This morning, a neighbor dropped my son off at a babysitter’s. The sitter will shuttle him to a sports class later today, where a coach will keep an eye on him and remind him to use the bathroom when necessary. He’ll go back to another friend’s house after that and play Uno with her until I pick him up. In just a few hours, my son will have been supported by four adults who are not his family members. This day is pretty typical for him. Working parents need all the help they can get, and I firmly believe in the idea of children being raised with community support.
In my classroom, it’s not much different. When students feel supported by everyone—teachers, parents, counselors, lunchroom attendants, secretaries, coaches—they are more successful. We all play a role in our kids’ well-being; they need to know we care.
In Michigan, though, we are ranked 41st in the area of education by the 2017 national KIDS COUNT Data Book. In the 2015-2016 school year, 27.4% of our students were considered “chronically absent”, which means they missed at least 10% of the school year. Over 9% have dropped out of high school. These kids need our support most of all.
I’m fortunate enough to teach in a school district with excellent resources and a kind, caring staff. But sometimes there are pieces to the puzzle that we can’t find. A student will miss several days of school. We’ll send an email that bounces back. We’ll call home and often there’s no answer. We’ll track down siblings and other family members.
But as teachers, we’re limited in what we can do to help kids who are at risk. We need a bigger community. In my experience, despite many 80s movies that would have us believe otherwise, truancy is not typically due to kids skipping school to hit the local arcade. There’s usually a reason more valid than that.
When a student returns from a mysterious absence, we might learn that she had to work for a few days to help the family out. Or maybe he had to babysit his nieces and nephews so his sister could go to her job. Sometimes it’s the flu. Sometimes the explanation is more worrisome than that. And sometimes we don’t hear an explanation at all, which is the scariest piece. Kids who are struggling need all the help that they can get, and we as teachers can only do so much.
That’s why I was so pleased to see that the 2018 Michigan budget signed by Governor Rick Snyder today included an expansion for the Pathways to Potential program. Part of the Department of Health & Human Services, Pathways works to build partnerships between schools and families. The program places “success coaches” in schools to help break down barriers and connect kids and their families with the services and supports they need to thrive.
Whether it’s helping kids get winter gear, bringing in therapy dogs, giving free haircuts, or simply sharing smiles and laughter, these coaches are making a difference. They’re one more adult in the building who cares about kids. And they care about parents, too, offering advice on counseling, health benefits, crime prevention, and other resources that are available to families.
In the program’s first year, truancy rates dropped by 9% in the 21 schools that piloted it. Today, over 200 schools benefit from Pathways to Potential. My school is not on the list, but I’m so glad to see that the program will continue to grow next year. Community is key, and putting support directly in schools just makes good sense.
As I remember to thank the members of my little community for what they do for my kiddo each day, I’ll also do my part to help the Pathways to Potential program reach all Michigan kiddos who would benefit.
— Laura Millard Ross