Q&A: Insights into Building Changes’ education work

Published: June 17, 2024

Photo of Joey Heilman

Joey Heilman

No child should have to worry where they’re going to sleep at night, but nearly 40,000 students in Washington State are faced with this reality. As a result, their education suffers, significantly impacting their academic outcomes and future opportunities. Building Changes’ outgoing Senior Education Strategy Specialist, Joey Heilman, has been a champion for cross-system collaboration within our state’s education system. For the past 4.5 years, she has driven strategies to foster strong partnerships between education and community organizations to better serve students and families experiencing homelessness.

Before Joey embarks on her next adventure, we sat down to get her perspective on Building Changes’ education work, and to learn what insights she can share to ensure students and families can get the support they need to thrive.

Q: Your work at Building Changes has really centered around bringing people together in various ways – how did this become your interest?

A: Before my time with Building Changes, I worked on the student level in a classroom setting and this kind of work—direct service and student support is difficult. It can feel really isolating. You’re trying to navigate very complex systems and there are many barriers that you run into. This means students and families are also faced with these barriers that prevent them from getting the support they need. I was tired of that lack of collaboration between systems, and I wanted to figure out how to foster it, specifically as it relates to the education system.

Q: Can you talk a little about the kind of barriers school support staff face?

A: A big one (among many others) is staff capacity and time. School support staff are often asked to play a lot of roles for a lot of students with different needs and circumstances. So, one person might be the McKinney-Vento and foster care liaison, the family support worker, as well as the school social worker, depending on the district. It’s a lot to ask of one person, especially when the stakes are so high. It’s a lot of pressure.

That’s where that need for collaboration comes in. If we can help build relationships between school support staff and community organizations who can come together to share resources, we can alleviate some of that pressure and do a better job of supporting students and families.

Q: Why is it important for community organizations to be connected specifically to schools and the education system?

A: Community organizations have to do a lot of outreach to achieve their goals. And who has the most consistent connection with young people? It’s educators and people working within our schools, because that’s where young people spend most of their time outside of the home. Schools are really our first point of connection to resources and support, and importantly, identification of students who may need support because they can see changes happening.

Q: You’ve facilitated a lot of community gatherings in your time at Building Changes, how have you seen these events be effective? What works?

A: One effective element we’ve seen across all our education-related gatherings is just having people get to know each other and what they’re doing to be successful. It really becomes a space to share ideas. For example, a school district can learn how Shelton School District secured a van to help with student transportation, and then can take that strategy and try to create that in their own community.

Also, we’ve learned that providing a shared container to bring folks together so they can connect and relate is really beneficial. During COVID, our School/Housing Network was meeting twice a month and basically became a support group. It was a space to share resources as new information came out, yes, but it was also an opportunity to hold each other in that moment and say, “this is hard.” Seeing the impact that had on folks furthered my belief in the need for connection because fostering relationships is how you create more cross-system collaboration and support.

Q: This idea of school support leads me to your work on the ABC Tool. Can you tell me a little about the ABC Tool, and what you’ve learned?

A: The ABC Tool helps schools evaluate and take a holistic view of their McKinney-Vento program and school services. The intention is to have someone come in to help look at their program and processes and work together to optimize them.

When you’re constantly trying to meet needs and face crisis as they arise, you don’t have time to stop and reflect on new ideas or areas for improvement. So having that creative thought-partner to provide a structured process has been really important for schools. How can we look at the existing program in a in new way? How can we find ways to build more capacity moving forward? How can we streamline referrals to housing partnerships, and save you fifteen phone calls to try and get a family connected to resources? Schools have reflected back to Building Changes that the partnership is also helpful because it provides them with a measure of accountability.

Another crucial part of the ABC Tool work has always been to provide schools flexible funds to meet basic needs that can’t be met with other funds—if they even exist in their communities. That’s a huge need across our school districts. Having access to quick and responsive funding has a huge impact on students and families across the board. These are all powerful components of the ABC Tool that have been effective.

Q: What do you want to see Building Changes carry forward in our education work?

A: I would love to see Building Changes continue to be that connector through things like the ABC Tool, School/Housing Network, and the Communities of Practice events in partnership with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. To keep bringing people together at the state and local level. I’ve seen Building Changes’ impact in prioritizing relationships with our school district partners, creating connections across our systems of support, and being that thought partner to build a bridge between these different groups.

When it comes down to it, people want to feel connected and understood, and have their experiences validated. It provides reinforcement to our school support staff and service providers that the difficult work they’re doing is powerful, and really makes a difference in the lives of our children and families.

Learn more about the School/Housing Network, Communities of Practice Convenings, and the ABC Tool.

Building Changes thanks Joey for the passion and wisdom she has brought to this work and our organization. We look forward to sharing news about who will be leading our education strategy next. Stay tuned!

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