September is School Attendance Awareness Month

September is Attendance Awareness Month and Alignment Nashville  asked me for a quote they could share on social media in response to this question:  “Involvement in social services or juvenile justice can sometimes create a divide between students and their education. How can service providers work WITH the school to help ensure that students are engaged in education and attending school?” My complete answer is below:

teens love kids backpacksIt’s no secret that education is the key to success, but education isn’t always so accessible when you’re constantly in crisis or trying to get your basic needs of food, shelter and safety met. Children and youth can so easily fall through the cracks in education when they are being shuffled between social service providers, and unfortunately children often do not have the voice to advocate for themselves and make sure the adult “shufflers” are prioritizing their academic achievement. Chronic absenteeism is a very real issue for students who have run-ins with the juvenile justice or social service systems, and it’s something to which we definitely need to start paying more attention. The effects that truancy has on students are profound. Low grades, drop-out rates, and even adult job retention can all be attributed to truancy. We must have the mindset of “education-first” when working with our students and learn how to partner with the school system to ensure these kids have a shot at academic success.

First, I think it’s important to establish relationships with your students’ schools and keep open lines of communication. We need to be on the same page about testing schedules, parent engagement strategies, behavior interventions, and ways that we as providers can support the work that the teachers are doing. If students have a difficult time staying after school for enrichment opportunities, offer a similar alternative at your place of business. If the child’s parents are in his/her life but uninvolved in his/her education, host an incentivized series of classes to discuss the importance of parent involvement and empower them to become advocates for their children. Advertise Parent University at your agency! We’ve got to be creative and intentional in the ways we enhance the services we are currently offering so that they support the educational trajectory of our students.

At Safe Haven, we serve families with children currently experiencing homelessness and match them with housing in the community. It is not rare to have families enter our program in the fall or spring with children who have already attended 4 or 5 schools for the academic year with more than an acceptable number of unexcused absences. It’s our goal, once they enter our doors, to stabilize that child’s educational experience and set up supports to keep them in their school of origin. The McKinney Vento federal law is in place to support shelters and schools in finding the necessary resources for homeless students. Those resources can include transportation, food, school attire and advocacy. Safe Haven goes a step further and offers academic-specific programming at the shelter site, including tutoring twice a week, daily homework help and access to Vanderbilt’s Child Language and Literacy Lab. The Lap comes in to do academic testing with students whose parents believe they may need an IEP or other specialized assistance in school. We also offer enrichment activities and support groups. Children and youth dealing with tough situations need a space to speak their minds and be heard.

It would be to our students’ benefit if we began to see service providers and the juvenile justice system as partners to the school system. Together we can do so much!

Judy Lewis is the Child Advocacy and Education Program Manager at Safe Haven Family Shelter.

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