Gresham Outlook Shines a Light on Partnership's Attendance Work

Posted on May 15, 2015 in Media Coverage

DHS caseworkers keep school desks filled (The Gresham Outlook, May 15, 2015)

By Teresa Carson

Read the story below and here.

A Gresham mom and her daughter recently fled domestic violence, leaving everything behind at their home and finding safety in a shelter. They spent their days at the library or other public buildings. The daughter stopped attending her elementary school, because she no longer had transportation and was embarrassed that she didn’t have a change of clothes, backpack or school supplies.

A Department of Human Services case worker, working out of Highland Elementary, tracked the pair down and sprang into action.

“We were able to get a bus pass for the daughter. We got them Ross and Safeway gift cards. Now the mom is able to get her daughter to school every day,” said Iva Castle, the DHS caseworker. “I wouldn’t have been able to reach them in the same way if I had been working in the (DHS) office.”

For the first time ever, the Oregon Department of Human Services has put self sufficiency division caseworkers in six public schools, all in Multnomah County, to help families keep their children in school.

The program has only been in place since September, so there isn’t good data available on improved attendance rates yet, but participants see results family-by-family.

Principals praise the program

“It has worked really well for us,” said Shawnda Sewell, principal of Highland in Gresham. “Some students’ lives are very complicated.”

Students face issues of homelessness, domestic violence, lack of transportation, family health challenges, bullying and other serious problems. Getting some students to school every day and on time can be difficult for some families.

This isn’t a harmless case of playing hooky now and then. Chronic absenteeism — generally missing more than 10 percent of a school year — torpedoes a student’s chances for success in school, multiple studies have shown. Chronic absenteeism correlates closely with dropping out of school altogether.

The six demonstration schools housing the caseworkers are Highland, Lynch Wood Elementary in the Centennial district, Glenfair Elementary in the Reynolds School District, David Douglas High School, Shaver Elementary School in the Parkrose district and George Middle School in Portland.

A focus on parents

The DHS workers don’t deal with students, but with parents and caregivers.

Placing DHS caseworkers into the schools is a cooperative program of DHS, the school districts and All Hands Raised, which is connected with the Portland Public Schools Foundation.

The case workers say being in the school brings them important new insights into family challenges.

“The children tell the (family) story” when the DHS worker is in the school, Dwight Palmer, the DHS case manager at Glenfair Elementary School told a recent Reynolds School District Board meeting. “When you are in a DHS office, the parents often say what they think you want to hear. But, when you see the children taking cereal home in their backpacks,” you know something is up, he said. “You would never see these incidents in the office.”

Palmer recalled one episode when a mother was attacking her son at school. He found out that it was the first anniversary of her husband’s death.

“I wouldn’t have seen this in a DHS office,” he said. “I had total empathy for her.”

Moses Rain, the DHS caseworker at Lynch Wood, said parents and guardians are sometimes more open in informal contacts at a place where they feel safe and comfortable.

“They’ll talk to me in the gym or the parking lot,” Rain said.

The DHS workers have the time and training to make home visits to help the families keep their kids in schools. Most schools have attendance teams, and having the DHS worker super-charges those efforts, the principals said.

The conversations with parents can be tricky.

“We have to learn how to talk about this without criticizing their parenting skills,” said Frances Sallah, human services manager at DHS in Southeast Portland. “We ask ‘what is it that we as an agency can do to support you so that you can get your child to school and on time.”

Putting the DHS caseworkers in schools came about by kismet.

“It was serendipitous,” said Dan Ryan, All Hands chief executive officer. “I was in a meeting with Erinn Kelley-Siel (director of DHS) … and the dots started to be connected. I’ll never forget that Erinn said ‘in the future my staff people won’t work behind desks, they will work in your buildings.’ She set the vision.”

Other key players rallied to the idea and the six DHS caseworkers, who volunteered for the assignment, were sent to the schools in September.

“If kindergartners and first-graders are missing school, it is not about them, it is about the parents getting their kids to school,” DHS’s Sallah said.

For example, she said some parents don’t take kindergarten seriously.

“They think it isn’t that important. They think all you do is color and have a snack. But, when kids miss too much school, they just can’t catch up,” Sallah said.

All Hands Raised takes a cautious and very focused approach to new initiatives, such as this one centering on attendance.

“Our ethos is continuous movement and failing forward,” said Nate Waas Schull, AHR vice president of partnerships. “We do intend to expand this eventually. But, we’ll be measuring, tracking, reporting and improving over the coming year.”

Nonetheless, everyone involved is excited about this groundbreaking cooperation between different government entities to benefit families and the community.

Said Schull: “This is just super-cool boundary bending.”