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.

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.

mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.