Stolen trucks, younger siblings and Halloween worries: A school social worker tackles student absences one case at a time

With Colorado and other states poised to use chronic absenteeism as a measure of school and district quality, home visits are one weapon in the fight for consistent attendance.

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. (Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat)
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. (Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat)
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. (Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat)

By Ann SchimkeChalkbeat

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 Susan 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.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.