‘Step’ Counselor Paula Dofat Dishes On Helping Students With Their “A” Game

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“A” Game Strong
Paula Dofat helps foster students to step of their “A” game, in the Award winning film “Step”
Posted by Dominga Martin

August 11, 2017

The “Lethal Ladies” are a group of young students who attend the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a new school concept which provides an educational haven for “at risk” girls from impoverished communities.  Each student arrives in 6th grade, until their senior year and are closely monitored by counselors who encourage their social emotional well being, with outlets such as a dance team—hence “Step”, the title of the Award Winning Documentary, by filmmaker Amanda Lipitz.  The film follows the first senior class to graduate since the school opened it’s doors.

We meet Blessin, Cori, Tayla, Coach G, and the Director of College Counseling: Paula Dofat.  A stylish, straight no chaser, guiding spirit that watches over these young girls with a firm, yet loving hand.  One can not help but become emotionally involved with the story, as we are lead through each girl’s home life, their challenges and the triumph of not only getting into college, but to finally win a “Step” competition that they’ve yet to conquer.

I had a chance to talk with Paula Dofat, at their press day in New York City prior to the film opening in theaters.  Paula who met the young ladies at the age of 11, has been with the school for 5 years now.  Her enthusiastic energy is engaging as she pulls you in with her sass, dope hair always on point (like in the film) and full of compassion for her students.  We had a heart to heart about her job and how to encourage students to step up their game.  Even though the lights went out on our interview, we were still shining!

Here’s a few highlights of our conversation:

Jumping right in!

Paula: This is really exciting that I have all these amazing black girls and I get to do this!  Do you know I wake up every morning, like: ‘I freaking love my job!’ I’m with 6th grade through 12th grade—you can’t tell me nothing.  By the end of 6th grade, the “Rising 7” are on point—you can ask them about college, you can ask them about tuition, the difference between a state school and IVY league.  My girls do that, so it’s so exciting planting that within them.

From sons to daughters…

Paula: I am a mother of 4 sons, so the transition of raising girls was big for me.  Since I’ve raised boys, I’m real cut and dry, I’m more like: ‘here’s Point A, Point B, what are we doing?’  I’m not gonna have no softness in my house…you’re going out and you’re going to be a man, that’s what I mean by softness—you’re not going to be like: “I don’t know.” I don’t understand that, So, I don’t understand that for the girls [but] I think that they were used to being handled in a different way [and] that’s not me, so it’s funny because people make references to the end of the film when I have a moment…and so, everyone who meets me is like: “You’re so nice.”

Amanda (the filmmaker) got lucky in catching me break down, but it was needed at that moment.  These are my daughters, not just the “Lethal Ladies”…I have 540 daughters and I take it, that seriously, and that’s where that moment came from.  Just to give you some context…we were less than 30 days from graduation, my last girl and everyone else had been accepted—done!  Either in a college or a program, but everyone had been accepted somewhere.  So, I’m freaking out because she (Blessin) had been accepted to a college, but I didn’t think it was a great fit for her.  Not saying that the school isn’t great but it wasn’t great for her.  She needed a right fit.

I got to the point where the flood gates broke—it’s funny because I didn’t understand it, until I actually saw the film…I was saying ‘that is so unprofessional’ but I felt like I came here and…not just the school, but those families, and that community trusted me to do something.  I wouldn’t have been failing me.  I would’ve been failing Blessin, I would’ve failed the school, I would’ve failed that community, and that was a lot for me to take in, because it is a ripple affect.  Every time 1 student—1 girl, 1 boy misses a mark, there’s reverberation within the community.  I felt that because all you have in this life is your word.

They can take everything from you.  They can take your money, your clothes, your car, your whatever [but] if your character and your word is right, you’ll be able to rebuild and if my word didn’t mean anything, what do I have? I can be as cute as I wanna be, I can have 90,000 hairstyles, own a beauty shop so I can get my hair for free or whatever—what would that mean? ‘Cause my word wouldn’t have been good.

What did you do before you joined the Baltimore Leadership School?

I was at a school in Connecticut and they deemed it the worst high school in Connecticut  which, you know, that’s how they label our places…you’ll have a handful of students that are doing “x, y and z” and that’s what they want to focus on [but] they weren’t talking about the girls and boys that were coming out of there and going to Vassar or the Gates Millennium Scholars, blah, blah, blah, but it was the worst hight school in Connecticut.

I was actually working for a YMCA at that time, which is weird because I actually never worked inside a YMCA, (but anyway); I was placed at a high school.  It was a YMCA program, and I was the Program Director.  I was doing all extra curricular after school pieces.  Kids came to me with 2.5 GPA’s and below, so when they said: “Listen, we’re trying to go to college but we can’t get any help from the guidance counselors.”

I’m like: ‘well that sounds odd’ didn’t take their word.  Went to the guidance counselor, and she was like, “you know we’re so overloaded, we’re doing what we can, but maybe we can’t give them as much as we want to…”

When I really understood the weight of what was going on in that office, my heart was broken because, just imagine—everyday you come in and you know you’re fighting a losing battle? Like everyday? And you’re like, “OK, I’ve got 25 things that I need to really accomplish and they’re all priority and I’m probably only going to get to 3.” And it’s also because you never know what’s going to happen in that day.  If something is dealing with social emotional happens, it’s dropped in there.  What are they going to do? So the things I had to do for college counseling, I can’t get them done! And so I know their hearts were big and they wanted to, but it just wasn’t working, so I said: ‘I can create a college prep club’ and I got the green light.

I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I knew I had desire and that these kids needed help and that I had time.  I started making phone calls, started making connections with college admission counselors, started getting resources.  Doors were opening.  I was like ‘Oh my goodness!”  I loved it!  That was the best part of my day, everyday.  I lived for that part of the after school, [and so] I think I started with 1 day and then moved it to 2 and it started expanding.

I got it to 5 days and the kids came to me and said: “Check this out, you know we love you but we ain’t coming on Fridays so stop playing!”

Laughter

But I was so excited about it, and this is what I want to do and so I just started applying to different places with the resources that I had because there really is no training for this.

I just recently I found out there is.  There’s like a certificate program at UCLA, and it’s actually a pretty good program but to put it in context—college counseling is 1 tiny piece of the master’s program for school counseling, which strikes me as odd because I kind of think that’s the goal for going to school, (not necessarily to go to college) but to have college as an option—so why would that be such a small part? So I don’t know, but common sense alludes most of us in most situations and, then also a lot of districts, you know are cash strapped.  It’s rough.  Education.  And so they don’t have the professional development dollars they need for college counseling pieces.

Granted, if my money was tight and I had to decide between professional development for college counseling and professional development for social emotional, I’m going social emotional because that kid has to be as whole as they can be…and then we can figure the rest out.  So I think, in my mind, that’s how I believe maybe districts are making that decision, which I think its a good decision when you have limited funds [but] still, that leaves a lot to be desired for the piece that we also need to get them.  Once they’re whole, and good and prepped, where are they going?

I believe that God blessed me because there has not been a time that a door hasn’t opened or a resource has not been available to me, so I know this is what I am supposed to be doing and it’s not because I am so smart or I’m so whatever, it’s because I believe I’m walking in my purpose.

Who counsels you at the end of the day?

God. Prayer and meditation, a lot of calling on Jesus!   Like I said, I do really believe that this is my purpose in life.  I think this is what I was put on this earth to do because I don’t think you would have this much joy, this many resources, this many open doors and be able to boldly say ‘Oh no, everybody is getting accepted to college! I put money on that.’  It’s nobody but Him and I love it.  With everything in me.

How do we change the systemic oppression in at risk neighborhoods so that there are more “Blessins” growing?

So I would say this: On of the things that we have to do [in my opinion] is first of all, stop trying to do everything in a cookie cutter.  It’s no such thing.  We are individuals.  Each one of those kids are individuals.  We have to also, as a community, start listening to our kids.  Blessin knew when she was probably 9 or 10 that academics was not her thing.  Not that she wasn’t capable…but I’m excited abut art.  I’m excited about creativity.  Why are we not fostering that?  Because we are so tied up with what society says—that you need an “A” girl.  ‘Do you really need an ‘A?’  I have an alumni support coordinator that used to work with me and she had a big sign that said: “C’s get degrees!”  And truth be told, “D’s” get degrees but that’s a whole other story”

I think we need to stop doing that to our young people and I think that some of that would be moved because they would become more confident in themselves instead of trying to fit into the cookie cutter being “Cori”.  Which is fabulous!  Wonderful being Cori, but f you’re not Cori, don’t be Cori!  So you have kids, literally trying to kill themselves because—-they can’t get an “A”…If you’re not meant to get an “A” it’s OK. Where’s your niche, what’s your thing?  Why are we not doing that?  We can change a lot of things in our community from us, if we stop putting that pressure.

There are programs, there are degrees, there are all types of things, resources and systems that can support these young people.  Do you know confidence changes so much?  If that kids feels like: “Hey, it’s OK that I I sing and I dance…I still gotta pass my class, but I’m not killing myself for the “A” because that’s not me. I’m gonna do what I need to do.  I’m gonna make sure I can read and I can write, and I can put a coherent sentence together, a coherent paragraph together, but you know what, I’m gonna dance my little feet off because that’s what I do.  Why are we not celebrating that?

STEP is in theaters August 4th for a limited time.


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