image of Nellar and Caston
Municipal Courts Department Juvenile Case Manager Pansy Nellar (left) and Dominique Caston review goals for the day at Spring Wood Middle School. The city partners with three Houston area school districts to help students with attendance and other issues. | Photo by Pete Mayes

 

As a division manager for the City of Houston Municipal Courts Department, Sharon Blacklock shares her passion for serving Houston area middle and high school students by offering them mentorship and outreach opportunities instead of just lectures about “staying in school.”  

“I always wanted to make sure that kids are safe and that they have the daily basic needs,” she said. “My goal and focus are to be the example for all young people who crossed my path to graduate high school, attend college and or the military, and have a professional job.”  

MCD assigns juvenile case managers to middle and high schools at Houston, Aldine and Spring Branch school districts, which Blacklock oversees. Each school also uses Communities in School, on-site therapist and Community Youth Services support specialists to help those students and their families and get them back in the classroom.    

HISD also uses wraparound resource specialists to help address challenges that students face which ultimately impact their ability to learn, such as food, clothing, housing, computer access and access to mental and physical health services. 

The premise behind this mentorship program is to continue working with students outside the walls on the campus, Blacklock said. “They will know that they can always come to their campus juvenile case manager at any time, and they will also know that the juvenile case managers are looking at their attendance after they have completed the program.” 

“This program impacts the students by letting them know that we care about them, we want them to succeed in life.” 

While a juvenile case manager’s main job is handling a student’s school truancy and attendance issues, it also is misunderstood. It’s not just about working with what many people might assume are “bad kids.” Other youth issues, like bullying or lack of transportation, play heavily into truancy. 

Blacklock said she found transportation is one of the biggest issues regarding students’ truancy. Many students must walk to school because their parents leave early to go work so they have no supervision to make sure they leave home every morning.   

“Some parents can’t afford to pay for private buses if students don’t live more than two miles from the school,” she said. “If it’s raining or too cold, the students will not walk to school.” 

Dominque Caston is an eighth-grade student at Spring Wood Middle School who couldn’t make it to classes daily because of illness and transportation problems. “I live really far from the school,” Caston said about her truancy issues. “It was basically car problems, or I was sick with a fever, and I wanted to stay home. But I was turning in notes for my classes.” 

Another issue is lack of supervision and support from their parents, as well as parents who are not involved with any school activities or meetings, Blacklock said. “Some parents don’t work, but don’t have a vehicle to bring students to school or attend meetings. The biggest thing I found was, students and their families know there are no real concrete consequences for missing school.” 

“Some of the issues regarding truancy are children waking up late, skipping, feeling inadequate in class or school, and having no desire to be in school,” she said. 

Blacklock said the program has been in place since 2009 and continues to evolve.  

“In the past they mentored the students for about two or three hours and dropped them home, but now we spend a full day with them, from 8a.m. to 4p.m.,” she said. “We picked up and dropped off each student at their home.” 

School attendance across the three districts were improving until COVID-19 presented challenges to the program. When students returned to in-person learning, the JCM’s wore three or more hats, they were case managers, counselors and therapists, Blacklock said.  

Attendance problems were also exacerbated partly because students grew accustomed to virtual learning, and now they are experiencing more anxiety related issues.  

Blacklock said the juvenile case managers continue to develop alternative methods of providing services when in-person services are not feasible, including virtual case management, meetings with parents, students and school administrators and engagement activities. This is accomplished through utilizing virtual tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and FaceTime. 

Outside of the school campus, the program also makes a positive impact on the students. The campuses in the districts are considered as a Title 1 school, meaning some of the students are coded as “homeless,” living with a single parent, grandparents and or relatives and the students receive reduced or free lunch. 

“We provide them with two meals daily and snacks throughout the day and they are provided with a snack bag or food to take home with them,” she said. 

Blacklock said the students are also treated to fun events that are generously donated by AMC Theater, Main Event, Houston Astros, Andretti’s Indoor Karting & Games, Painting with a Twist and a summer outing at Typhoon Texas Waterpark.  

“Most of the students will say they have never been to the movies, a waterpark, or game center.  It touches your heart when we hear this from them,” she said.    

The students also completed community service projects with the Houston Food Bank, The Beacon, Crime Stoppers (where they completed “Child Safety Kits”) and a gardening project with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.   

“We also provided the students with a hands-on project opportunity at Prairie View A&M University and Houston Community College Medical Center,” Blacklock said.   

Blacklock said MCD, HISD, Aldine and Spring Branch school districts are committed to working together to address school attendance issues.  

“We have a true partnership and the MCD department is there to help mentor and educate and build healthy relationships with the students/families that have truancy barriers or issues,” she said. “By assisting with this student population, we can help create an understanding that will keep students in school and ultimately graduate from high school and become productive citizens to society.”