How one Oakland school is getting kids to class

Dec 9, 2014

Chronic absence is one of the best indicators of future success in school. That’s when a student misses more than two days of school out of the month for any reason. Students with high rates of absence have lower test scores, and if it starts when they’re young, they’re more likely to drop out in high school.

Oakland schools have a dropout rate that’s higher than the state average. And five years ago, district officials realized they had a chronic absence rate of 16 percent.

So the district made solving the problem a priority. Officials started to make comprehensive attendance data available to schools and set guidelines for schools to track their progress getting kids to come to school.

The district has had some success so far – the overall chronic absence rate is down to 11.2%. And some schools have done much better. One of those schools is Garfield Elementary in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood.

The attendance team

Mirna Sanchez is the attendance clerk at Garfield. She’s stationed in the crowded front office, calling home to parents whose children were absent the day before. She has a sizable list today, but five years ago, it would have been a lot longer.

As students find their way to class, on a typical Wednesday, the Garfield  attendance team has gathered in the teachers’ lounge to go over the most recent data. Each week, the three-person team, led by Rosio Cisneros, pours over a list of all the students’ absences.

“We have, as of the seventh of November, 84 students who are at-risk with three or four absences,” Cisneros tells the group.

That’s at-risk for becoming chronically absent. The team takes those students and divides them up. Then, each team member will organize a meeting with the parents. Especially in elementary school, chronic absence comes down to the parents. Kindergartners generally aren’t getting themselves to class on their own.

“I think, at first parents [can] be a little bit defiant, they’re like, ‘No, but why? I mean it’s just attendance, why are you making a big deal?’” she says after the meeting. “But once we get to sit down and and let them know that we care as a school.”

Rosio Cisneros knows this because – before she started working as an attendance case manager at Garfield – she used to be one of those parents. Her kids attended Garfield.

“I don’t know if it was me being naive or didn’t have the knowledge back then, but I was very upset that I had these adults who didn’t know me tell me I should bring my kids to school,” she explains. “But now that I’m in this position I understand very well, no my child is missing out, they need to be in school.”

Today, she’s doing whatever it takes to get the parents on board: calling home, sending letters back with students, making home visits. She’s even found parents at work.

“A little embarrassing for the parent, but I mean we as a school we need to do what we need to do to address the student,” she says.

From there, Cisneros will work with the family to figure out why they’re not getting the kid to school. Sometimes, it’s transportation – the family’s car broke down, or maybe they can’t afford the bus. So Cisneros will apply for bus vouchers from the district. But sometimes that’s not enough.

“My co-worker and I offer ourselves to pick up those children. We go and pick them up when the parents cannot bring them themselves. Not on a daily basis, but maybe three out of five days we’re able to go out,” she says.

Sometimes, parents also keep their asthmatic kids home from school because their condition is not properly managed, or maybe the child needs to act as a translator at home. Often, it’s complicated. Cisneros remembers a family from her first year at Garfield that has stayed with her.

“They were siblings, it was a kindergartner and a first grader. And they had terrible attendance. They missed maybe three out of five days. So it was really bad,” she recalls. “So once I got the parent to come in, it turned out it wasn’t the parent. It was the uncle and the aunt taking care of these two kids whose parents were incarcerated and deported back to their country.”

Cisneros says neither the kids or aunt and uncle were comfortable with the new living situation. So when the kids didn’t want to go to school, the aunt and uncle wouldn’t force them. But over time, she helped them develop a relationship and the kids started coming to school more often.

“Throughout the years they were here, they had perfect attendance every year. And it was based on the resources we were able to provide, the support, and giving them the skills on how to connect with those children that were basically strangers to them,” she says.

The school’s principal, Nima Tahai, also sits in on the attendance meetings. He’s part of the reason why Garfield takes chronic absence so seriously. After the district made chronic absence a priority in 2010, so did he.

“Each school site here in Oakland has a budget that they can prioritize what they want to spend,” he explains. “One of the many things that we prioritize here at Garfield is making sure that we have case managers.”

That’s Cisneros and her team. Tahai says all these efforts have paid off.

“Back in 2010, Garfield’s chronic absence rate was about 14%. And this last year in 2013-14, we cut our rate in half, so we’re at seven percent chronic absence,” he says. “Which doesn’t yet mean we’re at goal, we still have a lot of work to do.”

So in addition to getting the parents on board, Tehai, Cisneros, and the rest of the attendance team have created small ways to get students excited about coming to class. If they’re at school every day of the week, they’re entered into a raffle and can win prizes. For students who are being case-managed, there’s a program called Garfield Goers, where they get to attend special events and are recognized for turning around their attendance.

In the classroom

Fifth grader Lance Lem is one of those case-managed kids. His attendance has really improved this year.

“I come to school more often and go early and I like going to Garfield Goers, but I’m about to graduate,” he says. “We get necklaces with like a golden paw of the Wildcats.”

Lance says he wakes up earlier now, and asks his parents to take him to school – and they do.

Shoshana Winkelstein is Lance’s teacher. She’s been teaching at Garfield for fourteen years. So she was there when school attendance wasn’t so good.

“You’d have several kids who weren’t showing up for different times during the week, and so you were constantly juggling what lesson have they had, what lesson do they need now to get caught up, what am I doing with my whole class, it was just a lot more. I mean we already have kids at lots of different levels, that was just an added complication and factor into us kind of juggling our day to day routines in the classroom,” she explains.

Now, she can really notice a difference.

“We have more kids who, who are on track, who are really engaged in their learning, who are having you know more positive interactions with each other, who feel more connected to their school and their education,” she says. “Makes it easier.”

On a recent Friday in Winkelstein’s classroom, students are reading silently.

“A lot of our kids are making, they’re kind on on schedule to make a year and a half to two years of progress in their reading level in one year. So it’s pretty exciting,” she says. “It’s really important (that the students come every day). A lot of our kids we’re finding actually the only time they’re reading is in the classroom. They need to be in school to make the best progress they can.”

Tehai and Cisneros know they still have work to do-- while Garfield’s chronic absence rate is seven percent, their goal is to get it down to six. But, they say, they’re on the right track.