Joe Leibovitch has run schools in Toronto, but never had anything like Surrey’s Attendance Matters to help him deal with the professional agony of seeing a child’s future being decided by chronic absenteeism.
According to research, it is possible to determine by Grade 3 which children will go on to graduation and post-secondary education. Children who miss 10 per cent or more of classroom time simply won’t.
“It’s tough when you’re a principal to keep track of the kids who are missing. You’re spending hours on all kinds of issues in school, so it’s very challenging,” said Leibovitch, principal of James Ardiel Elementary on 112th Ave. in Whalley.
“In Toronto, I had to do all this work myself, maybe at times with the help of a social worker. So when I got here – to have a person whose sole job it is to get kids into school, who goes out to their house and knocks on the door and says, ‘How can I help you get to school? Do you need an alarm clock? What is it I can do?’ It’s amazing.
“These guys are not principals or teachers. And they are not judgmental. Sometimes a parent will ask for help – they’ve got two kids who won’t get up in the morning and are always arguing, and the parent can’t get them to school because she has to leave early to go to work. These guys will find a way.
“We’ve had great success. We’ve got kids who have now broken the habit of being late.”
Attendance Matters is in 22 schools where chronic absenteeism is a problem.
The program is designed to provide students with a healthy breakfast as an incentive to bring them in early and allow them time to socialize with other students and staff before school begins.
“The main goal is to get the kids fed in the morning and ready to learn,” said Rani Gandhan, manager of the community schools partnership which operates Attendance Matters.
“Our staff are at all the schools ready to do whatever to get these kids in, even if it means going out and picking them up.”
Ardiel has 420 students and feeds between 30 to 40 a day.
The Surrey school district has again asked The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $100,000 to buy food for the 820 children who attend the program daily.
Last year, an Adopt-A-School donation of $100,000 from the Lohn Foundation was directed to feeding these children. And Vancouver lawyer and foundation trustee Jack Kowarsky has again provided $100,000 to keep Attendance Matters operating this year.
“It’s important to get these children into school so they can have the benefit of an education,” said Kowarsky. “We can’t leave them hungry.”
Michelle Nilson, an assistant professor in SFU’s faculty of education, said the program is successful.
“There’s been a 12 per cent improvement in attendance rates, which is very significant,” said Nilson, who said there was a direct relationship between absenteeism and family poverty.
If poverty levels were decreased it would help, but unlike other provinces, B.C. doesn’t have a poverty reduction plan, let alone a scheme to do it, said Nilson.
Jazmyn Tanaka and Hollie Murphy, both single parents with children at the school, said they were greatly helped by Attendance Matters.
Tanaka works in a warehouse and has to leave home at 6 a.m., which leaves her nine-year-old son to get up, make breakfast and get to school on time. Without the help of Attendance Matters, she’s not sure any of that would happen.
“I need the community’s help, from the neighbours who look out for my son to the breakfast club in school. The club gives him a social aspect because there are no kids at home and he needs to be around other kids,” said Tanaka.
Murphy, who is on social assistance, has two children and having them fed in the morning is crucial as she struggles to find enough money for food after she pays rent.
Asked how much she has to live on each week, she said between $80 and $100 for food, clothes and all other expenses. Her rent has just been increased by $50, which will come straight out of her food budget.
“Getting them breakfast helps because we do struggle. They give them healthy food – grains, fruit – it’s not just a piece of toast,” she said.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)