On the last Monday morning before school starts, a dozen children are hard at work in the multipurpose room of Daniel Webster Elementary School, in Potrero Hill. The job at hand is important: Under the guidance of Betty Canton-Self, they are committing to perfect attendance for the upcoming year. Each child draws an outline of his or her hand, then carefully prints a promise to come to school every day, to listen and learn and play. Then they sign their names.
“These kids are very bright,” says Canton-Self, who the children call “Ms. Betty.” “They have the same hopes like everybody else. There is no difference in the dreams; the difference is the challenges.”
Canton-Self’s job, as an education liaison with YMCA Urban Services, is to eliminate as many of those challenges as possible. Each week, she meets with school staff and administrators from both Daniel Webster and nearby Starr King Elementary, reviewing the attendance of children at the school, zeroing in on those who might need extra support. Then she and school staff reach out to parents and children over the phone or in person, helping connect them with whatever resources they might need to succeed.
That means everything from procuring books for children in the reading club Canton-Self runs to hosting a backpack give away and family literacy day to connecting families with mental health counseling and financial assistance. They also work with a variety of other partner agencies, including the San Francisco Public Library.
“Behind every child who is absent, there is always a big reason,” she says. “We have to find the reason.”
She recently saw one mother drop her child late at school day every day — and discovered the woman had witnessed a traumatic event and was afraid to leave the house in the mornings.
She helped the woman get into counseling. Before long, her child had perfect attendance.
In another case, she learned that a first grader was arriving late because his mother had to take seizure medication, and then couldn’t safely drive him. Canton-Self and school staff were able to find other people to bring the child to school.
When parents make an effort to get their children to school every day, Canton-Self calls to celebrate their progress.
Isabel Mejia, a poised and articulate 11-year-old, describes Ms. Betty as “a hardworking lady, and such a creative mind, too.” Knowing of Isabel’s affinity for Harry Potter, Canton-Self has been working to collect used copies of the books for the sixth grader.
“Because, when you read, it helps your brain to grow more,” Isabel explained.
Doreen Horstin, a children’s librarian at Potrero Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, has seen over the years how Canton-Self helps parents navigate school meetings that can sometimes seem intimidating.
“What Betty does, she goes in with the parent, slows it down, and makes sure everyone understands,” Horstin said. “She’ll say, ‘Can we stop and talk about what that means?’ It’s very important, because these kids can’t get any help without the parents being involved. She’s creating a bridge. She is mindful of how the parent might feel.”
Canton-Self makes sure everyone at the table knows each other’s names, Horstin said.
Sometimes Canton-Self has to ensure anxious students are breathing properly. “How can you go into a meeting that’s supposed to help you when that’s how you’re feeling?” Horstin said. So Canton-Self brings in pinwheels to help the children breathe.
Canton-Self moved to the Bay Area in 1986, after leaving her native El Salvador a few years earlier. She served as executive director of various San Francisco social services agencies, earning a master’s degree in education in multicultural communities and another master’s in theological studies. Her passion for education eventually led to her current position.
“For me, education is the thing that makes all the difference,” she said.
She likes to tell the story of one young girl who, when Canton-Self first met her, said she didn’t have a plan for her future: “McDonald’s is waiting for me,” Canton-Self remembers the girl saying. Over the next few years, Canton-Self and others provided the girl with support and worked to boost her confidence — they also provided emergency assistance and other supports to the girl’s family.
By the time the girl headed to middle school, she had decided to become a teacher.