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.

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.