Students making it to class

– On any given day, more than 95 percent of Gilroy’s students
are in class.
Slowly but surely, student attendance in the Gilroy Unified
School District is climbing. The rate was 94.2 percent in 2002-03,
94.6 percent last year and is 95.5 percent so far this year.
Gilroy – On any given day, more than 95 percent of Gilroy’s students are in class.

Slowly but surely, student attendance in the Gilroy Unified School District is climbing. The rate was 94.2 percent in 2002-03, 94.6 percent last year and is 95.5 percent so far this year.

If the upward trend continues, GUSD could be rewarded with $300,000 in additional state funding for next year. The state funds all school districts based on how many students are actually in the classroom during the 180 days of the school year, with higher attendance meaning more dollars.

Even a 95-percent attendance rate, however, means that out of the roughly 9,600 students enrolled in GUSD, an average of about 430 are absent each day. Currently, GUSD receives about $4,600 per student from the state, or nearly $45 million. That money pays for district employees’ salaries and benefits, materials, books and general operating expenses.

The additional $300,000 would be welcomed, especially in light of the recently proposed state cuts to education funding. In order for the additional dollars to be a sure bet, however, GUSD has to increase its attendance this year by .66 percent over last year. The next attendance reporting date is in April, and that’s when the state will calculate funding for the 2005-06 school year.

“This is good news for us,” said Steve Brinkman, the district’s assistant superintendent of administrative services, of the latest attendance report. “We have to hold this through (April), but we’re off to a good start.”

Eliot Elementary School posted a 2.3-percent increase this year, the most marked improvement of any traditional school in GUSD. Las Animas Elementary improved by 1.43 percent, Rod Kelley Elementary and Gilroy High School each went up 1.3 percent and Antonio Del Buono Elementary improved by 1.06 percent.

Diane Elia, principal at Eliot, said a number of efforts have helped up attendance at that school, including an increase in office staff members.

Also, because a new Eliot school is being constructed this year, Eliot students are being housed at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School in the city’s southwest quad. As a result, a number of Eliot students, most of whom live near Seventh and Chestnut streets where the permanent Eliot school is located, are being bussed to school, and that may play a part in making sure students actually get to school every day, Elia said.

The school also has continued with other practices from last year, such as a partnership with Santa Clara County’s School-Linked Services and a monthly name drawing for McDonald’s gift certificates for students with perfect attendance.

One reason attendance rose throughout GUSD this year is, unlike last year, there was no organized walkout. In December 2003, thousands of Hispanics participated in a day-long, statewide economic boycott in response to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s repeal of a law that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

Elia said the walkout hit Eliot hard – the school is roughly 80 percent Hispanic – as did a virus that wove its way through Eliot’s student body last winter.

“We haven’t had nearly as many kids out this year because of sickness,” she said. “But I don’t think I’ve found the magic bullet yet.”

Typically, one of the toughest times of the year for attendance are the days just before and after winter break when students take extended family vacations, said Frank Valadez, the district’s attendance officer. One potential solution being discussed for the 2006-07 school year is extending winter break from two weeks to three, he said.

Last year, the district launched a series of efforts to help student attendance. Although the district is shooting for a .66-percent increase this year, Valadez said his personal goal is one full percentage point, which would earn the district a total of $450,000 more in state funding.

Holding Saturday school at the middle schools and high school is one of the efforts initiated last year that has significantly contributed, Valadez said. When students are absent from school or commit minor offenses, the district gives them the option to attend school on a Saturday rather than automatically suspending them.

“We’re seeing big increases (in attendance) because of Saturday school, because that keeps them in school during the week, which obviously is what we’re aiming for,” Valadez said.

Staying on top of truants – students with three or more unexcused days of absence – also has been key to improving attendance, Valadez said. An increase in clerical staff means more letters sent out when warranted, as well as phone calls to parents.

Sometimes those phone calls are to schedule mediation sessions, which Valadez said is another reason attendance rates are rising. This year mediations were made a monthly practice, whereas only two mediation sessions were held over the past two years.

Valadez said he has several ideas in mind to increase attendance ever more next year. He’s hoping to produce a spot on the local television channel Community Media Access Partnership that would feature interviews with the deputy district attorney regarding student attendance. Valadez also said he’d like to meet more often with the district’s attendance staff to better pinpoint which attendance efforts are working.

Better communication with parents also might help them understand what exactly constitutes an unexcused absence, Valadez said.

“We really need a handbook for parents districtwide to describe attendance procedures and issues that are involved with attendance, like suspension, safety information and graduation requirements,” he said.

It also might do some good if students took the time to read the information about attendance they receive at the beginning of the year.

“As it is, they probably don’t read that material,” Valadez said. “Well, until they get in trouble for it.”

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