“I didn’t know what social work in a school setting would look like,” explains Chelsea Guevara, an SDSU senior majoring in Social Work who was chosen to be part of United Way’s Every Student, Every Day cohort. The absence intervention initiative coordinates schools, teachers, and staff with interns who develop relationships with students that are chronically absent and their families to help understand the barriers they face getting to school every day, on time.
“I’m a big-picture, macro person,” Chelsea explains in the small office she occupies at a local elementary school. “I’ve worked on larger projects, like San Diego’s homeless population, but this was a chance to develop the micro side, to build these special relationships with the kids and their parents while watching out for their needs on campus. That’s been an important part of my work, seeing that development.”
One family on her caseload involved two sisters—Izzy (11) and Davina (6), who were chronically absent. The reasons were multiple—which is often the case with children whose home circumstances present challenges to regular attendance. “Sometimes, one of the girls was sick and the mom kept the other home as well. Their transportation was spotty, and it wasn’t clear if the mom was employed.” Adding to those challenges was Izzy’s temper: “Izzy got into fights because people annoyed her, and she hasn’t been taught positive ways to handle her emotions,” Chelsea says. “She’s also protective of her younger sister, so anyone who messes with Davina, will mess with Izzy.” As a result, Izzy was frequently suspended, which compounded the families’ challenges.
The girls’ spotty school attendance had other explanations: according to Izzy, her mother had stage four cancer, which may account for some of the girls’ absences. The other family members’ limitations also played a part. When the girls stayed with her their grandmother, it was hard for them to get to school because grandma did not drive. Visiting her often meant missing school. Meanwhile, the girls’ mom was often with an aunt. “According to my Task Supervisor,” Chelsea adds, “She stayed with her aunt to take care of her.”
To help make the holidays a bit brighter, a $200 gift card was donated to the family. “We chose Izzy and Davina’s family because it would benefit their large family – they have other siblings as well – and they have been working harder towards improving their attendance.”
As her internship continued, Chelsea started noticing that the school staff underestimated poverty’s impact on the families they served. “Everyone seemed to forget that this school may be the only regularity these families have,” she explains. In an effort to help the teachers and staff better understand the families’ struggle with scarcity, she began researching school-based “poverty simulations.”
“I had been to a poverty simulation as an undergrad and found it very impactful. I thought it could help shed some light on the situations that these families deal with, day in and day out.”
The Poverty Simulation included a 48-minute tour, simulating one month, where every 12 minutes represented a week in the life of a family in poverty. Staff and faculty were asked to go through situations similar to those of the families whose children they taught and supported.
“It was very family specific — a mom, a dad, two kids. Dad had lost his job. The family had a set amount of resources and money. How do you live that month? What if the school is shut down, or there’s a holiday?” Such obstacles were put in place to simulate what might happen; participants had to find their way through those restrictions and barriers. “For example, the pawn shop employee only spoke Spanish. What if you don’t speak Spanish? How do you do business? ‘Just speak the language we speak!’ someone shouted. We have a lot of families that don’t speak English here. It could take a while before they got a translator; resources are scarce. How do you communicate?”
At first, Chelsea admits, teachers and faculty didn’t take the simulation seriously. “But by the end, it got very intense. They were yelling at the volunteers. If they were frustrated by this imaginary experience, imagine how these parents must feel.”
Chelsea hoped the experience raised staff consciousness; she understands how it would be easy to get complacent, when you’re working every day with families who have complicated lives. “At the end, we had a 15-minute regroup session where we discussed the experience. I wanted [staff] to realize that even just five minutes of interaction with students or their families, asking ‘How’s your week going? What can I do to support you?’ could go a long way to help them feel supported and seen.”
United Way Impact Manager Nina Ghatan, Chelsea’s supervisor, mentions another convert to the cause: “What’s amazing about Chelsea is that she was able to get buy-in from the principal. He actually devoted a faculty meeting to this project, which says a lot, considering he’s only allotted two meetings a semester, so he put a lot of trust in her.”
Chelsea smiles. “He didn’t expect to be part of the simulation, but I told him, ‘Nope, you’re part of it!’ “ She also sweetened the deal by lowering the cost. “I knew [official poverty simulations for schools] cost money—like, $2,000. My homemade version looked just the same; all the information was just as impactful.”
“Chelsea continued juggling her caseload,” Nina continued, “organized this simulation, met with me weekly… she also has a job and is active in her sorority!”
“It mattered to me,” Chelsea concludes, shrugging. “And now that I know how critical absenteeism is, I won’t let it fall by the wayside. Maybe I’ll end up working on it in a different capacity. This opportunity—working hands-on with the children—was so invaluable to me.”
Chelsea graduated in May 2019 from SDSU’s Department of Social Work. Currently, she works for a company dedicated to empowering and supporting college women. Her hope is to enter the world of nonprofit in the future.
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.