Middle School Attendance: Progress Is a Process
Brooke Serrano knew she was taking a leap of faith when she accepted the placement as a United Way absence-intervention intern in a middle school—a time that’s already fraught for many students.
“Middle school interns require a unique skill set,” says Camille Novello, United Way’s Impact Manager. “You have to be self-sufficient and self-assured. Most of the kids don’t want to talk to you. We needed someone here who could hold their own. I couldn’t see anyone else doing this job but Brooke.
The fast-talking, effervescent Brooke is not only fun and engaging—often high-fiving the students when she sees they’ve arrived on time—she’s also tenacious.
“I have 13 students on my caseload, four from each grade level, ten boys and three girls.” That’s a lot of students at a lot of different levels, but Brooke is determined to connect with each of them weekly. “I’m only here twice a week, but even when I’m not here, I’m still checking.”
- Checking in to find why they were tardy.
- Checking in to find out why they weren’t in school.
- Checking in to find out why they weren’t able to meet their agreed-upon goal to be on time every day this week.
This direct communication between the intern and the student, the intern and the student’s family, is part of United Way’s Every Student, Every Day initiative, which offers a set of interventions to increase school attendance and close the achievement gap. By partnering with schools, universities, community providers, families, and students, the initiative, now in its fifth year, has consistently produced positive outcomes resulting in students attending many more days of school.
Those positive outcomes begin with a solid relationship. And that’s what Brooke has to establish first. In month one, the ups and downs of her efforts were uppermost in her mind.
“Middle School interns require a unique skill set. We knew Brooke could hold her own.”
“I met with one student, a sixth-grader, and together we made a goal that he would be on time before the second bell at 8:23. Next, I needed to call the parent.” In order for these interventions to work, parents and caregivers need to be on board as well.
“I called the mother and asked her, ‘I understand you work nights, but is it possible to wake your son up a half hour earlier? Or, can you make sure, when you leave for work at night, that he’s going to bed at a decent hour?’ It turns out, he was going to bed at midnight or 1:00 in the morning—not acceptable for a middle-schooler,” she says, adding with a laugh, “or for me, either!”
Jeremy was excited about this goal and he did meet it one week, but fell off the following week. “He’s already feeling discouraged. Then he gets detention for being late, which makes him regress. So I asked him, ‘How do we get you out of [your house] so you can show up on time? What can we do?’ ”
A month later…
I regularly see Jeremy at the gate, where I am cheering him on as he races in to class before the second bell rings, signaling the start of school and the beginning of tardy slips. I rewarded him for coming to school on time and completing his goal, even though he missed one day of the week. I still have not been able to get in touch with his mother again, but I look forward to making progress with him— getting him to go to sleep early and wake up on time.
Brooke is philosophical about her students, her role, and the process of making progress.
“Students move slowly — sometimes they’re not ready. We all have bad days. I do, too. She recalls an inspiring line she heard from Price Club founder Robert Price during a seminar on campus: “It’s okay to be where you’re at. You may not be making much progress, but you’re still moving.”
“I’ve become way more patient with myself and with them. You have to be okay with where you’re at and where they’re at.”
And she’s not giving up. “I know the issues I’m facing here,” Brooke says, “and I’m willing to work with it. I just want to make some small change. So even if my students aren’t always moving forward, even if they’re not responsive, I want them to know that I’m here for them. And I’m going to stay here.”
United Way’s absence intervention initiative, Every Student, Every Day, aligns goals around every day attendance through partnerships with schools, principals, parents, teachers, social work interns, and students. By leveraging resources like attendance data and coordinating best practices with partners, we’re transforming the lives of children, young adults, and families across the region.