November 26, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Need for breakfast program soars in Surrey schools

By Gerry Bellett

This time last year, the Surrey school district had eight elementary schools using its Attendance Matters program, where the prospect of a free breakfast was a magnet to get some families to send their children to school every day.

The program was partly funded last year by a $32,000 donation from The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund.

This year, the need’s so great it has spread to 12 elementary schools and two high schools – and should be offered in 10 more schools, said assistant superintendent Pat Horstead.

That’s 24 schools, so it seems redundant to ask if poverty is a growing problem in Surrey.

But Horstead answered anyway. “Increasing? Absolutely.”

Brenden Graham spends time with the kids during the breakfast program at Lena Shaw Elementary. (Wayne Leidenfrost/ PNG)

This year, there are an estimated 2,000 children in those 24 schools who either get, or need, the program’s help.

Attendance Matters is principally aimed at reducing absenteeism in the kindergarten to Grade 3 years.

Research shows that regularly missing school two days a month can sharply reduce a child’s prospects of graduating, said Horstead. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 18 school days a year – two days a month – and many parents fail to recognize the dangers of allowing their children to drift into this zone, Horstead said.

“They’ll say ‘oh it’s only a couple of days here and there – it’s no big deal.’ But if there’s 10-per-cent absenteeism that child doesn’t get the connections it needs in school, doesn’t build routines, get literacy skills, won’t feel successful.

“And so when they get to the intermediate grades and they’re not doing well, they’ll feel there’s no point in being at school and by Grade 9 or 10 we often lose them,” said Horstead.

Attendance Matters involves providing breakfast for children who would otherwise be hungry and uses community outreach workers such as Brenden Graham to keep in touch with parents whose children routinely miss school.

This morning at Lena Shaw elementary in Surrey’s north end, Graham is watching his regulars trooping in – little kids, many of them sporting backpacks almost as big as themselves.

They began arriving in dribs and drabs, the first at about 7: 45 a.m. It doesn’t look today as if he needs to go out and round any up.

“I guess I go out three or four times a week,” said Graham.

Last year, he was constantly ferrying one particular child to school. It’s a state of affairs he is keen to avoid as that kind of dependency is the last thing the program wants to foster.

Graham spent time with the family trying to convince them about the need for the girl to get to school and this year he hasn’t needed to go out once.

“Last year, she just didn’t make it unless I picked her up. They’ve changed and it’s amazing. She’s here every day and is catching up,” said Graham. “For us, that’s a big success.”

School district statistics show that in the eight schools that were part of last year’s trial program, absenteeism was cut in half.

That success led to the program’s expansion to other schools.

The program is also providing important research into the causes of absenteeism as there is little academic information on the problem in Canada, said Azadeh Bell-Irving, Surrey’s community schools partnership coordinator.

“It’s pretty exciting. It will help us design programs to support families and maybe we can take it beyond our district and share it,” said Bell-Irving.

The research is being conducted by Surrey school district and Simon Fraser University. It has already caught the eye of the American Educational Research Association. Last year, Surrey and SFU presented the outlines of their research to the association and this year they’ve been invited to present their findings at the association’s April meeting in San Francisco. Absenteeism is often rooted in poverty and the many barriers it places in a child’s way. One such barrier for poor families living in the Kwantlen Park secondary catchment area is the lack of bus fare to get children to school. Many students live too far from the school to walk to class and poor attendance is often caused by lack of bus fare. The school is asking for $750 from Adopt-a-School to be used for bus tickets.

At Lena Shaw, it’s difficult to know how many children attend school. During the year it can fluctuate from 520 to 540.

“It’s a transient area. So the number depends on factors, such as how long it takes for parents to get evicted if they don’t pay the rent,” said Horstead.

“You get evicted, so you move elsewhere in north Surrey and your kids go from this school to Mary Jane Shannon. And they’ll be there for three months until another crisis occurs or they can’t pay the rent so they’ll all move again. Next they will show up in Riverdale and spend some time there. Then they’ll move again and sometimes the kids are back here next year.”

“With poverty comes the complications and the barriers. There’s a lack of support for the family, single parents trying to cope, kids with challenging behaviours – it’s sometimes World War III in those homes some mornings.

“Even if the kids are in trouble at home, they know that from 8: 30 to 2: 30 they will be in a warm, caring and safe place where they will be fed, exposed to literature, where they can start their day calmly and ready to learn,” she said. “We don’t want them going to class unfed, having just fought with their mom and being dragged in by the scruff of the neck, coming into class crying and often late,” said Horstead.

Last year, Attendance Matters was mainly about providing breakfast. But this year, schools are squeezing in some gym and reading time before classes begin to give children an extra boost towards literacy.

“That’s a piece we didn’t have last year and we really want to do this, but it’s expensive buying the literacy kits. They are over $1,000 each and we have one for each school but we need at least two for every school,” she said.

Elementary schools seeking help from this year’s campaign are KB Woodward, Mary Jane Shannon, Hjorth Road, Lena Shaw, Georges Vanier and Bear Creek.

The schools need $4,000 a school to keep serving breakfasts and another $2,100 a school for literacy kits and to buy hats and gloves so that kids can go outside to play in the winter.

Staff are noticing many children arriving at school for Attendance Matters are without proper winter clothing and are often reluctant to go outside to play because they are ashamed of being inadequately dressed.

gbellett@vancouversun.com

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