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Granger schools create model for attendance that deserves attention across the state

 The search for education innovations that represent steps toward excellence is a challenging process at best, and one that seldom includes schools in underprivileged areas or those with large minority enrollment. 
 
Thus the dramatic turnaround in absenteeism for the schools in the Yakima Valley community of Granger to achieve the lowest incidence of chronic absenteeism in the state merits the attention of those seeking to bring change and educational enhancement to schools. After all, this is a district where nearly 85 percent of the students are Hispanic and a third of the families live below the poverty level.

From a mediocre attendance record typical of the schools down the length of the Yakima Valley and in most of rural Washington, schools in the Granger district last year recorded a chronic absenteeism rate of 3.6 percent, more than four times better than the statewide average of 16 percent.

But most dramatically, that average was more than twice as good as the chronic-absentee rates in Bellevue, Mercer Island and Lake Washington districts, meaning Granger schools had less than half as many students who were chronic absentees (meaning missing 18 or more school days during the year) than those high-visibility districts.

The innovative Granger program that came to be known as "every child, every seat, every day" is a success story with three heroines: retired Granger high school principal Janet Wheaton, her sister-in-law, Bellevue businesswoman Joan Wallace and Alma Sanchez, a mom turned student, turned education entrepreneur.

But Wheaton might well contend that the heroes in this achievement were the students who made up their minds to be in class regularly, the faculty and staff who became passionate about making the program successful and parents who played an important role in supporting their children.

Perhaps the most inspiring of the trio because of the challenges she had to overcome was Sanchez, then in her early 30s and mother of four, ranging in age at the time from 20 down to third grade, who had decided she needed to get her degree and enrolled at Heritage University in nearby Toppenish, a college with a largely Hispanic student body. 

Sanchez needed money for college so she went to work in Heritage's office of University Advancement, where she learned about the program then getting underway between Heritage and the Granger school district, so she became an intern in that district.

Wheaton urged Sanchez to work on the attendance problem so she did some research to find if there were any absentee programs nationally that could help address Granger schools' problem.

Her goal was a lofty one: full attendance, in a district that had only four students with perfect attendance when she arrived. Nearly a quarter of the 450 students had perfect attendance last year.
 
She devised an attendance-incentive program to have a year-end drawing for five iPads for students with perfect attendance, promoted the program with posters around school promising "Win One of 5 IPads" and with signs that read:"every quarter that you are in school every day you will receive fabulous prizes."
 
Wallace, whose role in this was that she and Wheaton 11 years ago had created a little non-profit called Friends of Granger that has been the vehicle to provide clothing, school items and other kinds of support for the kids, said"Absenteeism is a huge factor in kids failing to succeed in school. Moreover, truant kids are prime targets for gang recruitment."
 
She said Sanchez "worked to create a belief among faculty and staff that full attendance was possible and put encouragement, support and incentives in place for students."
 
Wallace also put together the relationship between the non-profit and Heritage that helped bring Sanchez to the district and it was the 501c3 that she and Wheaton had created that was awarded the $15,000 grant from the Yakima Valley Foundation. Sanchez' grant application was titled "Every Child, Every Seat, Every Day," which Wheaton said became the name of the attendance program at the Granger middle school, where Wheaton had urged the program be concentrated.
 
Kevin Wallace, the Bellevue city councilmember who has watched the outcome of his mother's investment of time and energy into Granger and her little non-profit, noted in an email: "I'd say the incentives were the capstone of a lot of other pieces. You have to visit the school in order to truly appreciate the passion the teachers have for their students."
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Tiny charity has large impact on lives of kids, families in small Yakima Valley town

When Joan Wallace reflects on her decision on a Thanksgiving nine years ago to create a grassroots charity to address the needs of the mostly poverty-level Hispanic families in a small Yakima Valley community, she says "it seemed like pie in the sky."

 

In fact, the manner in which the organization Wallace created, Friends of Granger, has done its annual fund raising through a single e-mail she sends each Thanksgiving week to friends and family might seem to some like an annual revisiting of that description.

 

"How else than that description to explain the expectation that a small group of caring individuals could adopt an entire village and make a difference in the lives of needy children - not just for today, but for their future," mused Wallace, principal and retired president of Bellevue-based Wallace Properties.

 

But the on-going impact Friends of Granger has on the community, which U.S. Census figures indicate is 85 percent Hispanic or Latino, suggests that the charity Wallace launched with her sister in law, Janet Wheaton, on Thanksgiving Day of 2003 has indeed made a difference.

 

Wheaton was then principal at Granger high school but is now federal programs director of the Granger School District, where she told me she now has "the privilege of serving all the families of our school district and community."

 

More than 300 people receive Wallace's e-mail each year, an outreach that represents the only source of fund-raising for the non-profit's tiny $50,000 annual budget, a fund-raising effort that Wallace concedes usually raises closer to $35,000.

 

But because the little 501c3 that was incorporated in early 2004 has no overhead, with all the clerical support and services donated, all the money goes to the families, touching as many as 150 families in the Granger community.

 

"A lot of kids are part of large families, so they come to school in hand-me-downs, jackets with the zippers not working, and no gloves," notes Wallace, now president of the 501c3 while Wheaton is treasurer. "If the teacher decides a kid is in need of a new coat, they're sent to the office and the secretary takes them down to the stock room where they get to pick out a new coat."

 

"There are 60 to 80 kids a year who wind up needing coats, so we have to buy them in all sizes, which we do at the end of a season and have them in stock for the next year," she adds.

 

The incentive during the conversation that first year between Wallace and Wheaton was a concern that without some assistance, children in dozens of families (social workers later identified the number as 160 families) would be going hungry without the two subsidized meals they had each day.

 

The $100 grocery gift cards that were purchased from Fiesta Foods, the local Hispanic grocery, which chipped in by providing holiday meal baskets at wholesale cost, were sent anonymously to the families of the poorest children.

 

But Because Wallace has difficulty thinking small, what was born that Christmas season as a food gift soon grew into programs throughout the year to not just feed and clothe but to enrich those poorest kids.

 

Thus came discounted purchase of book bags from Costco, a month long summer day camp, and Ready! For Kindergarten, focusing on early learning and parenting skills. Then the annual purchase of coats and mittens, which Wheaton oversees.

 

The ask each year is composed fresh from the heart rather than recycled and this year's details what the donated dollars achieve, noting that Wheaton has identified "150 families that will need our help this year. Our objective is to allocate $125.00 per family."

 

Though one year she closed with a quote from Mother Theresa ("We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love"), the ask is generally a soft one, like this year's: "If you could see your way clear to support Friends of Granger with a gift this year it would be wonderful."

 

The Fund is reachable at:

Friends of Granger

C/o Joan Wallace, PO Box 4184, Bellevue, WA. 98009

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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