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RUSD adds five community connectors to help students inside, outside of school

The Journal Times - 6/22/2023

Jun. 22—RACINE — Tenisha Winn couldn't wait to begin.

The first few days were full of energy and excitement as she started her new job as a community connector at Case High School, where she and her children graduated.

"It was almost like a family reunion," Winn said.

Winn was one of five new community connectors who started working at the Racine Unified School District in March.

RUSD has 10 community connectors who assist students with life inside and outside of school.

They are liaisons between students, teachers, administrators, families, law enforcement and community members who focus on gang diversion and disciplinary intervention at middle schools and high schools.

"We're actually providing resources, we're providing guidance and safety and everything else that comes with it," said Dajuanna Sanders, a Mitchell K-8 School community connector.

A few months into the job, the new connectors are enthusiastic about the opportunities to help students.

"There are just so many more facets of a student's life that I get to be a part of," Winn said. "I can impact a child on a Monday and then at night I can go to their house and check on them or engage with them. If they have a job, I can check in with them at their work."

Connectors vary in age, background and skill set but are united in their passion to help young people and the community.

Winn previously held several jobs at RUSD and was thrilled to apply for the connector role.

"Being able to impact the community that I lived in, that my children were raised in, is wonderful, and it makes me happy," Winn said. "When I heard about the position being available and I looked into it further, I was like, 'Oh my God, I've been waiting for this.'"

'Whatever it takes'

The program started with five men in fall 2021, and RUSD now has five schools with two connectors each: Case, Horlick and Park high schools and Jerstad-Agerholm and Mitchell K-8 schools.

Because of that, connectors have more flexible schedules during the school year so they can work outside their home school as needed. It also puts less pressure on each connector to attend an event, since they have more colleagues who can do so.

Several new connectors are women.

Connectors can work with any student, but Jody Bloyer, RUSD chief of schools, said it was important to hire "females to have some support for females."

That includes Sanders, who was anxious when she started as a Mitchell community connector.

A former Jerstad-Agerholm youth advocate, Sanders was used to supporting kids in the background, but the new role means people look to her for answers.

That has been a learning process, but Sanders has embraced and grown into the job.

"I have that platform where I can use my voice," Sanders said. "I just can't be nervous. I'm learning from a lot of people around me. It is different, it is a lot, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes ... I think I'm built for this."

Sanders called herself "a big kid" who can relate to students and wants to show them they can forge their own life path.

"I really love the younger generation, and I really want to influence them anyway I can," Sanders said.

Forming relationships

Sanders and Winn said consistency, patience and being nonjudgmental are important to doing the job well.

"All the traits that make you a good overall human: be patient, be kind, be loving, be gentle, be understanding, no judgment," Winn said.

Winn did not expect to be attending a student's court appearance as part of her new job, but she supported the student like she said she would.

Consistent interactions can form close bonds.

Galen Horton, a Park High School community connector, was out sick from school one day and said several students contacted him to see how he was doing.

"You don't even notice it sometimes, but you just automatically become like family," said Horton, who has worked as a connector since 2021.

Indeed, Winn said one must build personal relationships with students before offering guidance.

She mainly spent her first few weeks at Case getting to know students and talking with Joshua Mosley, a Case community connector since 2021.

Sanders has learned from Troy Collier, a Mitchell community connector since 2021, how to work with kids Collier has known for years.

It can be tough to balance being on good terms with students while also holding them accountable, but that is where Winn said relationships are key.

If a student knows that a connector wants the student to do well, a student will more likely be receptive to a connector's input.

This summer, connectors are assisting with summer school, checking on kids at work, helping coordinate a local basketball league and continuing their work at Racine County Juvenile Detention, 1717 Taylor Ave., among other duties.

Connectors have also received training on topics like trauma-informed care.

Horton enjoys being part of the students' lives and said spending time with them outside class helps students relate to him.

"They see me in a different light, like I'm one of them," Horton said. "I've never had a problem with any kid I've ever seen outside of school. Now that they know that you're a real person ... I really don't have issues."

Unique position

A community connector is not a typical job with a daily routine. The role can be demanding, so connectors must be committed.

"I can't get up and be like, 'I'm going to work.' No, I'm not," Winn said. "I'm going to impact a life or save a life or be a blessing to someone."

The connectors have a group chat that is in constant use, sometimes at all hours of the night, so they are prepared to handle a situation the next morning.

"It's really trying to put that wraparound, broad approach to a young person, hopefully preventing that risk of gang activity or gang involvement," Bloyer said. "Sometimes it's being responsive to it."

Bloyer expressed gratitude for the community connectors' proactive intervention and ongoing efforts.

"This is truly a passion, and this is a commitment to Racine and Racine County and, most importantly, to our young people," Bloyer said. "You can't put a value on that. You can't articulate it well enough, the impact that they have on a daily basis. You can never put a quantitative number on the amount of stuff that they prevent. You just can't. No one will ever know."

With visible, public-facing roles, connectors feel a greater responsibility to carry themselves well in the community.

"It makes me even more want to uphold my integrity and what I stand for," Sanders said.

Not taking the job home

Bloyer trusts the connectors' expertise and is there to support as needed.

She aims to "keep an eye on my people and make sure that they're OK, because this is a heavy lift sometimes."

Indeed, a main challenge is not taking home the heaviness of the job, which is much easier said than done.

If a student acts out in school or ends up in court, Horton thinks about what he might have done differently

"You can't save everybody," Horton said. "That's the only challenge for me. You see those kids in detention (and) you're like, 'Man, we just talked yesterday. I wish you would've thought this through.' ... You just wish that you could get through before it got to that point."

Sanders is a perfectionist and is trying to accept that her work is good enough "as long as I'm trying to do my best."

"We really care with our whole heart," Sanders said. "I kind of made this my life. People at my house get tired of me, because all I talk about is my job ... It's hard to separate the two."

Winn views every situation as a puzzle to be figured out instead of something that can't be overcome, a mindset she learned as a single parent.

"I don't see difficulty," Winn said. "I just see, if it's a challenge, what do I need to do to overcome this challenge, or what resources do I have at my disposal that can assist me with this? ... I need to see solutions ... How do I fill this need that's in front of me right now?"

With five new people, community connectors will continue filling the needs of area students.

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