Collaborative effort aims to tackle student absenteeism, one child at a time
The eviction notice couldn’t have come at a worse time for Faith Knighten. The cramped apartment she rented in a run-down Everett house wasn’t ideal, but it was all the grandmother of two could afford. She had only 20 days to move her ailing husband, adult daughter and two grandkids so the owner could begin renovating the space.
That made an already grim situation even worse, particularly for Knighten’s 10-year-old granddaughter, Avery, whose school attendance was negatively impacted by the accumulating chaos.
Knighten had to find a new place to rent on an extremely limited income, and the eviction shook her fragile relationship with her adult daughter. The family bounced from a shelter to a hotel to living in their car before they eventually found permanent housing. Along the way, Knighten’s daughter moved elsewhere, leaving Knighten to raise her two grandchildren largely on her own while caring for a husband with congestive heart failure.
The turmoil took a toll on Avery’s ability to make it to fifth-grade classes at Whittier Elementary School. She struggled to sleep at the often-noisy shelter, and some mornings could barely wake up in time to get to class. Avery suffers from NF1, a painful genetic neurological disease, which contributed to those sleepless nights. Some days it was easier to let Avery just stay home. Her days away from school started adding up.
“It felt like we were in constant crisis,” Knighten says. “When you’re under that kind of pressure, it’s hard to make decisions.”
A collaborative approach to reach the root of the problem
It’s often a cascading series of events, like the ones experienced by Knighten and her family, that leads to chronic absenteeism from school. Defined as missing two or more days of school a month, chronic absenteeism disproportionately affects more than 1,200 students experiencing homelessness in Everett Public Schools, according to Dr. Cynthia Jones, the district’s director of categorical programs. Studies show that students experiencing homelessness miss an average of 88 days of school each year.
Nonprofit agencies have long assisted families like Knighten’s, with one offering temporary housing, another granting food vouchers, and others donating bus passes or other assistance. While this siloed approach may meet people’s immediate needs, it rarely addresses all the issues that lead to chronic absenteeism.
Last year, United Way of Snohomish County introduced Creating Open Roads to Equity (CORE). The program engages a “collaborative,” or collection of community agencies, to help families solve problems that lead to missing school. Collaborative partners include many organizations, providing a range of services from mental health counseling and early-childhood programs to emergency shelter and employment services. CORE differs from the typical model of assistance because it attempts to treat the root cause of a problem, and multiple agencies come together, with the parent, to create a family support plan tailored to meet the specific needs of each family. CORE employs a two-generational approach, meaning the well-being of the entire family – kids, parents, and sometimes even grandparents – is considered.
“CORE recognizes that … we must simultaneously address the complex needs of the adult and child,” says Allison Matsumoto, director of marketing and communications for United Way of Snohomish County, “and ultimately change our systems to help families escape the traps of poverty.”
Knighten received help setting up a temporary school bus pick-up point for Avery while the family was staying in a hotel. When Knighten was panicked about an unexpected bill from her new landlord, her advocate helped clear up the confusion. And once Knighten and her family settled in their new apartment, the advocate was there to connect her with a service that found a second-hand bunk bed for her grandchildren.
“Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, this is just hand holding’ and that people need to do this by themselves,” says Monica Wilson, the coordinator of the CORE collaborative that helped Knighten. “But the stack of things they have to do is so long and can be overwhelming. If we can help them by making a phone call or filling out an application, it relieves a little stress and allows the family to continue moving forward on their journey to self-sufficiency.”
Premera brings continued support to CORE
As a nonprofit, the United Way of Snohomish County relies heavily on private donations and corporate gifts to fund programs such as CORE. Premera Blue Cross has long been a supporter of the agency, and was the initial funder of the CORE program with a grant of $250,000 to help build its infrastructure. Premera recently followed up with an additional $1 million investment over three years, and the health insurance company’s employees kicked in nearly half a million additional dollars in 2019 as part of Premera’s annual giving campaign.
The CORE program resonates with Premera’s vision to make healthcare and communities better, says Jeff Roe, Premera’s president and chief executive. “Issues that hold back our community and neighbors must be addressed at their cause, not their symptoms,” says Roe, who has served on the United Way of Snohomish County’s board since 2015. “Through its CORE collaboratives, the United Way of Snohomish County is doing just that: working to resolve the multi-dimensional issues that lead to chronic poverty and allowing people to reach a new level of independence and stability.”
Family advocates are the ‘missing link’
CORE’s Child Family Advocates – case workers assigned to families to help guide them through the program – are often referred to as the “missing links” between available social services and those who need them. CORE’s “Improving School Attendance” collaborative employs seven advocates for 63 participants, resulting in relatively low caseloads. This gives advocates a chance to meet with families more frequently, and for longer periods of time.
Julie Brenaman is Knighten’s family advocate. Because Knighten is often home caring for her husband or her younger grandson, Brenaman will come to Knighten’s apartment for meetings. She’s also connected with families at coffeeshops, parks and even in their cars.
“It’s usually the small things that get in the way of progress,” says Brenaman, citing work schedules that conflict with children’s school hours or lack of deposit money for rental housing. Past issues such as suspended drivers’ licenses or prior evictions can create even more barriers.
Brenaman has helped Knighten navigate a system of services that can be confusing to even the savviest of consumers. Making one’s way through an application for housing or other types of assistance can be trying.
Filling out long forms is not easy, especially if the client is also facing food insecurity, family troubles or other distractions, Brenaman says, adding, “It’s good to have a middle person there to find out what’s available and to help guide you through the process.”
Schools step in to help
In many instances, families become recipients of CORE services when schools reach out on their behalf.
Before its involvement in United Way of Snohomish County’s CORE program, teachers and administrators at Everett Public Schools would address chronic absenteeism by contacting parents of frequently absent students to try and create a plan to get their child to school. Their reach could only extend so far.
“The families we work with have so many barriers,” says the district’s Jones, “and there are so many factors going on outside the school’s control.” School officials could work with parents to provide bus service, for example, but were unable to delve further into deeper issues such as job instability, poverty, lack of childcare or mental illness.
Since Everett Public Schools has become part of a collaborative that can help parents on many fronts, a number of families have moved into stable housing, Jones says. Preliminary reports indicate that absenteeism among collaborative participants dropped during the 2018-19 school year from 21.4 percent to 19.1 percent. While the improvement is slight, it shows promise, according to Jones.
“We are excited to see the beginnings of success with our CORE program,” she says. “As families stabilize, we know success will follow.”
Poor school attendance isn’t the only problem the United Way of Snohomish County is tackling. Since CORE was introduced last November, four other collaboratives have formed, engaging nearly 100 nonprofit, public and private partners to focus on a variety of social issues, such as parenting skills, mental health, housing stability and employment.
Making steps forward
Today, Avery and her family are comfortable and secure in an apartment they can afford in south Everett, and Avery finished up fifth grade with vastly improved attendance and plans to attend camp this summer.
With her family’s immediate needs met, Avery’s grandmother can focus her attention and energy on other important things, such as scheduling preventative doctors’ appointment for her grandkids and attending a parent support group and counseling appointments.
Knighten credits Breneman and the CORE program for the strides she’s made to get settled and back on track, and for helping stabilize Avery’s school attendance.
“Without (CORE), I would have been satisfied with just not being homeless,” Knighten says, who in recent months has found a quality early-learning center for her grandson and resumed her work as a seamstress. “We definitely wouldn’t still be making steps forward.”