When Lois Yukna was a school bus driver in Middlesex County, N.J., her job was to take students to school. But as a school attendance officer, it’s to make sure they stay there. If you meet Lois even briefly, you’ll understand within a couple minutes that given her passion for students and providing them with every opportunity to learn, she’s perfect for the job.
Lois spent decades as a school bus driver, eventually becoming a driver/trainer/safety coordinator. Now, as attendance officer in the Woodbridge Township School District, she works closely with students, parents, and the courts when students aren’t in school regularly. She was primed for the position by her years behind the wheel and experience with the county’s Juvenile Conference Committee. The citizen panel hears cases involving juvenile offenders. Lois offered to serve when the Middlesex County Education Association asked for volunteers.
She noticed something over the years: The students who were frequent no-shows at school were the same ones whose behavior when they attended resulted in detentions, suspensions, and sometimes, trouble with police. Lois often saw them before the Juvenile Conference Committee. “I know a teacher can’t teach with disruptive students. I couldn’t drive the bus with disruptive students. But something needed to be done because the main goal is to educate students, and they can’t be educated if they’re not in school.”
She and a guidance counselor in the Woodbridge district frequently discussed their frustrations about how repeated suspensions feed into the school-to-prison pipeline. (The pipeline is shorthand for the policies and actions in schools that lead to the disproportionate removal from school of students of color, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, and students who are English Language Learners.) They put their heads together to come up with something that would emphasize restorative practices instead of suspension and encourage students to return to and stay in school.
Out of their collaboration, M-PACT—the Motivational-Personalized Achievement Contact Team—was born.
The program, which NEA has helped support with two grants, targets about 100 students who have failing grades, multiple discipline offenses, and sometimes court dates for not attending school. The goal of M-PACT is to expose these students “to a world of possibilities through internships, mentorships, and achievement incentives.” Parents have classes on nutrition, health, and the impact of social media and family dynamics on learning. “They learn how to motivate their children to come to school and do their best,” Lois says. They’re also connected to resources that help them deal with other hardships in their lives.
So far, the results have been positive. In the first year, approximately 85 percent of the students improved in at least one area: academics, attendance, or attitude. In the second year, all of the students improved in each area. And the best news is that of the participants who were seniors, 100 percent graduated in 2017.
Lois, 2017-18 NJEA Education Support Professional of the Year and secretary of NEA’s National Council for Education Support Professionals, understands that the school-to-prison pipeline can be a tough concept for some educators to grasp. We have to examine our own biases and prejudices and how they shape our interactions with students. This is the crux of institutional racism, which feeds into the pipeline, and it is both a social justice and education issue. As a member of the NEA Committee on Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in 2016, Lois helped come up with recommendations to shut down the pipeline.
She’s found keeping in mind her own experiences is helpful in connecting with students, examining her beliefs and ideas, and finding common ground.
“As a child I was bullied, and that left a lasting impression on me. There was no one to protect me or comfort me during these times. Because of my experiences growing up, I am very sensitive to disparities in treatment. I do not tolerate when someone is being treated unfairly or unjustly. I believe everyone should have the same opportunity and be able to reach their potential,” says Lois, president of the Middlesex County Education Association.
Her personal story—including the financial challenges she faced before getting a full-time job with the school district—allows her to understand what leads to chronic absenteeism. “I know what it’s like not to have money. When a kid tells me on a Monday, ‘I haven’t eaten since I left school on Friday,’ I understand. I was divorced when my children were very young, and I started working part time for $4 an hour. I had to live sometimes for a week on a carton of eggs or macaroni to feed my children.
“I can relate when the children tell me they lost a parent and now have to be the breadwinner. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. But I don’t coddle them. I let them know: I’m here for you as long as you’re making an effort to do something. I wouldn’t treat them any differently than I do my own children. Kids can tell when you’re sincere and can feel what they’re feeling. They can see that you’re not just a school employee sitting there because it’s your job.”
Being a school attendance officer and helping students stay in school may be Lois’ career, but more than that, it is her calling.