Social worker is ally for parents in poverty
Stephanie Filter’s day starts with breakfast with the children—dozens of them, in fact.
She chats with Lincoln Elementary School students about everything from apple juice to the morning bus ride as they munch on fruit cups, yogurt and cheese.
“It’s kind of fun to greet the kids in the morning,” she says.
But the school’s breakfast program is about more than chatting with students. The program makes sure students whose parents don’t have time or money to provide a healthy breakfast get the nutrition they need.
The number of those students has been growing alarmingly at Lincoln. The percentage of students at the school receiving free or reduced lunch—the district’s measure of low income—jumped from 22 percent in 2000-01 to a smidge under 50 percent in 2006-07.
Filter is the social worker for Lincoln and Madison elementary schools. Her job is to help parents in poverty find the resources they need and ensure students in poverty get good educations.
The students can’t do that without basic necessities, such as good nutrition and warm clothes. Filter and Becky Saliby, school lunch hostess, check to make sure the children at breakfast are properly dressed before they return outside on this bitterly cold day.
“Do you have mittens?” Saliby asks a young boy. The boy shakes his head. “Go to the office and gets some.”
The boy soon returns with a smile and rainbow-patterned, crocheted mittens donated by a local group.
Mittens and snow pants aren’t the only things students come without, Filter says. While most parents buy their children valentines and candy without a second thought, some families just can’t afford them.
The school stockpiles valentines for students who can’t buy them.
“Holidays are a tough time because, you know, even valentines aren’t that cheap,” Filter explains as she walks the halls after breakfast. “You have to be a little more sensitive to things like Christmastime and other holidays.”
Filter stops in the office and finds out from a secretary about a first-grade student who hasn’t shown up for school in a few days. She hops in her minivan and travels down the street to Kellogg Apartments, home to many of the school’s students.
The apartments are not well cared for. A package of cigarettes and bits of paper lie strewn in the dingy hallways. A television blares from an apartment down the hall.
Filter knocks on the door but receives no answer.
“That’s not like them to not have him in school,” she mutters.
She knocks on a door down the hall, home of another Lincoln student, to see what she can find out. A woman answers but says she hasn’t seen the family in question for a few days.
“I’ve gotten more bold as I’ve gotten into this job,” Filter says as she leaves the complex. “You’ve just got to ask.”
After a quick lunch, Filter returns to her office. She calls a family that recently moved from Janesville to Rockford to make sure the child is enrolled in school there.
Lincoln has a transient population. Fall semester, 40 kids out of the school’s 400 switched into or out of the school. The changes cause disruptions for both the students who move and, to a lesser extent, the students who stay, Filter says.
Next, Filter calls the mother of a kindergarten student with a truancy problem. The student likes school but doesn’t like getting up in the morning, so he’s usually late, the mother says.
“Kindergarten’s not mandatory attendance, but I know you know how important attendance is,” Filter tells the mother. “We just want to make sure he’s getting to school on time so he’s used to being on time in first grade.”
Filter has worked at the elementary, middle and high school levels in her 13 years with the Janesville School District.
“The big difference with elementary is you have to work with the parents, whereas at the high school you mostly work with the kids themselves,” she says. “I love working with the parents because, no matter what, they love their kids and they want what’s best for them.”
At 1 p.m., Filter meets with a set of parents to start a new reading initiative. The couple— Heather Weber, 29, and Ken Hayward, 23—have four children: three of Heather’s, ages 9, 7 and 6, and a 1-year-old together.
Even though the family struggles to make ends meet—Weber is unemployed and Hayward makes $10 an hour as a nurse’s aid—they make an effort to read to their children every day, they say.
“Everything revolves around reading,” Weber says. “If you’re driving, how do you read the signs?”
Filter teaches Weber and Hayward strategies for reading to their children so they get the maximum benefit. She tells them to have the children look at the pictures in a book and try to guess what the book is about. When the children can’t figure out a word, the parents should have them guess a word that makes sense in the sentence, she says.
The couple leave with a bundle of reading materials.
Filter hopes to expand the program to more parents, starting regular meetings and even teaching parents how to take the bus to the public library.
Parents tend to see Filter as an ally, she says.
“Sometimes we lower our standards because they’re poor, and we can’t do that,” she says.