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Unity and BayTech team up to tackle vexing problem

For Oakland parent Sandra Martinez Rodriguez, the height of the pandemic was an extremely challenging time to get her kids to stay focused and attend school virtually. Her 7th grader couldn’t concentrate in front of the computer, so she bought three cameras to monitor him. Here oldest son, who was starting college, just stopped going.

“It was too hard to do online,” she said. “He needed a special connection with his teachers.”

Chronic absence is a huge problem, especially for vulnerable students

Sandra’s story is a common one for families across the country: before the pandemic, 8 million students were chronically absent (missing more than 10 percent of the school year). That number has since doubled to 16 million.

William Nee, principal of Oakland Unity High School, said chronic absenteeism is one of the main negative effects on schools because of COVID. And “chronic absenteeism is exacerbated for vulnerable students,” he said.

“It’s all tied together – this thinking that ‘school is optional,’” Nee said. “‘Homework is optional.’ ‘Life is optional.’ ‘‘Everything is optional and I’m not showing up to school today.’ It’s really harmful and taking time to address.”

But attendance isn’t really optional if students want to progress in school, which is why Unity and Bay Area Technology School (BayTech) are partnering together to hire an attendance officer for the next school year.

BayTech students.

The BayTech and Oakland Unity High plan for tackling chronic absenteeism

Seth Feldman, the executive director of BayTech, said the attendance officer will be a bridge between the school and families, and help build connections with students (especially those who are chronically absent), and find them when they’re not showing up.

“This is someone who goes out in the community for the purpose of bringing kids back to school,” Seth said.

Sandra is also the office manager at BayTech and she helps track attendance. She said she has noticed more students are chronically absent this year.

“I’ve seen it with a couple of our students, they’d rather stay home, they find any little excuse,” she said.

The numbers at BayTech back up what Sandra sees. “Before COVID, we were at 98.5-99 percent Average Daily Attendance,” Seth said. “Now we’re hitting 89-90 percent, and that is not acceptable.”

The average daily attendance numbers are similar at Unity High, William said: 91 percent recently and 88 percent at the beginning of the year. He said that 95 percent Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is “acceptable,” a number the school maintained before the pandemic.

“What doesn’t come through the percentages is that while overall attendance is diminished, it’s really concentrated among vulnerable students who become chronically absent,” William said.

“Once you start to miss a substantial part of the school year, academic momentum is really hard to achieve,” William continued. “Once you drop below 80 percent (ADA), your identity as a student isn’t there. And your routine as a student isn’t there. And you just can’t make the same kind of progress.”

Seth said that when they talk to chronically absent students about why they’re not showing up, they usually share that it’s not because they hate the school and don’t want to be there.

“They’re like, ‘I missed two-and-a-half weeks of school, and now I have all D’s and F’s,’” Seth said. “‘I don’t know what to do, I’m going to fail.’ And that compounds.”

A BayTech student.

Building relationships to bring students back to school

William said that when a student suffers a terrible life event or trauma, they can also stop showing up for class. And when a high school student stops showing up, they often dig in and it becomes more of “school refusal,” William said. The only way to flip the script is for an adult to build trusting and personal connections with the student.

“It’s really high-contact, high-touch, and you need to build a relationship,” William said. “You have got to have the right person. It’s time-consuming, where you focus on one kid and try to get them back. Then you move on to the next kid. It has to be someone’s primary job.”

A full-time attendance position is difficult to add to a single-site charter school’s staff. By partnering together, the schools can pool resources while also making sure the attendance officer has a full caseload of students to manage. The schools are working with local nonprofit organization Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corp. to identify candidates for the attendance officer position.

The partnership between the two schools is a bit of uncharted territory but could serve as a roadmap for future collaboration between schools that are otherwise not affiliated.

“Charter schools are supposed to be the research and development arm for the system,” Seth said. “So this is our small research project, to see if we can create something that others can use.”

For Sandra’s family, her oldest son has returned to taking college classes, and her younger son is thriving at BayTech. She said that she now understands more why attendance is important. Before the pandemic, when her son would complain about feeling sick, she would let him stay home only to have him be playing and looking fine hours later.

“Now I understand more that when he misses school, how much he falls behind,” Sandra said. “It’s hard when students fall behind.”

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Families in Action for Quality Education (FIA) was founded in 2019 and now has grown to serve over 16,000 district and charter school families. FIA has graduated over 500 parents, youth, educators, and school board members from our leadership institutes to advocate for access to quality education across the city of Oakland. For more information and to sign up, visit FIA’s websiteFacebookInstagram or Twitter.

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