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."