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.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”