showing up

Stolen trucks, younger siblings and Halloween worries: A social worker tackles student absences one at a time

Bonifacio Sanchez Flores, a social worker at Grant Beacon Middle School, visits the home of a student who didn't come to school on Halloween.

Bonifacio Sanchez Flores, a social worker at Grant Beacon Middle School, pulled up to a small apartment complex overlooking Denver’s Ruby Hill Park just after 11 on a recent morning. He checked the printout he carried, found the right door and knocked.

A tired-looking seventh-grader wearing a purple T-shirt opened it. Sanchez Flores told the girl no one had called the school about her absence and asked if things were OK. She had a sore throat, she said, and had to watch her younger sisters while their mother went to a doctor’s appointment.

“This is the second day you’ve missed but nobody’s called in,” he said. “We’re just worrying about you.”

The conversation lasted less than two minutes, but Sanchez Flores left with an assurance the girl would be in school the next day and her mother would attend the school’s upcoming parent-teacher conferences.

With Colorado and other states poised to use chronic absenteeism as a measure of school and district quality, such home visits are one weapon in the fight for consistent attendance — and school leaders hope, academic success. At the same time, the visits expose the many challenges students face in getting to school regularly.

Grant Beacon, and its newer sister school Kepner Beacon, rely on color-coded spreadsheets to monitor student attendance and school leaders use lots of carrots and a few sticks to get students in the door each day.

There’s a good reason for it. Consistent attendance is a critical factor in determining whether students will graduate from high school, said Grant Beacon Principal Michelle Saab.

“If they’re not here, we’re going to lose them,” she said.

According to data recently released by Denver Public Schools, 26 percent of district middle schoolers are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10 percent or more of school days. At some middle and high schools, 50 or 60 percent of students are chronically absent — and that number is even higher in certain alternative programs.

At both Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon, where most students are Hispanic and qualify for federally subsidized meals, 21 percent of students were chronically absent last year. Alex Magaña, executive principal of the schools, said he would like to see that number go down to 15 percent or less.

DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said recent internal research on the track records of kids who graduate and those who don’t clearly illustrate the role poor attendance and behavior problems play in student trajectories. While the district already had overall attendance goals for each school level, the findings spurred more focus on reducing the ranks of chronically absent students at individual schools, she said.

The problem of kids missing school is hardly unique to Denver. Many schools across the state and nation struggle with high rates of student absences. That’s one reason that at least three dozen states, including Colorado, will use chronic absenteeism as one indicator in the plans they have drafted to comply with the nation’s new education law

Specifically, Colorado will look at whether schools and districts are reducing chronic absenteeism among elementary and middle school students. At the high school level, the state will look at dropout rates.

Cordova said since Denver already includes attendance in its own school rating system, the state education plan won’t necessitate changes in that area.

The reasons students miss school vary. Kids get sick, of course, but chronic absences are often related to poverty, disengagement and sometimes cultural norms.

Sanchez Flores, a Mexican immigrant who nearly dropped out of of middle school himself, bears witness to all of it in the phone calls he makes to parents of Beacon students every morning and the home visits he conducts twice a week to connect with those he can’t reach by phone. At other Denver schools, family liaisons or Americorps workers tackle attendance efforts.

Transportation and housing instability are common culprits. On Halloween morning before heading to the Ruby Hill apartment complex, Sanchez Flores paused in the main office to talk to a mother who was having trouble getting her kids to school on time because her truck had been stolen the week before. He told her to contact him for help getting city bus passes.

Later, standing on a front porch decorated with wind chimes, Sanchez Flores learned from a student’s aunt that the boy’s family had relocated to north Denver and couldn’t get to Grant Beacon because their car broke down.

At times, cultural differences keep kids from attending school.

During one home visit Sanchez Flores came across a pair of cousins who had stayed home because their families feared the school would hold festivities for Halloween, a holiday they don’t celebrate. Sanchez Flores stood in the hallway outside the bedroom where the two boys were, reassured them that there was nothing big going on at the school to mark Halloween and offered to drive them. They declined, but the older boy said his mother would call in to account for the absence.

Attendance has slowly ticked up at Grant Beacon over the last several years, a trend Saab attributes to a philosophical shift toward improving school culture and keeping students engaged.

The mindset now is about “what keeps kids at school as opposed to just talking about the problem,” she said.

To that end, the school began offering enrichment classes in 2012 — on topics like soccer, guitar or comic books — to get students excited about the extended school day, which runs from 7:35 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There are also weekly, monthly and quarterly prizes for students who attend school 95 percent or more of the time: a bag of chips, a box of Sour Patch Kids or a prize from the school’s “treasure chest.” And when an entire grade level unites to achieve the 95 percent goal three weeks in a row, they have been rewarded with 45 minutes of extra recess on Friday.

Students also track their own attendance each week, knowing it’s one of four key measures that help determine whether they will advance to the next grade. If they don’t meet expectations for at least three of the measures, they will have to take summer school or repeat the grade.

Finally, there are legal consequences in extreme cases.

Once four or five absences pile up without contact from parents, Sanchez Flores sends out letters warning that if students miss too much school, it could trigger truancy filings in Denver Juvenile Court. Eight such letters have gone out to Grant Beacon families this year.

For Sanchez Flores, the work is personal.

He understands many of the barriers students face — from the obligation to care for younger siblings to the temptations of gang life — because he experienced them growing up with five sisters and four brothers in Washington State. He saw his two older brothers drop out of middle school and would have followed in their footsteps had his older sister not moved him to a different school district. It was then he made the decision to attend regularly and work hard in his classes.

It was “one of the most crucial moments of my life,” he said.

During his last home visit of the day, Sanchez Flores checked in on a ponytailed eighth-grader named Carol. She also worried about the long shadow of her siblings. All three of her older brothers had dropped out of school, one just a few credits shy of graduating.

The 14-year-old wasn’t at school that day because her mother, who normally drops her off on the way to her clothes-tailoring job, hadn’t been feeling well.

When Sanchez Flores offered to take Carol to school, she and her mother agreed. On the 10-minute drive to Grant Beacon, Carol talked about waking up late, confused that her mother hadn’t roused her. Part of her felt relieved, she said. But the other part felt disappointed.

“If I miss too much days then my attendance is going to be really bad,” she explained.

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. A conference on Tuesday will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.