June 4, 2019
Second grader Samuel didn’t turn in his homework a single day. Chronically absent, he struggled to get to school on time, but he recently turned a corner, thanks to United Way’s attendance initiative, Every Student Every Day, and Social Work intern Haley Smith.
“He used to have his head down in class. Now he loves school, and he turns in his homework every day, and he’s at 100 percent,” Haley reports. “He holds his head up high.”
How does she account for the change?
“We figured out his goals, what he wants to do with his life. He wants to move to New York and become a police officer.”
“I know!” she laughs. “He must have seen it in a movie. Whatever the reason, he’s feeling a sense of pride—what it’s like to be here every day, to do his homework. If he keeps it up, we’ll draw a picture together on big paper. That’s one of his incentives!”
Other kids on Haley’s caseload at Franklin Elementary in City Heights are also keen on managing their futures, no doubt due to her “Kiddo Aptitude Test,” an interest survey that gives students a chance to try on a variety of careers by reading a check list of activities central to that job.
Habitat for Humanity has a checklist of typical tasks as well as an FAQ for the larger picture. It also encourages them to tally their check marks to determine their top choices.
Haley’s supervisor (United Way’s Impact Manager, Camille Novello, MSW, ASW) mentions another student on Haley’s caseload, Angel, who spends a lot of time in Mexico. He initially aspired to run his own chiclet cart.
“Haley did a great job building on that entrepreneurial spirit, connecting Angel to his interests. Maybe you’ll be a business owner, she asked him. What would you need? She didn’t denigrate his original idea; she just encouraged him to make it bigger and better. To believe that many things were possible.”
At last check, Angel wanted to become a botanist.
When asked about the critical role the parents play in the everyday attendance challenge, Haley explains the many factors that conspire to challenge low-income parents when it comes to their children’s absence.
“I think it’s important that you show parents you understand, that you aren’t just being critical—‘Your kid was absent again….’
“There’s a hierarchy of needs. The parents’ top priority might be work, making sure there’s food on the table. Of course, education is important…coming to school on time is important, but it can fall down [the list] when you’re dealing with so many big life issues.
When the student is chronically absent, better to approach the parents as if they are members of the team: “How can we work together? How can we get this streamlined for you? What are the barriers?”
“I have good relationships with the parents of my students,” she adds. “They pick up my calls, they’re on board.”
She encourages the parents as well as the students. “I want them to understand that education does need to be a priority…that I understand it’s hard to get them here every day on time, but it’s what’s necessary to give the child the education they deserve.”
In March, Haley was already seeing the change. “Back in January, I would ask Samuel if his parents checked on his homework. Did they help him pack it? Why was it always missing? It turns out they used to never check for homework; it wasn’t on their radar.”
But now it is.
“I heard they listen to rock music and do homework as a family. They all sit together, including his two younger siblings.”
As the school year ended, a quick check-in reveals promising news: “Both students have significantly improved in their attendance this year as compared to last year.”
Officer Samuel and Dr. Angel hover a bit closer now.