Boston Children's Hospital Neighborhood Partnerships

An Interview with a BCHNP Clinician

Meet Celeste Atallah-Gutierrez, Ph.D., BCHNP’s Clinician at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School (MPTVHS)


Celeste smiles for the camera read her interviewCan you share an overview of MPTVHS?

MPTVHS is the only fully accredited vocational high school in Boston, with approximately 1000 students from all neighborhoods in the city.  MPTVHS is an exciting learning environment, with the possibility for students to gain certificates in almost 20 vocational programs.   MPTVHS has a rich history in a vibrant neighborhood, and is currently in “turnaround status” related to low achievement.  The students at MPTVHS represent some of the most marginalized communities in the city, with historically poor academic outcomes:  89% are designated “high need”; 98% students of color (57% Latinx and 37% Black (including many ethnicities); almost 40% of the students are currently English Language Learners, over a third of the students receive Special Education Services, and over 70% are designated “economically disadvantaged”. 


Please describe your position at Madison Park.


My work at Madison Park is predominantly with the immigrant student community, although I am also part of the school-wide student support team.  I work individually with students, facilitate groups, am part of the restorative justice leadership team, and provide consultation and professional development to teachers and administration. My work with students is predominantly in Spanish. I am proud to be part of a very diverse team of educators who are working extremely hard and with compassion and respect for students. I love the ways in which I am able to do both individual and systems work in the school.


What is your approach in working with students?


In my work, I strive to create spaces of sanctuary and safety, honoring and working to understand students’ culture, their lived experience, their hopes and dreams, while mirroring  the strength and the hope that I see in them. Working with adolescents requires flexibility and building very deep trust. Through invitation, I collaboratively accompany students, listen deeply to their suffering while recognizing their culturally grounded strengths.  Simultaneously, I always reflect on my own sources of knowledge and subjectivity including, life experiences and clinical training. Because the majority of the students I work with are immigrants, and given the current political climate and their experiences, a lot of my work is supporting these youth in navigating the complex process of immigration, while supporting them in integrating their own transnational realities and cultural strengths into this process of healing and growth.  Information and skills that I provide are offered in collaboration with the student.


Recognizing the political and subsequent social determinants of mental health and educational success, my work integrates systemic and individual needs and strengths, working collaboratively to address issues of equity, access to resources, and culturally meaningful care.  This approach is consistent with what Shawn Ginwright (2016) calls “Healing centered engagement”, acknowledging trauma and struggle, while understanding the ways in which systemic oppression and wellness are intertwined, and also recognizing that both trauma and healing are collective processes.


How do you work collaboratively with school staff and the school community?


School communities are extremely complex, with deep histories of both wounds and successes.  The histories and relationships are both systemic and interpersonal.   As an outside partner, building trust is essential to working collaboratively.  The first step in building trust with the school community was positioning myself as a “learner”, while always making explicit my perspectives, intentions, and hopes.  Madison Park has a recent history of many changes, and staff come and go.  At the same time, there is a core group of staff who are deeply committed to the school and have been there for many years.  As a “learner” I tried to offer help when needed, to refrain from judgement, and to understand overlapping systems.  I also strive to always remember that staff are working extremely hard in a very high-need setting.   In addition to building trust, I work on being transparent, honest, and to make sure I complete tasks.  I also work to remember and embody in my work the symbolism of fractals – recognizing that small steps embodying change and vision are important.


What do you like most about your job?


Without a doubt, the students are the highlight of everyday. The students I work with are bright, creative, strong, dreamers, silly, and most of all, resilient.    They are so much more than the identifiers we use to describe the risks they present:   immigrant, truant, homeless,  traumatized… And, I love that I am able to see them in a “natural environment” – with a range of emotional experiences. 


What inspires you to do your work?


I am most inspired by communities that have been historically marginalized and systemically blocked from health promoting resources who are fighting for change. I see my work as part of this struggle, and in response to what many communities are asking for – for healing justice.  I am inspired by the hope, spirit, creativity, and struggle of the communities for whom I work.  My experience is that adolescents are deeply longing for someone to listen to them, to help give shape to the intensity of experiences and feelings that they are having.  The feedback I receive from students, families, and staff is what nourishes my work. 



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