CASES SPOTLIGHT: Five Questions with the Director of Education and Employment Services

Sophia Morel is CASES’ Director of Education and Employment Services. She has been at CASES more than 12 years, beginning her career as an intern in 2004 before transitioning to a full-time position in 2005 in CASES’ Family Court alternative-to-detention services. Ms. Morel holds a B.A. from SUNY Albany and an M.S.Ed. in Community-Based Learning from Bank Street College of Education.

How did you get started at CASES?
Before CASES, I was working at a law firm as a file clerk and was also a production manager for an educational documentary company. I had a friend who worked at CASES as a case manager in the Court Employment Project [1], and he heard I was looking for a career change. While I was in college, I mentored high school youth and worked in a lot of community settings. I knew I liked working with young people, so a job working with youth involved in Family Court seemed like a good fit. The participants were under 16 years old, so they were on the younger end of who CASES serves, and I got really involved in their education and became the education liaison between schools and our young people.

Many of our youth have had a history of truancy and are over aged and under credited. This leads to a less traditional education path which can be difficult to navigate. The bureaucracy of the Department of Education can make this even more difficult and frustrating. This is where we can step in to support and advocate for the best education plan for our youth.

I am a native New Yorker but did not go to public school, so public school systems were very new to me. I spent the first two years at CASES learning about the Department of Education, its inequities and bureaucracy and opportunities, and how to navigate it with our young people and their families.

What makes CASES’ education and employment programs successful?
I absolutely think it’s our relationship with our participants. We have a team of teachers each serving 12-20 students. They have to build relationships with those young people outside of the classroom–the outside-the-classroom piece is what builds the relationship you can leverage in the classroom. These relationships can be fostered in more casual contexts, such as during lunch time, after class, or a recreational trip. However, the bulk of our relationship building is solidified in the classroom. Our teachers allow students to have a voice in the content in many of our lessons. This is not something many of our students are used to. Our goal is to have education look and feel different enough from what they are used so they can start to develop a positive association with learning.

What is something you’ve learned in the field through working at CASES?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that these are kids. Even though I work with an older group now, they’re still kids, and kids need to have fun. They deserve a lighthearted childhood in some way even if serious things are happening—they must be allowed to have that.

As a team we are committed to balancing that fun with the goals they have set for themselves. For example, in school we try to get out of the classroom at least once a month to have “fun”—albeit educational fun—but every experience creates a learning opportunity.

What’s something exciting that is currently happening in your work?
CASES’ newest education and employment program, Jobs for America’s Graduates [2] (JAG), is very exciting to me because it gives us the opportunity to implement a model that seems to be working for a national group of organizations that share our values and goals in working with out-of-school young people. I’m excited to have our young people experience the JAG services I’ve seen being implemented in other cities.

JAG is also affording us the opportunity to work with our students longer. In the past, we’ve had to transition most of our participants out at the end of their six-month program. For many, that just wasn’t enough time to build strong relationships and make the academic gains necessary to pass the TASC [New York’s high school equivalency exam]. JAG gives students the opportunity to get rooted with us and stay until they have completed their goals.

It’s brand new to New York so no one really knows how it’s going to work–we get to pioneer that here, and I think we’re ready for it.

What has kept you working at CASES for 12 years?
What initially kept me was definitely the participants. Now that I’ve moved away from direct service, what keeps me here is the opportunity to always try new things to improve outcomes for the young people we serve here.

For example, a few years ago I wanted to start a college prep program for students who came to us with a diploma or earned one with us. I was given the green light on this project. After a year of running college prep workshops and working one-on-one with students, we were able to secure a grant to fund this program. I was able to hire someone to support this program and expand it. While that program is no longer funded, the lessons learned still shape how we prep our youth for college and other postsecondary opportunities.

I’ve also been given room and support to grow as a leader. Throughout my time at CASES, I’ve worked with some great leaders who have encouraged my growth. When I chose to return to school for a graduate degree, CASES was very supportive. I was given the flexibility to fully commit to my degree while still working. This included my Director’s participation in a fieldwork class and providing me with constructive feedback to take back to my class.

CASES also nominated me to attend a week-long Leadership seminar at Columbia University School of Business for nonprofit leaders. Besides graduate school, the week at Columbia was the single best professional development experience I’ve had in my career. This was something that required me to be gone for a week, get 12 of my staff/peers/supervisors to complete an evaluation of my work and leadership style, and do follow up work. CASES supported all of this professional growth.