March 21, 2018
Trying to solve the problem of absence isn’t a one-step simple solution. With so many characters, conflicts, and moving parts, it takes many participants — teachers and principals, counselors and interns, parents and students — committed to the goal of everyday attendance for every child in City Heights’ elementary schools.
Second-grader Kathy kept missing school on Wednesdays — when class gets out at 12:50 pm instead of the usual 3:35 pm. As an intern in United Way’s Every Student, Every Day absence intervention program, Nicole wanted to know why.
“Kathy is a vibrant young girl with a spunky personality who is always happy to be at school and with her friends,” she explains, “so I knew it wasn’t because she disliked school. But she could only tell me so much about her absence on Wednesdays.
Nicole left phone messages for Kathy’s mom but understood that she had a job, so maybe that was why she wasn’t responding. “Plus, there was a language issue.”
Kathy’s mom didn’t speak much English. And Nicole’s Spanish was limited. Compounding the issue, Kathy’s family was new to the area and her mom may have felt unsure what a call from the school meant. “I could tell she wasn’t comfortable with the phone call. She doesn’t know me, she hasn’t met me. Why was I calling?”
But as the absences continued, Nicole persisted. She started writing out her messages, then translating them into Spanish. That continued for a while, but there was still no response from Kathy’s mother.
“I began putting notes in Kathy’s lunchbox, which she brought faithfully to school every day. I’d ask her, ‘Did you give your mom the note I sent?’
‘Yes,’ Kathy responded, ‘but it got a little crumpled...’
After seven absences, a letter was sent requesting a “SART” meeting — Student Attendance Review Team — which included Kathy’s mom, the principal, the counselor, and Nicole. By the time the meeting took place, Kathy had missed 11 days of school. (Chronic absenteeism is defined as 18 days of missed school a year, excused or otherwise.) Such a meeting wasn’t optimum, but it was necessary to find a way to communicate together and get to the root of the problem.
“We finally figured out Kathy’s mom’s work schedule meant she could pick up her daughter on a regular school day but not on minimum day. Her mom either had to miss a day of work or Kathy had to miss a day of school.”
Unfortunately, this is a common scenario. Though Kathy’s mom could leave her daughter with a friend, that friend lived far from the school and didn’t have a car. Kathy would get child care, but she couldn’t get to school.
“If Kathy’s mom misses work, she makes no money,” Nicole explains. “And for someone new to the neighborhood, just trying to get established, that’s not a good option.”
“We could see her mother was doing her best for Kathy and her other child, and we wanted to make it make it easier on her by giving her resources. How could we help?”
The counselor offered to find someone to drive Kathy to school, but Kathy’s mom wasn’t comfortable with that situation, either. “I don’t want my daughter being driven to school by a stranger,” she told the counselor.
The best option was the school’s morning and afterschool program, called PrimeTime. But there was a wait list. Now, what? At this point, the school’s principal intervened on the family’s behalf.
“The principal really tries to work with families in extreme circumstances, and this was one of them,” explains United Way’s Impact Manager, Camille Novello, who supervises Nicole. “It’s quite a testament to the principal who partners with parents, especially those who have exhausted all other resources.”
Now, Kathy is at school bright and early on Wednesdays, before and after class. Her mom can finish her shift and has time to pick up her daughter. And Kathy hasn’t missed a day of school since.
“This is why using absences as a flashlight is so important,” says United Way’s Rachel Liber, Senior Impact Program Manager. “Especially in elementary schools, chronic absenteeism can be a sign that something bigger might be going on. It’s also why the work we’re doing with schools and community partners is so critical. We bring in extra support so schools can track absences early on and address the barriers getting in the way of students being in school on time, every day. We’re able to find out — as we did with Kathy — what the barrier is, and support school staff can address those barriers.”
United Way is optimistic that with this program’s progress — which includes doubling our outreach and engagement to students and families and expanding into more schools with additional interns — Every Student, Every Day will continue to grow and help keep our students in school, every day, ready to learn.
By Sue Greenberg, Staff Writer, UWSD