One Arizona district has found a way to keep truant kids in school

December 19, 2018

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Drive until the yellow line on the paved road disappears.

Keep driving as the cement gives way to a dirt path. Pass the dumpster.

There is no address linked to Lois Lejero’s house, just a series of directions to a four-bedroom rectangle on a patch of dirt jutting up against a mountain in the Tohono O’odham Nation southwest of Tucson.

By 6 a.m, the school-age children in Lejero’s house have been awake for at least an hour. They are tying their shoes, watching TV or sitting quietly with sleep in their eyes as they wait to walk to their yellow school bus.

The moon is still a crescent in the sky as Dontez, Javier and Christopher walk out the door and toward the dumpster, where they run circles in the dust while they wait for their ride to school in the Baboquivari Unified School District.

Headlights glow along the dirt road, where mountain lions are known to roam.

The school bus, arrives and the boys lumber in out of the winter cold. An hourlong route across the reservation, toward their classrooms, begins.

Undeterred by the threat of mountain lions and the long trip, the Lejero children almost always make it to school.

But that’s not the case for many Arizona kids — even those with less arduous commutes.

Thousands of children are likely absent on any given day. Some don’t show up to school for weeks at a time.

And the impacts of chronic absenteeism are significant.

Attendance may determine whether a child can read by third grade and if they graduate on time. The consequences could follow them well into adulthood.

One school year, 3 million missed days

In a single year, Arizona students missed at least three million days of school,  according to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, the most recent chronic absenteeism data available.

About 18.6 percent of the state’s more than 1 million K-12 students are labeled chronically absent according to that data, putting Arizona in the top third of U.S. states with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism. 

Student attendance is one of the most fundamental steps in educating kids. Studies show that just showing up and sitting down could make a difference in a student’s success.

Days missed encompass math lessons, reading practice and hours of learning that students will never get back.

“(Parents) don’t realize one day is missing a lot,” said Angela Bonn, a fifth-grade teacher on the Tohono O’odham reservation. “A lot of our kids are falling behind. The absences is the biggest thing. … If you look back at their attendance, there’s a reason why they’re not doing well. If they’re not here, they’re not going to learn.”

The rate of chronic absenteeism — or the percentage of students who missed 15 or more days of school in a year — among Native American students is higher than any other demographic in the state, at 33 percent, according to the Brookings Institution analysis of the federal data. Nationally, about 25 percent of Native American students are chronically absent.

In comparison, 16 percent of white students are chronically absent in Arizona and 14 percent are chronically absent nationwide.

Baboquivari, a small district with about 1,000 students, is in the midst of a nearly decade-long push to improve attendance.

The students in Baboquivari face mammoth obstacles in getting to school, often symptomatic of the considerable poverty that endures on the southern Arizona reservation.

Some live an hour or more away, so a missed school bus means a missed day of school. Some are tasked with waking themselves up, without a dependable parent or grandparent to rouse them. Others just don’t want to go, no matter what a parent does.

While Baboquivari still struggles to get students to school regularly, its leaders are trying to build a culture around attendance with a series of ambitious strategies meant to address community needs and make school more appealing to students.

The district’s strategies include a small battalion of employees who fan out among the nation’s isolated villages to knock on doors, drive kids to school and even do their laundry when dirtied uniforms get in the way of attendance.

Showing up at the front door

Clayton Pancho wears a suit to school every day.

The shirt and tie remind him of his mother, who dressed him that way for school as a child. She wanted him be “ready for success,” he said she told him.

The 17-year-old Baboquivari High School senior lost his mother last year. Through much of his childhood, Clayton took care of her as asthma and arthritis took hold, he said.

She routinely ended up in the emergency room and was transferred to a hospital in Tucson, about an hour away from Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham nation. She spoke O’odham and limited English, so Clayton translated for her during the hospital stays.

He missed school. A lot of school.

Sometimes Clayton missed an entire month at a time, he said. Sometimes he showed up once a week. He missed so much of eighth grade, he risked having to do it over again.

Until school employees started showing up to his house.

Tanya Suydam, now the principal at Baboquivari High School, told Clayton he wouldn’t be able to graduate with his friends.

“That really spooked me,” he said.

The conversation transformed Clayton. His stepdad, not realizing the extent of Clayton’s absences, volunteered to take time off work to help care for Clayton’s mom.

Clayton spent as many extra hours in the classroom as he could, giving up his free period and his lunch hour. He stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning to do class work, then he’d wake up two hours later to do more work, make breakfast for his family and head to school.

“It’s been rough,” he said. “But in the end, it’ll pay off.”

He’s now on track to graduate and wants to study social services at Tohono O’odham Community College, eventually transferring to Arizona State University.

After college, Clayton wants to return to the reservation and become the first O’odham high school counselor on campus, helping students the way administrators helped him when his mom died.

Creative solutions

Edna Morris, Baboquivari’s superintendent, came to the district about eight years ago as an elementary school principal. About 13 percent of the student body was missing school on any given day.

Morris wanted improvement.

She urged teachers to treat every day like a new day for misbehaving kids. She wanted students to feel safe in school, to feel loved. She made sure the schools were clean and looked welcoming, all in a push to get kids to come.

Morris started requiring prospective teachers to teach a lesson as part of the interview process, looking for educators who could connect with children. If she didn’t see good engagement, she immediately cut off interviews.

“You have to create an environment where they feel like it’s Disneyland,” Morris said. “We had to change the whole mindset of how our staff treats our kids.”

She and other district employees sought inventive solutions to the attendance problem. One year, when locals struggled with frequent power outages, she said the district bought hundreds of mechanical alarm clocks to wake students — no power needed. 

Another year, Morris and a cadre of district employees patched up damaged roads themselves so buses could get through to a village.

Bonn, the teacher, has called students every morning in past years to wake them up, setting alarms on her phone.

The district holds lice clinics so kids aren’t kept home by the insects, Aggie Nizhonie Hart, Baboquivari’s family and community engagement director, said. If students’ clothes are dirty, those students can come in early and get them washed in a school washing machine. If they need a shower, the school has one. Not all homes on the reservation have access to electricity or running water.

Attendance rates have slowly crept up. 

But average daily attendance doesn’t tell the full story. Chronic absenteeism — data that’s harder to come by — can better pinpoint students at risk academically, according to the Education Trust, a national non-profit group promoting equity in schools.

About 10 percent of Baboquivari’s elementary students, 13 percent of middle school students and 16 percent of high school students were chronically absent in the 2017-18 school year, district-provided data show.

Parents face consequences of truancy

State law defines a student as “habitually truant” when they miss five or more days of a school year without a valid reason, like illness.

Consequences for truancy come down on parents.

Districts have different procedures for truancy. But in most districts, if any student is excessively absent, parents face court citations and could be charged with a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine or jail time, according to Peoria’s truancy information.

Truancy citations in Maricopa County Superior Court typically end in a diversion program called CUTS, or Court Unified Truancy Suppression, spokesman Bryan Bouchard said. The court works with schools to try to encourage students to go back to school, and the students may have to do community service, tutoring or other classes.

“We enforce truancy on the parents,” Deputy Ryan Powell, a school resource officer with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, said. “The kids want to be in school. I haven’t seen a kid yet that doesn’t want to be in school.”

Powell works with the Sunnyside Unified School District in the south part of Tucson. He starts showing up at front doors as early as August to enforce truancy. He calls the first visit he makes “a leap of encouragement” for families: Like at Baboquivari, the focus is on referring families to services to help get kids to school.

An absent child isn’t the only one hurt by an absence, he said.

“That student becomes a problem for the whole classroom because now a teacher has to spend a lot of their time reteaching and getting this kid up to speed for class,” Powell said. “It just doesn’t hurt the one child, it hurts the whole community.”

How absences are tied to performance

Student performance may also be tied to attendance, according to Terri Clark, state literacy director with Read On Arizona, which advocates for early literacy in the state.

“For us, it is about time on task and if (students are) not in the classroom, they’re missing out on the literacy supports and the interventions that could be helping them,” Clark said.

One study from Arizona State University found that third-grade reading scores and chronic absenteeism are strongly correlated, though the researchers cautioned that absenteeism may not directly cause scores to dip. However, they wrote, “It seems logical that students who spend more time in school are more likely to learn.”

In a 2014 study, Attendance Works, a national organization that advocates against chronic absences, found nationally that students who missed three or more days of school in the month prior to testing scored lower on national reading and math assessments on average than students with fewer absences.

“It absolutely makes sense,” Clark said. “If they’re missing time in class, then they’re missing the support in class and the interventions they need.”

Tracking absenteeism

Despite its direct connection to student performance, the Arizona Department of Education doesn’t currently track absenteeism.

The department has the ability to track the data and has shared such numbers in recent years with Read On Arizona, but does not currently do so, according to spokesman Stefan Swiat.

The department relies on federal chronic absenteeism numbers. Districts and charter schools report the information to the federal Office of Civil Rights, which in turn releases the data in annual batches years later.

Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies with Brookings’ Hamilton Project, helped analyze chronic absence figures from the national data in a paper released in September.

The numbers show 8 million chronically absent students nationwide in the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 800,000 students from 2013-14, the first year the federal government asked for absenteeism data.

The increase is likely because of improved reporting, Bauer said.

It’s difficult to compare states because not all are reporting with the same levels of accuracy, she said. In Arizona, for instance, some schools reported, likely in error, that more than 100 percent of their students were chronically absent while others reported that none of their students were ever absent.

Some states, but not all, track chronic absenteeism themselves in a bid to keep schools accountable.

“You don’t want to allow districts and schools to game the system, which is why you want this under the purview of the state,” Bauer said.

Despite Arizona not tracking its own data, chronic absenteeism is one factor in Arizona’s rating system for elementary and middle schools. The state Department of Education uses the federal absenteeism numbers in calculating the letter grades, Swiat confirmed in an email.

In other words, the department used absenteeism data from 2015-16 to assess schools for the 2017-18 school year. Those ratings impact public perception of a school.

“It’s two years ago,” Bauer said. “That’s not the right baseline. If there are schools that have made progress or not, they’re not going to get credit or not.”

Absences also play a role in school funding in Arizona. Any student with 10 straight unexcused absences must be withdrawn from a district, Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said. Fewer students in a district mean less funding.

It’s unclear if absences meaningfully impact school funding. Swiat wrote that a study done by the department several years ago indicated that fewer than 20 schools were impacted by funding because of absences.

Attendance starts with parents

Lejero knows both sides of chronic absenteeism. She’s a parent and a grandparent with school-aged children. She’s also a longtime district employee once tasked with tracking down kids and parents to get the kids to school.

She talks about her 35-year-old son when she’s asked about school attendance. About how it felt impossible to get him to go to school when he was younger. About how she’d walk him to the school gates and get a call later that he never showed up.

She talks about how one day he went missing and she didn’t see him for a long time. Now, he’s in and out of prison and she wonders whether getting him to school more would have changed the course of his life. 

Lejero worked for years as a parent liaison for Baboquivari. She now works at the district’s resource center for homeless students and parents, doling out clothes and food. As a liaison, it was her job to knock on families’ doors and ask why they weren’t sending their kids to school.

Students who miss more than three consecutive days of school have to sign attendance contracts, a sheet of paper where parents promise to send their child to school on time every day. A few years ago, Lejero remembers, she had to give out attendance contracts all the time.

But attendance is better now, it seems, because she thinks the district is offering more support.

“We were listening more, talking to the parents,” she said. “Whatever issues they have, we try to help them.”

She recalls the mother who walked her three children to the bus stop in cold weather, wrapping them in a big blanket because they didn’t have jackets. A bus driver noticed and the district got them coats. 

Those are the interventions that work, she said, the ones that make it easier for parents.

Attendance Works recommends a three-tiered approach in fighting absences. The first tier calls for districts to monitor absenteeism data, recognize schools and students with good attendance and build a positive culture around attendance.

The second, for students with more absences, calls for personalized attendance plans like Baboquivari’s contract, mentoring from school officials and individualized, early outreach tailored to students.

The organization’s third tier, meant for students missing more than 20 percent of school, recommends legal intervention as a last resort.

It’s not impossible to get kids to go to school, Bauer said. Districts across the country are hatching new plans all the time, even turning to apps that target chronically absent students.

And once they start coming, districts will see improvements in areas beyond attendance, she said.

“There’s a range of interventions that are effective,” she said. “Schools and districts that have focused on this have seen huge improvements. We see improved graduation rates and improved student achievement.”

Before her grandchildren set out for the school bus, Lejero calls out to 8-year-old Dontez to put his jacket on. She watches them as they mill around the kitchen table and make small talk. She says goodbye as the three boys embark, the sky still dark.

Yelling at kids won’t help them get to school, she said. Instead, she thinks parents should tell their kids they’re proud of them. That missing school could reverberate through their whole life.

“They’re just missing every opportunity to go forward,” she said.