Every Student, Every Day Intern Stories: When Safe Space Shuts Down, Who Takes Attendance?

Staying hopeful for Every Student, Every Day

“I was drawn to United Way’s Every Student, Every Day initiative because of the level of autonomy it provided,” said Charitee Fereti, when asked about her decision to join the cohort of interns last September.

Autonomy was just what United Way of San Diego County (UWSD) wanted in their interns. “When we interviewed Charitee, we immediately knew she’d be an asset to our school sites,” said United Way’s Impact Manager, Nina Ghatan, MSW. “She was experienced, confident, and had children of her own—children who, by the way, both had perfect attendance last year—so we believed all these traits would help her more easily connect with students and caregivers.”

For this attendance-intervention initiative, now in its sixth year in schools around the county, UWSD recruits and places college/graduate-level interns in elementary schools to provide case management support for chronically absent students and their families. With logistical support from the school site, and clinical supervision and weekly coaching from United Way, interns work to understand the barriers to attendance that students and families face, such as instability in housing, food, and transportation.

“Many of my classmates didn’t have hands-on experience until later on,” explains Charitee, who was recently accepted into the accelerated MSW program at San Diego State University. “I’m a very hands-on kind of person, so this opportunity was ideal for me.”

Unfortunately, “hands-on” is no longer an option for Charitee because of school closures due to COVID-19, but she’s hopeful that the work she accomplished over the last six months will be an anchor for seven-year-old Alisa.

When she first arrived at City Heights’s Joyner Elementary in September, Charitee noticed Alisa’s resistance to school. “Every day was a battle for her to separate from her grandmother. Each morning she came to school she started crying. I met with each of her teachers—as I do for all the students on my caseload—to find out more about their performance in class and get a sense of what I can expect. I learned that Alisa had been struggling with attendance for a while and that she would cling to her grandmother. I thought, ‘Hmmm… what is it about school that makes her anxious?’ ”

When Alisa did come to school, she kept her head down, talked quietly, and avoided questions. “She was shy and reserved,” Charitee explains. “I knew I would need a different approach to establish a rapport.” During her weekly meetings with Alisa, Charitee gave her the option to do other tasks while they talked. “Sometimes it was Playdoh, other times it was coloring.” It worked. Over time, Alisa began to feel safe and open up. “It turns out she actually liked school—she’s a smart, responsible young girl. The issue was she didn’t want to leave her house because she worried she’d never see her grandmother again.”

Alisa’s grandmother Rosa, also her guardian, recently started having health problems. This increased the little girl’s anxiety over daily separations. Alisa’s mother, who has remarried and lives in Mexico, visits occasionally. Alisa has no relationship with her biological father and considers her grandfather Roland her dad. An aunt and uncle also live with them.

“Alisa has experienced more loss than most students,” Charitee explains. “I’m not sure these feelings are expressed at home, so I became that person who she could talk to, someone she could trust.” The more she met with Alisa, the more Charitee learned. “She’s only in first grade but she’s very mature—probably because she’s already been through a lot.” As their time together continued, Charitee noticed marked improvement. Alisa was excited to go to school and looked forward to talking with Charitee each week. “I became a comfort zone. She loved talking about her family and told me all about them.” Alisa’s grandmother, a housekeeper, often brought her granddaughter to work. “Sometimes she helped her grandma with the cleaning, and sometimes she swam in the client’s pool. That was a big deal for her.”

In spite of this upbeat story, Charitee notes life has been more difficult for Alisa lately. “She recently lost her great-grandmother, who only spoke Spanish so Alisa was teaching her English. She said she’ll miss her but she took the death in stride. Still, it’s a lot to process for a seven-year-old.”

More processing and coping awaits this first-grader: Though her attendance improved, she was still considered chronically absent, and with the current status of local schools in flux, Charitee wonders what will become of Alisa and all her progress.

Since early March, intern instruction has varied based on university. SDSU’s social work interns, like Charitee, began working remotely and are no longer required to complete additional hours at school sites, which are now grappling with the reality of educating their students through distance learning. And though she understands this necessity, she still worries. “For a lot of students, school is their safe space.” And for Alisa, Charitee was her safe space.

“To see this girl go from being withdrawn to open and excited to see me—it was so heartening. Though I respect the school’s directive, I’m determined to follow-up with Alisa.” In the wake of the unknown, Charitee knows coordinated efforts between schools and community partners, families and interns, will become even more critical—and more challenging. But she isn’t ready to join the list of those who have abandoned little Alisa. “I have my own children and my own plans, but I’m not giving up on her.”

“The timing is interesting,” adds UWSD’s Nina Ghatan. “Over the past year, our ESED team has been working on the next iteration of the initiative for the 2020-21 school year. A component of this updated model includes enhancing linkages between community-based organizations and our school sites. We’re hopeful that a more coordinated approach will lead to improved outcomes for students and families.”

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.