Multicultural help desk

A new help desk at Essex High School looks to support students help those who self-identify as multicultural or as being from an immigrant family.

A new “help desk” at Essex High School looks to support students from a wide range of backgrounds accessing community assistance and resources.

The desk, located at the Essex High School library, is a partnership between EWSD and Spectrum Youth Services. It seeks to help those who self-identify as multicultural or as being from an immigrant family maintain a sense of belonging, according to Daimeyon Williams, program manager of Spectrum’s Multicultural Youth Program, which offers similar help desks at the Burlington and Winooski high schools.

“We’re there to provide an increased avenue for access to assistance or resources in the community that they may, for whatever reason, have difficulty accessing,” Williams said. “We provide staff that identify with these youth and can create relationships in which we can not only provide case management for them but role modeling and mentorship.”

Many students who access the desk are English Language Learners, and the most common student request is help with the college process, like questions about how to fill out the Common App and financial aid forms, or how to seek grants. Other times, they are seeking help with homework, navigating online research resources or even passing a driver’s exam.

“Sometimes, [families] are literally waiting for this young person to get their license so they can be the transportation for this entire family,” Williams said.

An important aspect of the help desk is that its staff generally reflects the students who access it, because while Burlington, Winooski and Essex may have “slightly higher” levels of diversity compared to Vermont as a whole, the schools’ faculty and staff remain mostly homogenous, Williams said.

Through the help desk, staffers can easily identify with the student populations they’re working with; most of Williams’ staff are under the age of 27, and they speak nine different languages in total.

“Each day these students see everybody in authority, everybody in a position that looks like they have any type of success in their lives, does not look like them,” Williams said. “It’s really important for them to be able to see folks that do look like them, who have, in essence, succeeded to navigate.”

“It just provides that stronger understanding that, ‘Oh, I can do this, too,’” he added.

Maguire said the help desk comes as the district continues to work on changing its systems and policies to provide more equity between students of all backgrounds. She said such high-level work will eventually trickle down, but she saw the desk as an immediate way to reach kids in the schools.

The desk is staffed for at least three hours of each school day, with about 15 different staffers rotating through the three school districts, including six focused on Essex. The partnership cost $55,000 this year; Maguire said the district was able to reinvest medicaid dollars to help fund the first year, and plans to discuss potential funding sources during the upcoming budget season.

Williams noted that some people may be wary of services like the help desk that seem to direct resources toward a smaller subgroup instead of the general student population. But he said studies have shown more diverse educational settings lead to better outcomes for all students.

“A more diverse school system that works for everyone, works better for everyone,” he said.

As for how the district will gauge its success, Maguire said she has no specific outcomes in mind yet. She may work with the high school to come up with a way to survey students, and Spectrum will keep data on how many students make use of the desk. But mostly, she plans to watch as the process evolves.

“This body of work is not linear, it’s not sequential, it’s all about trying things on to try to step forward,” Maguire said. “This is something we’re trying on.”

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