Graduation Enhancement Technicians work in Manatee’s Title I schools to combat chronic absenteeism, but often find themselves doing social work.
PALMETTO — Jane Steininger knows all the typical excuses that keep kids home from school — lice, rainy weather, illness, unreliable transportation — but Thursday afternoon’s phone call was a first.
A distraught mother called, looking for help getting her child to Palmetto Elementary. She lives too close to the school to receive bus service, and she can’t walk the child to school because she has no legs.
“There’s no one that lives around you in that area that walks to school?” Steininger asked. “Let me look into it, and I’ll get back to you. I’ll see what I can do.”
Hanging up, Steininger explained that the mother is on dialysis and is bed-ridden. Her child used to walk with a fifth-grade sibling to school, but the sibling is now in middle school, and the mile-and-a-half walk is too far for the second-grader to make on his own.
“She was crying on the phone because she can’t get him here to school,” Steininger said.
Steininger is one of the Graduation Enhancement Technicians (GETs) working to combat chronic absenteeism in Manatee’s Title I schools. The position was created in 2015 to reduce the number of children missing 10 percent or more of the school year. The GETs are problem solvers, looking for creative ways to help people like that mother who needed help. This year, the district has hired a social worker to oversee the program to enhance the level of family intervention that GETs find themselves doing.
“We’ve realized that much of the work that they do is, for lack of a better word, ‘social worker-lite,’ so we need to enhance all of our GETs’ skills in the social worker arena,” said Elena Garcia, the director of federal programs and grants for the district.
The GETs mission has been driven by a greater understanding of the impact of missing school. In 2008, researchers Hedy Nai-Lin Chang and Mariajose Romero found that students who missed more than 10 percent of a school year in kindergarten had the lowest test scores among their peers on reading and math assessments in fifth grade. A 2011 California study concluded that only 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were reading proficiently by the time they hit third grade.
“People don’t understand that two days a month really add up,” Chang said in an interview with the Herald-Tribune.
GETs spend time visiting homes, looking for ways to support parents whose kids are missing too much school. Steininger said she made 33 visits in the days leading up to the start of this school year. When children have head lice, she will stop by the home to teach the parents how to get rid of the infestation. She said if the parents don’t properly treat the pillows, mattress, stuffed animals and car, a child can end up missing weeks of school.
Garcia said the factors that keep elementary children out of school are often beyond the child’s control, so she has discouraged GETs from only using rewards for not missing school.
“That’s not necessarily the best approach, because it is not that child’s decision that they are there,” she said.
Instead, she encourages the GETs to focus on mentoring. Garcia said when kids know there is an adult who is checking to make sure they are at school every day, they are much more likely to attend consistently. On Thursday, Steininger met with Jocelyn, a third-grader who was late to school that day. Jocelyn has been on Steininger’s radar for three years, and she was worried about the tardy just four days into the new year.
“My brother was wasting time,” Jocelyn said. “He didn’t want to put his shoes on.”
The meeting was brief and positive. Steininger told Jocelyn she would visit her at home soon, and she sent her back to class with a hug.
Steininger is known to the children at Palmetto Elementary as Ms. Every Day Counts — a slogan for the attendance movement she repeats so often that it has become her nickname. Plus, it is easier to say than “Steininger.”
“It just stuck,” Steininger said. “The whole school calls me Ms. Every Day Counts.”
Lack of reliable transportation is the primary issue keeping kids home from school at many schools, Steininger said. Kids who live within two miles of the school do not receive busing services. A rainy morning can cause a spike of absences among the kids who walk to school.
Jan Alvarez, the GET at Daughtry Elementary, helps lead a “Walking School Bus.” Twice a week, she will walk a group of 20 to 30 children down Fifth Street East. She said having an established group that walks together provides safety in numbers and serves as a daily reminder of the importance of coming to school, even when it is raining or unpleasant outside.
The GETs have also worked with Manatee County Rural Health to provide a dental van where children can receive teeth cleaning.
“The parents’ focus is going to work and making a living,” Alvarez said. “You know the necessity and the time it takes getting out of work, taking your child to have their teeth cleaned. And now you can have it done here in the parking lot? Are you serious?”
The efforts are working. Steininger said when she began working at Palmetto Elementary, 13 percent of the school was chronically absent, but that is down to 5 percent. Last year was difficult — Hurricane Irma and the Parkland shooting contributed to higher absenteeism throughout the district — but a framed letter on the wall in her office shows that that “#EveryDayCounts” is taking hold.
A Palmetto Elementary student wrote the letter to her stuffed animals.
“Dear Jango, Rae, and Prince,” the letter states. “I love you all. You are the best! I’m very sorry I’ve been so long at school. It’s all this attendance thing. I am deeply sorry.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.