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  • Foto del escritorStefania Lugli

Beyond the Classroom: How Sandra Sánchez Breaks Barriers to Student Success in Wichita

Actualizado: 20 jun

Wichita Kansas | June 4, 2024

By Stefania Lugli

Sandra Sanchez Wichita North High School
Sandra Sanchez poses for Planeta Venus behind her desk. Picture by Stefania Lugli

A student’s success relies on more than a strong curriculum -- it also depends on a student’s mental health and security. Are they getting the nutrition they need? Do they feel supported in school? Can they afford the cap and gown necessary to walk the stage at graduation? 

Sandra Sanchez, a student support advocate at North High School in Wichita, works to answer such questions with a resounding “yes!”

Sanchez works with students to remove barriers that prevent them from success, which can span from financial barriers to filling the gap on education needs. She works for the Pando Initiative, a program statewide that provides resources to students with need.

Kansas has twenty-seven schools that have Pando, with sixteen of them being in USD 259. At North, Sanchez’s caseload includes sixty-two students, with a need that is continuously increasing. Her caseload does not include students who may not see Sanchez personally but still benefit from the school’s free resources like food, hygiene products or clothing. 

Planeta Venus visited Sanchez at Wichita North High School to learn more about her work. She first worked at North for a year to finish her degree in social work before being offered a permanent position as the Pando coordinator. In the six years since, she’s broadened the program’s offerings to include a community fridge and an expanded “thrift shop” called the Red Hawk Boutique.

Wichita North High School
Fotografía por Stefania Lugli

When with Sanchez, it’s evident how much trust her students have in her. Throughout her Planeta Venus interview, students would pop in and out of her cozy office to pick up snacks and joke with her. Her office is covered in photographs, handwritten notes and crafts gifted to her from students past and present. In the corner is a makeshift altar to those that have lifted her up in her journey: her late father, her mother and students that have passed away. 

She deeply loves her work, balancing her approach with both fierce advocacy and sensitivity, evidently shown by the ease with which students talk to her. As she says, “you can’t have this job without the trust.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain what Pando is?

It’s a resource to help students be comfortable and successful and help them with their needs. Any student, whether they are low income or not, can access me. There really isn’t a defining “oh your family needs to make below a certain income.’ It just depends on what a student’s needs are. I have some students that are like ‘I don’t need anything; I just need you to help guide me on what I need to do to get to college.’ But I could also have a child that says they need food for an extended need. A PANDO kid can be defined by many different reasons. 

What are some of the resources available to Pando students?

Wichita North High School Red Hawks
Sandra Sanchez in the Red Hawks Boutique at North High School. Image by Stefania Lugli

We have a thrift shop for students here. Right now, we’re preparing them for graduation so I have the shop where they come and get some cute clothes, get a formal outfit for Senior Breakfast or for graduation so they can feel good about themselves. For caps and gowns, the school has a loaner program where they can borrow the outfit. 

I’ve been here for six, so I think 15 years. PANDO started in the 1990s as Communities in Schools. This is where I do my one-on-ones. I keep some snacks here, supplies, backpacks, and quick hygiene products. I help them write their essays; I write letters of recommendations.

Another thing we’ve handled is, say a student wants to play sports but can’t afford to pay for a physical or we're unable to get to a free clinic. We’ve collaborated with doctors that provided either free or reduced exams for us. A lot of students need glasses, so we try to find funding or gift certificates for them to have glasses. 

How did you end up in this job? 

I went back to school in my late twenties and graduated at 30. Got a degree in social work. There was a social worker when I was working in Manhattan that told me, “I don’t know what it is about you, but people trust you. I feel like you would be a great social worker.” So that stayed with me until I went back to school. 

With social work, they make you do a year of student teaching -- it’s called your practicum. I was placed here at North. At first, I was not excited to work with high schoolers because I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to handle them.’ But then I felt like I was meant to be here. I come from Liberal, Kansas where (the schools) are known as Redskins. When I got here, (North High’s mascot) was the Redskins. So, I was like yeah, maybe this is meant to be. 

I finished my student teaching; I graduate and I’m about to sign with another agency for work when I get a phone call from PANDO that told me my (student teaching) supervisor was leaving. They’re like, “we talked as a group, and we think that you just did so well. You have a lot of stories that really connected with the students. We want you here at North.’ I thought about it and knew I was meant to be here.

What does a typical day look like for you?

This morning, I got in, restocked the snacks, connected with students that need clothing and did one-on-one meetings with my students. I reached out to my seniors checking on their graduation plans, what they need from me before they graduate… All while trying to keep my other students in the loop. Phone calls, trying to find donors to keep the thrift shop going. There’s never a day that’s the same for me. It could be a day that’s meetings, meetings, meetings to another day where we’re doing a financial literacy program for the kids.

Tell me more about the Red Hawk Boutique. How did that start? How can students access it? 

Instead of calling it the closing closet, the kids actually helped come up with the name. Right now, we have a lot of white dressers because they wear white for senior breakfast. This boutique is accessible to any student or family that might need help. Some of the clothes are brand new. Last year we got an almost $20,000 donation of dresses. Students can keep them, but a lot of students will use them and return them. One girl took a dress and brought two back since she didn’t see a use for them. 

We had a thrift shop when I started but it was like two racks. Very Tiny. I knew there was a demand, so I increased it. We also keep extra food in here for anybody. Oatmeal, macaroni, those are free for anybody to take. We also have clothes for expecting moms or a couple of things for their newborns. 

What is the most difficult aspect of your job?

That we don’t have sufficient money to help everyone with their needs. I feel like I’m not able to help as much as I can for every child out there. Then, after graduation, it’s like, we’re sending them off to a world that hopefully will help them. But if they need help, they can always come back.

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