Tuesday, December 31, 2013

CVESD takes multilevel approach to attendance

Yolanda Sierra meets with a parent at Loma Verde Elementary about a child’s attendance. Misael Virgen

Student absences cause a reduction in revenue for schools, so it pays to hire someone to help fix the problem.

School district takes multilevel approach to attendance
Chula Vista Elementary School District works with families to cut student absences
By Caroline Dipping
Nov. 6, 2013

Truancy by the numbers:
Critical attendance referrals from school sites to the district level last year: 119
Cases that are scheduled each year to go before School Attendance Review Board: 50
Home visits made in a typical day by Yolanda Sierra: 7
Home visits made in the 2012-13 school year: 518
Of those, 265 were for attendance issues
Cases that went to the Truancy SARB Mediation program in 2012-13: 9

CHULA VISTA — Wearing sensible shoes and armed with the California Education Code, Yolanda Sierra starts most of her workdays knocking on doors as early as 6:45 a.m. If she doesn’t make contact with the family she wants to visit, she wedges her business card in the door.

If the card goes unheeded, she comes back within 24 hours. If she strikes out again, she sends out a letter.

“I’m very persistent,” Sierra said.

Sierra is the welfare and attendance technician/home visitor for the 29,200-student, 45-school Chula Vista Elementary School District. She is as responsible for getting kids into the classroom as she is working with parents to help them understand the importance of keeping their children in school.

In a typical day, Sierra may visit up to seven families. Since the school year began in July, she has visited 80 families where children have missed large amounts of school.

Sierra’s home visits are just one step in a multilevel approach the largest K-6 school district in California uses to ensure their students come to school every day. So often, it starts with educating and helping the parents.

“I think that our wraparound approach, trying to provide services, the home visiting, customizing the dialogue, that personal connection, is a big piece,” said Lisa Butler, student placement manager for the Chula Vista Elementary School District. “All the strategies happening have really created a culture in our district that we want kids at school.

“Administrators know it. Staff knows it. Everyone speaks to it.”

For their efforts, the Chula Vista district was designated earlier this year as one of 11 districts in the state as a model of attendance improvement and dropout prevention by the state’s School Attendance Review Board, or SARB. The district has received the designation before, including in 2008 and 2011.

About 1 million elementary school students in California were truant in the past year, according to a report released earlier this month by state Attorney General Kamala Harris. Truancy in California is defined as a student missing school or coming late by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse at least three times during an academic year. Students who are absent for 10 percent of a school year are deemed chronically truant and at higher risk academically and socially.

Last year, the problem cost San Diego County elementary schools nearly $95 million — or about $211 per student — in state attendance money, the report showed. Missing large amounts of school during the K-6 years is among the strongest predictors of dropping out in high school, according to Harris’ report.

Depending on the statistics cited, between 82 and 98 percent of those currently incarcerated in state prison were truants.

In the Chula Vista district, the reasons a student may have a critical attendance issue are as many as the days of a school year. Some are as simple as a parent wanting to keep their child home on rainy days for fear they might catch a cold. Others are more complex.

Often, transportation is an issue. Occasionally, a child is afraid to go to school because of bullying. Sometimes a family is homeless.

There are parents who are reluctant to send their student to school if the child has a chronic medical condition such as asthma. Just as often, one or both parents have a health issue and they keep their child home to take care of things because there is nobody else to help out.

“We look to see if there are circumstances creating barriers for families,” Butler said. “What are the problems?

“We try to bring the support to the family. We try to look creatively at their barrier.”

For every reason, Chula Vista’s team works toward a solution.

Sierra has picked up students at their homes and brought them to school when transportation has been the problem. If it’s bullying, students meet with their principal and school counselor to discuss solutions.

CVESD works closely — so closely that some centers are on campuses — with Family Resource Centers that connect parents to needed medical care and social services. Accommodations are made with the school nurse if a child has a chronic illness and parents are reassured by Sierra and others that staff are equipped to handle medical situations.

With homeless families faced with the pressing reality of putting a roof over their heads, school is often the last thing on their minds. Sierra tries to get them to think outside the box.

“What I try to explain to them if the kids are in school, that is seven hours they don’t have to worry about what is going to happen,” she said. “I try to give them a different perspective.”

Chula Vista’s proactive approach has been practically perfect.

“Last year, 32 of our schools ended at 3 percent or less critical absence,” Butler said.

Yet, when all the district’s efforts don’t yield consistent attendance, the case is sent to Truancy SARB Mediation. The pilot program between the Chula Vista school district and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office began last November and is slated to expand to all the county’s school districts this year.

The program is geared toward families and children younger than 11. Meetings between a parent or parents, their child, a school district representative and a deputy district attorney are held the first Wednesday of each month in the law library at the South Bay Courthouse in Chula Vista.

“It’s been an amazing successful program for families when nothing else has worked,” said Cyndi Jo Means, the mediating deputy district attorney. “These families have been to a lot of meetings at schools with a lot of people sitting across the table from them that they perceive as ganging up on them.

“The whole goal of the mediation is to even the playing field. This is one on one. Kids get to participate as much as the grown-ups.”

Agreements are made, not just by parents and kids, but by the school district as well.

“We totally change the dynamic,” Means said. “Parents are given credence and power in the situation where they haven’t felt like they had it before. They aren’t the only ones who have to change. The school has to change, too.”

Butler cited an example where change all around has led to success.

Two years ago, a fourth-grader with critical attendance faced many of the aforementioned barriers. Her mother struggles with her own health issues, she has a special-needs sibling, and she simply didn’t want to be at school.

Meetings with the school counselor and multiple home visits proved futile. Frustration did not begin to describe it for Butler and her staff.

Then the family was referred to the Truancy SARB Mediation program last year. The student was asked, “What do you want to do? What could we do to make school better for you?” And she was told her classmates missed her when she was not in school.

“That changed her countenance, that sense of belonging,” Butler said. “She got excited.”

Now in the sixth grade, the girl comes to school regularly. She spends part of her day helping a kindergarten teacher and she works in the library. Per her request — that was written into the SARB agreement — she has a specific adult she can reach out to if she has any problems.

“Sometimes, it looks like we just want the kids in school,” Butler said. “That is the perspective.

“It isn’t just the attendance record. Our team is really motivated because we are very concerned about the loss of human potential when those kids miss school. We want them to want to be in school, to see what exciting things are ahead for them. That is our motivation.”

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