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City Heights Program Works To Get Kids To School On Time

Krystal Ortega and her sons, Aaron and Aiden, walk to Adams Elementary School...

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Above: Krystal Ortega and her sons, Aaron and Aiden, walk to Adams Elementary School, Nov. 30, 2015.

The program places social work interns on school campuses so they can intervene when absences start to pile up.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Students and parents of Adams Elementary School in Normal Heights are huddled on the playground around Principal Sylvia McGrade for an early-morning assembly.

"Good morning, Adams Elementary!" McGrade said. The kids shouted their greeting back in unison. They're especially energetic despite the hour. The end of the month brings a special announcement.

"Today is our extra recess for kids who had 100 percent perfect attendance for the month of November," McGrade said before revealing the three classes with the best attendance for the month.

Adams Elementary is in its second year of a joint program with the United Way of San Diego County aimed at improving attendance rates. It places college students majoring in social work on five campuses in the Mid-City area to help address the barriers parents face in getting their kids to school on time.

McGrade said she's seen year-over-year increases each month since the program began. But it’s progress hard-fought. All of her students are eligible for free lunch. Nearly half are English-learners. And for many of their parents, getting their kids to school is easier said than done.

Take Krystal Ortega's morning that same day.

It's two hours to go before Mrs. McGrade's assembly and she's already in a rush. She has fifteen minutes to get herself and her boys cleaned up and to a city bus stop a few blocks away.

"Good morning, sunshine," she said into a pile of blankets. Tiny cries come from beneath, then grow louder.

Ortega tries to sound bright, but it's cold in their tiny hitch trailer. They don't have a heater and cold air crept in when Ortega opened the door to put her three-year-old's stroller out front. There would not be space to move around otherwise.

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Krystal Ortega ties her son Aaron's shoes, Nov. 30, 2015.

"Here comes the cold part. Tus pantelones, andale!" Ortega said to 5-year-old Aaron.

Adams Elementary is six miles — about a 12-minute drive — from their home, but the maze of bus routes ahead is going to take about an hour.

"From home we head on to the bus route No. 3. From No. 3 we catch either the orange line or the blue line to Civic Center. And then from there we get the 215 Rapid bus to 35th Street. And then from 35th Street we walk down to Adams," Ortega said.

The final leg of the trip is familiar — a walk through the neighborhood they used to call home.

"We were living here on Wilson (Avenue) in a two-bedroom apartment. And then I turned it in because I didn't have enough money to pay my rent, because my husband lost his jobs," Ortega said. "I was renting with my sister-in-law a one-bedroom. And from there I moved to a garage for maybe like two weeks. And then from there I moved into my sister's for like a week. And then from there I moved into Franklin. So I've been kind of bouncing around."

Ortega lost her car and separated from her husband of eight years shortly before the school year began. Ortega, who works part time doing laundry maintenance, said she's tried to keep things consistent for her boys, but the instability has had an effect on their attendance.

Aaron missed a few mornings as they learned the bus system. For her older son Nicholas, the turmoil bled into his grades. Ortega and her ex-husband share custody and she can't always control when Nicholas gets to school.

"He went a little below basic because he has to turn in his homework on Fridays and he wasn't here to turn that in," Ortega said.

In October, the Ortega's showed up on Kellie Young's caseload. She's an intern with the United Way's Early Warning Continuum program. It's her job to intervene when the district flags students with attendance problems. Young connects families to services that might help.

"Just basic things like lack of food, housing, clean clothes, (health) insurance, transportation," Young said. "Those can all be barriers for parents bringing their children to school."

When Ortega first met Young, she described the stress she's been under and mentioned she misses her old church. Young offered the address of one near her new home.

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Krystal Ortega holds her son on the bus, Nov. 30, 2015.

"I just wanted to keep myself — What is it? — peace of mind, and keep myself focused," Ortega said. "It's been a long, long, long stressful time right now. We need God in our lives right now."

Young is now helping Ortega hunt for affordable apartments closer to school so it's easier to get her kids to class on time. She's given Ortega a list of potential rentals to check out while Aaron and Nicholas are in class. She's even made a few calls to landlords on behalf of the Ortegas.

Young is one of 13 interns working in San Diego Unified's Hoover cluster. Together, they're currently helping 142 families.

"The parents and teachers are doing the best that they can, but they have a job in the classroom and there's all these things going on outside of the classroom that are preventing kids from being to school on time and being successful," said Shaina Gross, a senior vice president with the local United Way. "So the interns are able to dig into that a little bit and work directly with the families and find out what's going on."

The program is part of the United Way's national effort to boost graduation rates. It also grew out of conversations with educators, parents and nonprofit providers who began meeting about academic achievement under the name City Heights Partnership for Children.

"We know if kids aren’t in school, then they can't learn. And if you're not reading at grade level by third grade, then you're four times less likely to graduate high school," Gross said. "So that told us we really need to start in these early grades.

Gross doesn't yet know whether the program is improving academic achievement in the five schools where it operates. But she said attendance at those campuses went from 82 to 88 percent in a matter of months this semester.

Her goal is to get attendance to 90 percent.

McGrade said the program has been a huge help for her staff. Smaller schools like hers only have a counselor on site once a week.

"A parent comes to you on Thursday, so you have to say, 'Uh, can you wait 'til Monday to have that crisis?'" McGrade said. "You really can't."

For Ortega, the program has given her something to smile and cheer about during a difficult time in her life. Standing on the playground for Mrs. McGrade's assembly, she whistles and claps at the news Aaron's class is in first place for attendance this month.

And Aaron? He was at school every day during the month of November, and that means extra recess.

Correction: This story originally stated the City Heights Educational Collaborative helped develop the Early Warning Continuum program. It was actually the City Heights Partnership for Children.

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