A Day in the Life of a DHHS Pathways to Potential Success Coach

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake will be following different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.

Walking down the hallway at Ann J. Kellogg School in Battle Creek with Penny Wilson is like walking with a celebrity. We couldn’t walk more than a couple feet before a student yelled out, “Hi, Miss Penny!” or stopped to give her a hug. 

Wilson is the Department of Health and Human Services’ Pathways to Potential success coach at the grade 3-5 school. DHHS provides a Pathways to Potential coach at the highest risk schools in each county in Michigan.

“The kids feel comfortable talking with me. Working here instead of in the office, I build relationships with the families,” said Wilson.

Her job entails being the case manager for 360 to 380 families at Kellogg School – which means she helps with benefits like cash assistance, food stamps, daycare, etc. As part of her partnership with the school, she also tracks attendance every week and works to reduce absences and tardies among the students.

In order to meet this goal, Wilson contacts parents, asking them to meet with her if they are having trouble getting their kids to school, and they brainstorm to come up with solutions.

“There are a lot of children who are homeless or have transportation issues. ... I’ve had families living in hotels on the other side of town, out of the district. But we can get them busing, no matter where they’re at, if they are homeless,” said Wilson. “I’ve even had parents unable to get their kids to school because they don’t have an alarm clock. So, we buy them an alarm clock.”

Wilson has come up with creative ways to increase attendance. Through donations, she rewards students with an ice cream buffet each month if they don’t miss any school, and the classroom with the best attendance for the month will get a pizza party. At the end of each semester, the students who missed three days or less are invited to a movie and popcorn celebration – complete with a red carpet. And, at the end of the year, Wilson hosts a “Flick and Float” at the nearby YMCA, where students who missed three days or less get to watch a movie while swimming in the pool.

“We average about 90 kids who come to that,” said Wilson. “At the end of the year, we also give bikes to every student who had perfect attendance. We’ve given up to 15 bikes to students with no tardies and no missed days.” 

Wilson has worked at the Kellogg School for 15 years, starting when the program was called the “Family Resource Center.”

“We’re more involved with the school now. Attendance has been a real push with Gov. Snyder,” she said. “If the kids aren’t in school, they’re not learning. … A lot of these kids come from rough homes. They shouldn’t be home worrying adult worries. They should be in school, focusing on their education.”

Wilson said, in her years working at the school, she’s heard a lot of stories of kids going through things that kids shouldn’t have to experience.

“You’re told not to get attached, but if you don’t have a heart, you can’t work this job. … You have to draw the line, but, I have to tell you, I’ve gone home crying more than once,” she said. “That’s probably the hardest part of my job – seeing kids who are having troubles at home.”

One incident that Wilson will always remember was when a fourth grader’s best friend died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

“She wasn’t sleeping at night because she was afraid her and her family were going to die like her friend did. Her teacher made it very clear that she was struggling in school because of this,” said Wilson.

“So I used donations to buy the family a carbon monoxide detector, and when I gave it to the mom, she cried. They installed it in their home, and, it wasn’t even a week later that her teacher told me there was a complete turnaround with the child. She was staying focused and stopped crying all day. It was like a load was lifted off her shoulders.”

Wilson’s personal life has held its fair share of challenges and tragedies as well. Her father died when she was 15 years old and, in 1989, her son David died in a car accident when he was only 8 years old.

“A car crossed the center line and hit my mother-in-law’s car head-on. My son was killed and my daughter and mother-in-law were in critical condition,” said Wilson. “It’s been a tough road, so I can totally relate to these kids. A lot of these kids have lost their parents. Some of these kids have had their parents die right in front of them. And that’s a lot for a kid to handle.”

Wilson said, when she was 15, she thought her father’s death would be the worst thing to ever happen to her.

“But losing my child – nothing in this world can compare to that. So I feel for these babies. They should not have to go through what they’re going through,” she said. “This is where I need to be. I’m protective of these kids.”

Crescenda Jones, principal at Kellogg school, said she is fortunate to have Wilson at the school.

“Penny has been a wealth of support. I think she will help us get to where we need to be in terms of attendance for students, which will hopefully trickle down to behavior and learning,” she said.

Sarah Garrett, building secretary, echoed Jones’ sentiments.

“I learned about Pathways to Potential when I came here four years ago. Working with Penny and seeing how she’s been working with the school overall, I think the program is awesome. It’s another opportunity for kids to be encouraged to come to school, and our students and parents see the benefit in it. I think it’s just an awesome way to keep them wanting to come to school every day,” she said.