When Cindy and Max came onto his caseload, Kevin Valle, United Way’s Every Student, Every Day (ESED) intern at Vista La Mesa Academy in Lemon Grove, discovered one reason why the five-year-old twins weren’t in school: their family lacked reliable transportation. That was only one issue contributing to their chronic absence.
By standing out in the front of the school each day to welcome students, both Kevin and Chris Walsh, the school’s social worker, noticed that the twins were coming in late and quite upset, having walked to the bus stop, taken the public bus, and then walked from the bus stop to school. This was clearly a difficult task for this recovering mother wtih two five-year-olds.
Fortunately, Mr. Walsh knew of a family that had also struggled with recovery in the past and now were driving a van to school each day. Mr. Walsh approached this family to ask if they could provide transportation for another family going through the difficult, early stages of recovery. The social work team utilized United Way’s ESED funds to purchase gas cards as an incentive for this family to continue bringing the twins to school each day. The reward of helping this family, along with a $25 gas card each month, was enough to make these two families a match.
Susan, the van-driving grandmother, enlisted the help of her 7th-grade granddaughter, Juliette, who was also vital in helping Cindy and Max to school everyday. “She supported the family by knocking on their door every morning to pick them up; she’s their alarm clock.” Juliette also comes around after school to collect the twins so they can all get picked up together.
Regular attendance has helped stabilize the twins’ attendance, but their progress has been far from linear. Initially, Kevin saw the twins together, but now he alternates weeks. “Max has always been a bit more steady,” Kevin notes. Cindy would often have outbursts—“running around the school, shrieking and yelling, avoiding everyone”—and it would take several hours to calm her down. Slowly, Cindy improved, but she reverted to old behavior during the Thanksgiving holiday. “The fallback happened over break, where the children don’t have much structure. That may have triggered something.”
Over the weeks and months since then, with Kevin’s regular meetings with each child, they’ve gradually gotten back on track. “Back in September, they wouldn’t respond if they were asked to clean up. They didn’t have the will: their brain chemistry wouldn’t allow them to make decisions for themselves. In stressful times, the twins enter a panic mode and everything shuts down. Now they’ll do it.”
At home, their mother’s addiction may have made it difficult to impose structure. She often ignored the children, who were left to do whatever they wanted, Kevin reports. Now, they have a structure they can rely on, even on the weekends, thanks to Susan and Juliette. What’s more, the twins’ mother has been cooperative and helpful, also picking up her children when she can to alleviate some of Susan’s commute.
Six months into the school year, the twins’ 100% daily attendance—with just one tardy—reflects the coordinated efforts of the ESED initiative. It takes many moving parts and the combined efforts of the school, principal, teachers, parents (and grandparents), working in collaboration with onsite social work interns like Kevin, and social workers like Chris Walsh, to help keep attendance on track. By developing relationships with chronically absent students and their families, like Cindy and Max’s, or Susan and Juliette’s, the ESED team develops an understanding of the barriers these families face getting to school every day, on time.
“It’s been eye-opening,” Kevin admits, when asked about his experience so far. “I’m learning how to connect with kids one-on-one, more on a micro level, rather than larger groups like PrimeTime.” (The Extended Day Program, PrimeTime provides elementary and middle school students a fun, engaging learning environment during the hours most parents/guardians are working.) “I’ve learned what to do when a child has an outburst, how to interact with and understand twins.”
Adds his supervisor, United Way’s Sou Yeon Pak, MSW, “I know how challenging it was for Kevin to have two rambunctious five-year-olds, but he handled it all so well; he was so steady in calming them down.” Mr. Walsh takes that praise a step farther: “Kevin’s consistent, kind, and caring support for Max has ben one of the key factors in this student’s improvement this year. He is one of a handful of positive male figures in his life right now.”
“Neither Cindy nor Max have a father figure in their life,” Kevin adds. “I believe that having someone like Mr. Walsh and me in their lives is beneficial to them as they can talk to us consistently.”
“Kevin has provided invaluable support to his school site,” Sou continues. “I’m consistently impressed by his emotional maturity, commitment, warmth, flexibility, and interpersonal skills. He really enjoys being a mentor to his students, and it’s clear how much they look up to him and trust him.”
And the feeling is mutual: “I am so grateful that I am able to intern at United Way San Diego and have my school site at Vista La Mesa,” Kevin says. “It’s been a great experience shadowing Mr. Walsh and learning from him. Thanks to Mr. Walsh, I have become more self-aware not only for myself but with the students and families that I work with.” Kevin’s goal is to graduate with his masters in 2022 from SDSU. “I want to help as many people as I can to pay it forward for what people have done in the past for me.”
By all accounts, the twins are doing great now. “They have become great listeners for Mr. Walsh, staff, and their teacher,” Kevin reports. “If either of them are asked to do something, they’ll do it. They aren’t as stressed or anxious as they once were and that has been a positive light for everyone.”
“The twins have come a long way this year,” Mr. Walsh concludes. “It’s noticeable in the daily reports that are sent home at the end of each day, as they proudly comment, ‘I had a blue day today!’ which is among the higher marks for their daily performance.”
UWSD’s Every Student, Every Day initiative offers a set of interventions to increase school attendance and close the achievement gap by facilitating partnerships between schools, universities, community providers, families, and students. United Way collaborates closely with elementary schools in the San Diego region to improve outcomes for local children and their families. Every Student, Every Day has consistently produced positive results for children and families, including increased attendance for participating students.