Miki Cristerna, M-A’s Director of the Partnership of Success, is an integral member of the M-A campus. She works with students, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, and community-based organizations to ensure strong bonds between M-A students, parents, and the community.
Cristerna’s job is to manage the support and intervention service programs for students. She shared, “I function a lot like a school social worker.” Alone, Cristerna could only support a small group of students, but by bringing community-based organizations, like Starvista and Youth Community Service (YCS) onto campus she can assist more students.
On-campus support includes social and emotional health support, mental health support, and life skills. When Cristerna began working at M-A nine years ago, M-A only had therapy to support students. While therapy is important and can be effective, it is not the only form of support necessary. By drawing from various non-profit organizations, Cristerna is able to provide a variety of programs that help students succeed both at school and outside of school.
Cristerna explained, “Not every kid just needs to go and talk to a therapist. Sometimes they need a place where they feel safe and can come in and sit down. Maybe they don’t want to talk to anybody, maybe they’ve talked it all out, maybe they just need a safe place at lunch, maybe they need to come a couple times and check us out before they decide to talk.”
In B-20 Cristerna has worked with her colleagues to build a warm and welcoming environment. The couches and open doors draw many students to B-20. Cristerna encourages everyone to visit.
One organization M-A students work with is YCS. At M-A, YCS runs life skills classes during fifth period and sixth period to teach and provide life skills, social, emotional, and learning skills through topics as broad as urban art, racism, and sexism.
Cristerna wants the programs at M-A to offer supplemental resources for students who do not have as many resources and support at home. For example, not everyone has a quiet room at home with a desk to complete their homework; the tutoring program after school, managed by Cristerna and her coworkers, provides all students the opportunity to study in a healthy learning environment.
Cristerna shared, “We are living in a world of poverty and so many students are coming to M-A in poverty.” While she admits the reality of poverity “is not something the school can resolve,” Cristerna believes the school should seek to “help [students] be successful in education, which we know is the way out of poverty.”
To help M-A students be successful, Cristerna wants to find more local organizations to support every type of student. M-A does not pay these organizations to come on campus, instead they receive their funding off campus from private donors. Cristerna helps make the organizations available to the students; she works with counselors and teachers to ensure that students who may need academic, emotional, or social support are put in direct contact with the on-campus organization.
The organizations are important because Cristerna “as one person could provide support for a very small group of people but if [she] can bring on more and more community based organization staffing, get funding, and bring them on campus, more students are served that way.”
Above all, Cristerna is trying to build a community where all students feel included. Over the years, students have expressed that they feel as though they do not belong in a community on campus because of the challenges they have faced. Thus, Cristerna and her colleagues worked to build a vibrant network of student support programs that every type of student can feel comfortable participating in.
Building an inclusive community was the first step in improving M-A’s student support services and student intervention services.
She explained the details she and her colleagues considered to address students’ needs: “How do we help students who are socioeconomically challenged, how do we help students who are struggling academically and school has never felt good to them? Our first goal was how do we build community with those students and have them feel that this school belongs to them.”
Cristerna believes the M-A campus has improved in this area. The growth of the student services helped “build community for students that didn’t have a community here years ago.” She hears more students say they feel like they belong at M-A.
While Cristerna is heavily involved in managing the student support programs on campus, she also loves meeting and interacting with students and their families. She enjoys celebrating small milestones such as when a student turns in his or her first missing homework assignment.
Cristerna also looks forward to the longevity of projects. Today, Cristerna is able to see the effects of policies she helped put in place years ago to counteract expulsion. Both suspension and expulsion rates have gone down at M-A in the past nine years, while graduation rates have increased.
Finally, Cristerna urges M-A students to be bold and to try new things. She advised, “Take a risk of talking to someone you have never talked to. Talk to somebody you never thought you would talk to, go to a club meeting you have never went to, try something you might have not done before; it’s interesting how scary it can be to do that.”