking at the amount of people the program served. That data is important not just for the current funders, but for future funding. Oftentimes, grant-funded programs can be fleeting. But by tracking data, districts can make a more compelling case to future funders.


    “Collecting data to show how many people you worked with and what they were able to achieve because of the work you’re doing can help find additional funding. It can also show where the need is,” Bell said.


    “It can be challenging to sustain grant-funded programs, so you often have to talk to different types of funders. And you want to have as much information as possible as to why it’s worth their time and why it will make a difference overall.”

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  • Project SEEKS SES hopes to help address educational staffing shortage

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 4/13/2023

    A couple of years ago, Anna Arlotta Guerrero realized that a teacher shortage was on the horizon.

    Guerrero, an Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Pittsburgh, said a perfect confluence of factors has led the profession down this road. The COVID-19 pandemic brought some teachers out of the profession, and now baby boomers are starting to retire, too. Still, the numbers are even more startling than Guerrero and her peers anticipated.

    “Across the board, the shortages are scary,” Guerrero said. “They’re really scary.”

    Between 2008 and 2019, the number of students completing traditional teacher education programs in the U.S. dropped by more than a third, according to a 2022 report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. 

    Figuring out solutions to the shortage is complicated. The AIU’s Project SEEKS SES, though, hopes to be a small part of the solution. Project SEEKS SES — a grant-funded partnership between the AIU and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) — partners with ten area school districts to address trauma, behavior and mental health issues that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also work with higher education institutions in hopes of bolstering a local pipeline of professionals to school social work, school psychology and school counseling fields.

    As part of that work, the AIU and the three higher education partners will look to facilitate pre-professional placements in the ten participating school districts. Aaron Thomas, Cornell School District’s superintendent, is excited about the possibilities of higher education partnerships.

    “I think it has the potential to be very impactful,” Thomas said. 

    Thomas said Cornell had a similar partnership with the University of Pittsburgh previously, when reading interns spent a year in the district as student teachers, getting their reading certificate in the process. Their impact was invaluable, though the partnership ended after a number of years, as students seeking their reading certificate lessened.

    “To have them here in that capacity for a full year was extremely beneficial for our teachers, our reading specialists and most importantly, our kids,” Thomas said. “They made a great impact.”

    Guerrero coordinates a teacher preparation program at the University of Pittsburgh called CASE (Combined Accelerated Studies in Education). The program requires four different teaching placements before the students get dual-certified. The placements are key in preparing students for the field, Guerrero said, as well as limiting teacher burnout.

    “It helps them to go into their first year feeling really confident, which is what we need. We need teachers who can get started straight away and feel like they’ve had a lot of experiences,” Guerrero said.

    “As a teacher, you can write a lesson plan or write a script, but you’re pivoting all the time because of things that happen in the classroom, positive or negative.”

    Beyond preparing students for the field, placements are especially important now for various school districts due to staff shortages. 

    “Every district has dealt with that in some regard. We’re feeling it with substitutes or reading interns. But I know some districts have it worse,” Thomas said. “They might not have enough special education teachers, not enough math or STEAM or foreign language teachers. We’re fortunate in that we’re considered fully staffed.”

    In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become apparent that there’s a need for greater mental health support, as students deal with trauma and social and emotional setbacks.

    “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in students who feel anxiety, students who are feeling depressed and some students who have unfortunately had suicidal thoughts,” Thomas said. 

    Without proper mental health support, Guerreo said it can be hard for a student to properly learn. Project SEEKS SES will look to help in filling those gaps with greater staffing, making sure that students feel supported.

    “Having people there to support the kids as they work through whatever they’re working through, that’s invaluable,” Guerrero said. “When a child comes to school, we better be ready to make sure they’re feeling welcome and loved. That’s what’s going to help them be able to learn more, and to feel confident and good about themselves.”

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  • Project SEEKS SES stakeholder meeting recap

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 4/11/2023

    Check out the full video recap of last week's Project SEEKS SES stakeholder meeting below.

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  • The AIU holds first Project SEEKS SES stakeholder meeting

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 4/5/2023

    When discussing why the Allegheny County Heath Department (ACHD) chose the AIU to facilitate Project SEEKS SES, ACHD acting director Patrick Dowd said the choice was simple.

    “We had to find a partner that could do a bunch of things at the same time," Dowd said. "That was how we landed on the Allegheny Intermediate Unit."  

    On April 4th, that dynamic ability was on display, as the AIU held its first Project SEEKS SES stakeholder meeting. All told, roughly 80 school district, higher education and community partners gathered for the four-hour event. While these partners might collaborate on occasion, getting them all together in the same room is something that seldom — if ever — happens.    

    During the meeting, the partners collaborated and discussed the best ways to address adolescent social and emotional health, as well as how they can work together to build a pipeline of professionals for school social work, psychology and counseling fields.  

    “We needed to do something to support the mental health of our students, particularly those heavily impacted by the pandemic," said AIU executive director Robert Scherrer.  

    For some scenes of the event check out the video here, or the slideshow above.

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  • Project SEEKS SES and the Pittsburgh Study partner together

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 3/16/2023

    Dr. Liz Miller


    When Liz Miller learned about Project SEEKS SES, she knew that she’d be an apt partner for the work.


    Miller wears a number of hats, but has made waves within the mental health and education realm for her work with the Pittsburgh Study, a “longitudinal, community-partnered study focused on child and adolescent thriving and racial equity.” The study — which began in 2018 — aims to study 20,000-25,000 children over the next two decades.


    “The Pittsburgh Study is this really audacious vision that every child and young person in our region should be healthy, thriving and achieving their academic goals. We do this by bringing community members and professional scientists together,” said Miller. “We’re really bringing in community members to do the science together. We’re really focusing on dismantling systemic inequities and adversities related to poverty and racism.”


    As part of the Pittsburgh Study, Miller hopes to use her data to inform school district and community initiatives. That’s where Miller comes into play in Project SEEKS SES, an AIU and ACHD partnership that looks to address social and emotional health in ten school districts, while also building a pipeline of professionals to help address the workforce crisis in related fields.


    Miller will partner with Project SEEKS SES by implementing the Healthy Allegheny Teen Survey (HATS) in the ten school districts in the grant, along with 13 Pittsburgh Public high schools. HATS is an anonymous survey that asks high school students to answer questions related to exercise, eating habits, relationships, violence, substance use, sexual health, social supports and mentorship and connectedness to parents and school, among other things.


    Miller has initiated this survey a number of times. In 2018, Miller administered the survey in 13 Pittsburgh Public high schools. She got a 91 percent response rate, entering 4,450 surveys into the final sample. This time around, Miller hopes for a similar or greater response. The data will then help inform Project SEEKS SES, giving the AIU and the participating school districts data to glean strengths and weaknesses. Miller’s plan is to administer this survey every year, which will help Project SEEKS SES identify trends and judge the success of its initiatives. 


    “It’s focused on high school youth and really intended to guide allocation of resources and programs,” Miller said. “It’s very much tied to the goals of Project SEEKS. By having the data collected in the spring — as we really launch much more in earnest in academic year 23-24 — we’ll actually have some benchmark data.”


    Miller has long talked about the adolescent mental health crisis, identifying it as a burgeoning issue two decades ago. Through her relationship with the ACHD, Project SEEKS SES came on her radar in its early stages, when the county was starting to think about writing for the grant. 

    Miller is happy to see an initiative like Project SEEKS SES moving forward in the greater Pittsburgh area. She’s hoping it’s the start of a number of similar initiatives, noting social and emotional health support as especially important in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.


    “What the pandemic did was multiple things. One, it created additional stressors for children, youth and families who were already struggling. And two, across the board, the pandemic disrupted opportunities for social and emotional development,” Miller said. 


    “Especially for young students, it was disruptive to social and emotional development, disruptive to communication skills, disruptive to relationship skills and really disruptive in terms of the social support that young people need to thrive.”


    The goals of Project SEEKS SES and the Pittsburgh Study are quite similar, Miller said, as they’re both rooted in the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model, which is the CDC's framework for addressing health in schools. The WSCC model is “student-centered and emphasizes the role of the community in supporting the school, the connections between health and academic achievement and the importance of evidence-based school policies and practices,” according to the CDC.


    “There’s a strong foundation of evidence that when you actually do this work — collaborating across sectors, doing multi-disciplinary work and having community and academic partnerships — there are now decades of research showing that you get better academic outcomes,” Miller said.


    To that end, Miller lauded the early work of Project SEEKS SES, headed by its project coordinator, Shannon Fagan. With Fagan’s skill for collaboration and community partners like the Pittsburgh Study, Miller is confident in the direction of the project.


    “Shannon is doing a remarkable job of identifying what’s already working well in the school districts and how to amplify that, and how to better coordinate across the many, many programs that are coming into school districts all at once,” Miller said. 


    “We’re all in it together, and when much of the focus is directed towards coordinating all of the existing assets within a community, you can actually make some pretty amazing magic happen.”

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  • VIBE Anti-Violence Team Funded By New SEEKS Program

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 3/1/2023

    Lee Davis prides himself on his empathy. Davis, the founder of Lee Davis & Associates Consulting, grew up in Braddock and went to Woodland Hills, seeing and experiencing violence around him regularly. 

    Those experiences shaped the man he is today, a man who looks for solutions when he sees violence happening in communities in Pittsburgh. That mindset led the Sto-Rox School District and Lee Davis & Associates to partner together in an anti-violence effort over the next 18 months. Those efforts will be funded by the Project SEEKS SES (Supporting Expansion and Enhancement of K-12 School-Based Social, Emotional Supports) grant, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that will address trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts. 

    “My thing is: wherever people are hurting, that’s where I’m from. I don’t live in a silo or a bubble. So I can take my expertise where it’s needed and I speak up. I’m a disruptor. I don’t believe in the status quo,” Davis said. 

    “We’ve lost so many people to violence. We’ve seen what happens in these communities. I saw what was happening in Sto-Rox and I saw the signs. I saw that Sto-Rox had a chance to get on top of this early.” 

    Three of Davis’ employees will work full-time at Sto-Rox with the aim of stopping violence at the school and in the community by figuring out root causes of the issues. Davis and his team of three — formally referred to as violence interrupters — will be known as the V.I.B.E. team, which stands for Violence Intervention Building Empowerment. Megan Van Fossan, Sto-Rox’s superintendent, identified violence and trauma as issues she’d like to quell in the district. Having known Davis previously for work he’s done in violent communities, she knew that he was the right one for the job. 

    “Interrupters are individuals that have very honed-in communication skills and understand the needs of our community and understand the history, the culture and the background of our citizens,” Van Fossan said.  

    “The whole idea is that they interrupt that cycle of violence and figure out traditional and non-traditional ways of stopping it in its tracks.” 

    The V.I.B.E. team will partner with Sto-Rox’s social workers and will regularly spend time in the district getting to know the students and building relationships. In addition to de-escalating violent situations and getting to the root causes of those issues, the team will look to identify what help and support a student and their family might need, whether that might be mental health support or help with housing or food instability.  

    “The biggest thing is that we all are empathetic. We all came from this. We see that in the kids that we deal with, that a lot of the time they just need some love and some resources in the family,” Davis said. 

    “We don’t deal with the kids in isolation from the community or the family. Everybody is going to play a part. That’s the public health approach, that everybody is going to be involved.” 

    Van Fossan echoed Davis’ thoughts. 

    “We really want it to be a family unit. We don’t just want the interrupters to deal with kids. We also want the interrupters to deal with the family units and bring them together and figure out alternative ways for them to deal with the conflict,” she said. 

    The inspiration for the V.I.B.E. team was multifold, Van Fossan said. Stopping violence is a priority for the district, but so too is mental health. While the Sto-Rox school district provides plenty of mental health support, Van Fossan said there are not enough providers at large to properly care for every student who needs it. 

    “Part of this is a trial balloon. We know kids need something, they can’t get it and there’s not enough providers, so what can we do in the meantime,” Van Fossan said. “What can we do to ward off the additional trauma that children are experiencing with conflict?” 

    With hopes of preventing future trauma, Davis and Van Fossen will also try to address some current and past traumas that Sto-Rox students might have. Davis said there is a stigma in the African-American community about receiving mental health support, which in some cases might cause violent situations to bubble up. 

    By getting to know the Sto-Rox students and their families well, V.I.B.E. will hope to break down those barriers. It’s that sort of mindset — looking past stigmas and the surface level — that serves as inspiration for this partnership and gives Davis confidence that he and his team will have success. 

    “I know this is going to work because we’re going to address root causes and we’re really going to listen to what people have to say, instead of just telling people what’s wrong with them,” Davis said.  

    “We’re going to listen to people and really want to dig down deep and figure out root causes and deal with traumas that never have been resolved. That’s our goal. That’s what makes us different from everybody else.” 

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