Chronic absenteeism in Gilroy schools has hovered around 12.5 percent in recent years, but a new approach has reduced that number and is keeping more kids in classrooms.
Jennifer Del Bono has been spearheading the new push. She called it a “re-energized” attendance support and truancy intervention effort that’s focused on elementary and junior high schools. It uses a lot of tools to reach families with the message that schooling is a must for success—and if you don’t heed the message, you’ll be in trouble with the law.
“We’re just a little bit more focused on educating parents and enforcement,” Del Bono said.
Although the jury’s still out, there are preliminary signs it’s working. So far this school year, it has helped keep chronic absenteeism at 12 percent. That is below figures for 2013-14 when it was 12.6 percent and 2014-15 when it climbed to 13.1 percent, according to figures from the Gilroy Unified School District.
Del Bono said the most recent figures represent, “some nice progress.”
In a district with about 11,590 students, a 12 to 13 percent chronic absentee rate adds up to roughly 1,500 students, according to Del Bono and district spokesperson Rachel Zlotziver.
So what is the plan and how is it different from past efforts to keep kids from missing school and getting behind or having punishment meted out to kids or parents?
Linda Piceno is a GUSD school trustee with a Masters degree in Guidance and Counseling from San Jose State University. Before her election in November 2014, she had worked 32 years for the district—at all three school levels as a teacher, counselor or principal, in the district office and as president of the teachers union.
She sees the current effort as a combination of two older approaches. She likened it to a swinging pendulum in trying to deal with “a very complex” challenge.
“There were times when truancy was dealt with in more of a disciplinary mode, but that didn’t improve attendance,” she said. “At other times, when we were first doing the Student Attendance Review Boards, there was more of a supportive approach” that involved public health and other agencies, according to Piceno.
“I think that was the beginning of looking at truancy in a non-disciplinary way and really in a positive, supportive way,” she said.
Now a new wrinkle has appeared in the fabric of the GUSD efforts, one that Piceno sees as a sort of combination of being supportive and being tough.
“The district attorney’s office has now gotten involved,” she said.
The DA has assigned a lawyer to assist in resolving absenteeism and truancy or, if that doesn’t work, file charges against parents and or kids as young as junior high school age, according to Del Bono.
In the beginning stage of a problem, a letter goes to parents who meet with school officials. That is Level 1. If the problem persists, it goes to Level 2, and the assistant DA runs the meeting, spells out expectations and monitors student attendance.
Level 3 is when everything gets turned over to the DA and charges are filed against the student and or parents. This, however, is the last resort. Before things escalate, Del Bono and a deep bench of players from inside the district and outside agencies go to bat for everything from policy changes to obtaining assistance for individual students and families.
Piceno put it this way: “You need lots of tricks in your bag of tricks to deal with it … I think it does take a multi-pronged approached; there is no one single, easy answer. If there was, those statistics would have plummeted a long time ago.”
That is one reason the district created Del Bono’s position, which is attached to the superintendent’s office. It’s called, Program Administrator—School Climate and Student Attendance.
“Refocusing was part of the energy around Jennifer’s position, a relatively new position,” Piceno said.
Zlotziver said, “Until this year, the district did not have a staff position focused exclusively on school climate and student attendance. School sites directly referred cases to the DA and this information was not tracked by the district.”
With Del Bono in the new position, she said, “…this is an area that the district is focusing on in terms of collecting and monitoring data.”
State funding always comes into play when kids miss school. The current Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is $10,911 per student, according to Zlotziver.
“When a student is absent, the district loses approximately $62 a day,” she wrote in an email response. But money is not on the minds of folks in the front lines, according to Del Bono and Piceno.
“Kids cannot learn if they are not in school and that is the absolute first consideration in all of my time as an employee in the district and as a school board member,” Piceno said. “We have to get the kids [to school] in order for them to learn; of course ADA comes along, but it’s a far distant issue from [students] learning,” she said.
Del Bono said, “I spent six years at Mt. Madonna [continuation] High School, I know what happens when they don’t have access to school.”
Educators, she said, “… could care less about the money.”
Del Bono, who also is in charge of expulsions, emphasized the distinction between truancy and chronic absenteeism. Truancy involves only unexcused absences and a legal or administrative action; chronic absenteeism involves all absences and suspensions, focuses on lost academic opportunities and involves community agencies to achieve positive outcomes.
So what are the challenges and how are they being met?
Some involve primarily the student and his or her decisions or actions. Most, however, are rooted in larger, family issues that make it hard sometimes for the district to even find the parents.
The barriers to kids getting to classrooms range from illness to homelessness—some families move six to eight times in a year, according to Del Bono. Other barriers are parent unemployment, family finances, job changes, family instability and the mobility of migrant families.
Even record keeping can be a challenge, Del Bono said.
Some families just don’t know the rules, don’t have the information, aren’t even aware that they are supposed to call the school when their child will be out.
To make matters more difficult, no two situations are the same. “We are not finding anything typical about it … students and parents are faced with a wide range of challenges,” Del Bono said.
Part of the new effort involves reaching out to parents to make sure they know their responsibilities—and the new statistics suggest that is working, according to school officials.
Another aspect is the wide range of outside agencies that partner with the district to assist in issues ranging from housing assistance to mental health referrals. Resolving such family problems can go a long way toward resolving absenteeism, school officials said.
Those agencies and groups, some for direct action and some at the policy level, include Community Solutions, Rebekah Children’s Services, the South County Youth Task Force and the Youth Alliance.
In addition, three schools—Glen View, Eliot and Del Buono—have on-site “School Link Services” personnel. It’s their job to match struggling families with resources to help and to alert larger groups such as the South County Youth Task Force to issues that can then be explored and help sought.
“They hear of the needs as a policy team and try to bring resources to Gilroy,” said Del Bono.
One example was when it became apparent to everyone that the problem had gotten to the point where help was needed in dealing with hardcore truancy cases.
“They arranged with the district attorney’s office to assign an assistant DA to support Gilroy and Morgan Hill on truancy,” Del Bono said.
“We are getting coordinated; we are small but we are all working together,” she added, “And we are engaging families.”