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Alayna Shaw ’13 works with her team of Americorps members to keep at-risk students in high school. COVID-19 has made their job more challenging – and has made them more creative than ever.

Alayna Shaw

At nonprofit organization Colorado Youth for A Change in Denver, Alayna Shaw is helping figure out how to keep high-school students in school. As manager of a program called Corps for A Change, Shaw trains, supervises, and supports a cadre of 25 young professionals working to stem the dropout rate at local high schools.

Her supervisees, members of Americorps (often called the domestic arm of the Peace Corps), aren’t social workers – they may have a bachelor’s degree in social work or psychology, or come from the community they’re serving. Each is stationed at a local high school and manages a caseload of students whose attendance from the previous school year is 70 to 90%.

“Chronic absenteeism is a predictive factor of a student being at-risk of dropping out of school, and the upper threshold for students beginning to become at risk is 90%,” Shaw explains.

Helping connect students with essential resources

Before sending the Americorps members into their schools, Shaw gives them an intensive, weeklong crash course on barriers that students may face and reasons why they might be disengaged from school. An important part of that is debunking common myths.

Myth No. 1: A student is lazy. “A student might not feel challenged, lack supportive relationships with staff, or not feel connected to or represented in the class content,” Shaw says.

Myth No. 2: The student’s family doesn’t value education and aren’t involved as they should be. “Systemic racism, classism, etc. has made families feel disconnected and disenfranchised from school systems for a long time; they don’t feel welcome. Many parents/guardians are working multiple jobs trying to support their families,” Shaw says.

At particular risk for disengagement are LGBTQ+ students, pregnant or parenting students, and undocumented students or students with undocumented relatives.

The Americorps members connect students with the appropriate resources. “We tell them, ‘If a student tells you they lack the resources they need at home, are struggling in a specific class, or require mental-health support, to support them with talking to the appropriate school staff member, such as social worker, counselor, or teacher,” Shaw explains. “Many students don’t have self-advocacy skills. That’s why our members are there.”

Under normal circumstances, she meets daily with members to help them manage their caseloads and provide social/emotional support, and meets with school and district leaders. She runs an all-day workshop monthly for members on topics like motivational interviewing; power, privilege, and oppression; and youth substance abuse.

Dealing with COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought new challenges. Colorado’s schools are closed through the end of April, complicating the task of serving students at-risk of dropping out. Many lack basic needs resources, such as a computer and internet access at home, child care, even meals.
These days, Shaw supervises from her home with Microsoft Teams, holding video chats with each member.

“Our members are texting, calling, and FaceTiming their students to be sure they have all the resources they need,” she says. Many are also volunteering with community organizations such as food banks, and distributing food, diapers, formula to pregnant and parenting students in their district.

The key is being deliberate about staying connected to students. “We can’t assume their basic needs are being met, so we’re making sure we’re explicitly asking what students need,” she says. “There are systems in place to support the students, but there has to be someone ensuring that the systems are being utilized.”

Going over to the ‘dark side’

Raised by parents who valued community service, Shaw has wanted to help people for as long as she can remember. In elementary school, she joined a peer-leader program, providing support to classmates. In high school, she was a peer counselor.

“I had office hours during the school day. Kids could come in and hang out if they didn’t feel welcomed elsewhere or have friends,” she says.

A natural leader, she captained her high-school soccer team, and was recruited from Colorado to play soccer for Saint Rose. But she didn’t discover social work immediately.

“I knew I wanted be in a helping profession, to make people’s lives easier or better, but I didn’t know much more than that,” Shaw says.

Initially majoring in history/political science, Shaw enjoyed her classes but was hoping for more of a social justice and advocacy focus within the content. Soccer teammate Caty Kirk Robins talked her into enrolling in an intro social-work class.

“She brought me over to the ‘dark side’,” Shaw jokes. “After one class, I felt, ‘These are my people.’”

An article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” opened her eyes to the concept of white privilege. “I thought, ‘I’m so privileged to even be learning this in an academic setting. People have to deal with this their entire life.’”

Shaw changed her major to social work.

“Maureen Rotondi and Janet Acker really showed me the way,” she says. “When Trayvon Martin was murdered, I remember feeling frustrated about the lack of dialogue about police brutality of black men. But I felt very supported by the social-work faculty whenever I would express frustration with the world and the systems in place.”

She completed two internships: one in a group home for young boys with developmental and cognitive disabilities and another with an elementary-school social worker. Shaw realized the residential setting wasn’t for her, and that she preferred helping adolescents rather than children.

After graduating from Saint Rose, Shaw moved back to Colorado and earned a master’s of social work focusing on macro, or systems-level, social work. She interned at Boulder County Public Health, where she co-directed a program for LGBTQ+ to advocate for more inclusive district policies and practices.

She also is working on a research study on best practices for supporting transgender students with a faculty member at Metropolitan State, where she earned her master’s degree.

Presenting the research at the Council on Social Work Education conference, Shaw reconnected with Rotondi and Acker.

“Without the support of the social-work faculty at Saint Rose, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Shaw. “I am so appreciative of people who are passionate about social change and have devoted their lives to supporting students to have the skills to push things forward.

By Irene Kim