The Notebook

Conversations about Learning, Educating, and Teaching

Interview: Mary Howard, Director of the STEP Program
mari ::: STEP, Interview

"STEP is unique—it’s a program that can reach kids at an important moment in their lives and really make a difference."

Mary Howard recently joined Schools for Children as the Director of our Short-Term Emergency Placement Program (STEP). STEP offers a 45-day assessment and stabilization program for students in crisis and is one of the few programs of its kind in the region. We asked her to share her thoughts about the program.

Welcome, Mary Howard! Tell us about what you do at STEP.
I’m the Program Director so I oversee all aspects of the daily program, supervise staff, admissions, write assessments, edit all the student reports (we do three a week for each student), update each student’s team members, parents and school systems, gather and disseminate information, chair and schedule all meetings, train our staff in crisis intervention and behavior management, answer the phone, order or pick up supplies, return phone calls and emails, arrange transportation—and even, when it needs it, clean, dust and vacuum!

What did you do before joining Schools for Children?
I’ve spent most of my career working with kids and families with learning, behavioral and mental health issues, both as a clinician and as a program manager. Most recently, I worked briefly for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as an Educational Specialist for private approved special educational schools in the Commonwealth.

What drew you to work with STEP?
STEP is unique—it’s a program that can reach kids at an important moment in their lives and really make a difference. I was drawn by the opportunity to oversee a program that was having such a positive impact on students, families and school systems.

Now that you've been working with STEP for a few months, what do you think are the special features of this program?
I believe what makes this program special is our integrated approach. We look at the full range of issues, challenges and strengths our students bring to us. A student could have a learning issue, a health issue or social challenges; a family could be struggling with immigration, employment or housing—and a school could be facing staffing challenges. We study all the pieces and come up with a plan for moving forward. Our integrated approach and the quality of the assessments our staff and clinical interns produce really does help kids and schools and families get back on track.

Tell us about Fridays at the STEP program.
Fridays are what we call our "Community-Based Counseling Days" and most weeks, we plan an off-site trip for each group of students. Our trips and activities are based on our kids’ interests. This year, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Minuteman Park, the Boston Aquarium, the JFK Library, the MIT Museum and Natural History Museum at Harvard. Our kids have also engaged in community service by helping out at Cradles to Crayons, baking Thanksgiving pies for a homeless shelter, writing letters and creating care packages for troops overseas, making activity books for patients at Children's Hospital, and doing chores at a community farm in Ipswich. Our other trips have included apple-picking, hiking, canoeing, kickboxing, rock-climbing, miniature golf, bowling, movies, book stores and art projects. For most of our students, Fridays often mean a totally new experience. It enhances their sense of self, but also their sense of connection to others. And our Friday adventures also mean that kids end the week on a positive note.

Why is a program like STEP so important? What's the niche that it fills?
Sometimes people need a chance to step back. STEP provides that valuable time-out in the midst of a school-based crisis—and it’s an important opportunity for kids who are struggling, or have made poor decisions, to reflect and regroup.

Schools can use the time at STEP, too, to help address problems before a situation escalates further.  It allows them an opportunity to participate in the process.

What would you like to see in the future for STEP?
Space is always one of our challenges, and we’ll need to address that in the future. But I’d like to see STEP expanded to reach more kids in crisis. There’s a real need for STEP, and we can make an important difference in the lives of students at risk.

Schools for Children developed and piloted the STEP Program in 2002. To learn how STEP got its start, click here.

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