Meeting Families Where They Are
Tonya Holmes acknowledges that sometimes families see social workers as only getting involved when there’s a problem, and she’s working to change that. “I’m here as a resource,” she says. She brings nearly 30 years of experience as a teacher and long-time high school principal to her current position as a school social worker at Fickett Elementary School.
Now in her second year, she’s focusing on increasing attendance. That’s why she applied for the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) grant. A $150,000 investment by redefinED atlanta, FACE grants support eligible Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in their 2022-23 family engagement efforts. The money, up to $15,000 per school, gives recipients autonomy in how they spend the funds to address their priority needs.
“redefinED atlanta engages with communities, advocates for equity, and funds critical work to drive systemic level improvement in K-12 public education for students and families,” said Denesha Thompson Pressy, director, public engagement and advocacy, at redefinED atlanta. “We believe supporting schools’ broader family engagement strategy will lead to a more lasting impact on family engagement in schooling and thereby support student academic and life outcomes, ”she added.
More Momentum and Shared Understanding
With thoughtful events, information and incentives, Holmes is working on increasing daily attendance momentum and understanding why attendance is so important at home. The program for students kicked off in September, with attendance winners going to the monster truck show. “Then we hit the reset button every month,” she says. “We don’t want you to be knocked out of the running because you missed a few days last month.”
The announcement comes every morning asking kids to try hard to be at school and to be on time. One month, the winners went to a College Park Skyhawks basketball game, snacks included. Another month, children’s names went into a drawing for a video game console and parents received wireless earbuds, recognizing that the students would only be successful with parent support. Snack bags and perfect attendance t-shirts are other ways Holmes increases the visibility of students with high attendance to encourage more students.
For the Fickett Elementary School community, Holmes uses redefinED atlanta’s F.A.C.E. grant funding to meet people where they are with the information and support they need. “Anytime I have the opportunity for a captive audience of adults, I go,” says Holmes. For one of her outreach efforts, she and her school’s parent liaison organized a school meeting at an apartment complex where about 100 Fickett students live. While attendance was light, those who came left with bookbags full of useful items, and now other parents are asking when she’s coming back.
To reach out specifically to dads, Holmes joined one of the All-Pro Dad’s meetings to discuss the importance of school attendance. The father’s group involves about 60 men who meet in the school media center monthly. “We have to stop the expectation that raising kids is only the responsibility of mothers,” Holmes says. “The dads were so receptive and happy to be included.”
There are many reasons why students at Fickett Elementary might not come to school. A child may need clean clothes because cleaning supplies are expensive. A parent might have a night shift and struggle to get their child ready on time based on when they get home from work. It removes a barrier when Holmes includes laundry detergent in gift bags. Also, she lets families know that even if a student is not on time, the school still wants them to come. “It’s about feeling welcome,” she says. “Better to come late than not come at all.”
Holmes underlines the importance of administrators having the power to allocate funds in the ways their school community needs. “The needs are different from one community to the next,” she says. “Some schools might have the same demographic makeup as ours, but students at that school aren’t missing class because parents have cars or children can walk to school.” In the case of Fickett Elementary many families don’t have cars, and if children miss the bus, they may live too far away to walk.
At Fickett, there are also a lot of younger families and Holmes is emphasizing why elementary attendance is so critical for students. “With young parents, many of whom are trying to make it from day to day, taking this time to establish relationships will have a long-term impact,” she says. “A change in their mindset is happening.”
Already Holmes has seen an increase in two-way communication. Instead of the school always initiating calls if children are out sick, she’s getting more proactive calls from families that the school can document and keep track of, like if a student is out because of an asthma attack. “When we call parents, we don’t just say a student missed eight days,” she says. “We say, ‘Unfortunately, they’re not doing well in math and not on grade level.’ When my parents hear that, it means more to them — they want more for their children.”
Her long experience as a high school administrator gives Holmes a unique perspective. “High school students are in control of whether they go to school or not,” she says. “In elementary school, students must rely on supportive adults to set the stage for their whole academic career. This year, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made. I’m very pleased with the parents being receptive. It’s not just about students being in school but being there to maximize their lives and reach their full potential.”
redefinED atlanta funds critical work to drive equity in education and promote great schools in Atlanta. With more flexible resources like the FACE grant, thoughtful leaders like Holmes can continue advancing critical elements of student success, like attendance and family engagement. redefinED atlanta believes the best school leaders and teachers understand their students’ and communities’ unique needs. They work best when given the trust, freedom, flexibility, and support to serve those needs. Active parent and community engagement are essential to establish levers of support for every student. Learn more about our current FACE grant opportunity today.