District trying to up attendance

ECISD case workers Cristina Dominguez, Lead Social Worker Letty Bernal, Gracie Quintela, Jalisia Coney, Xenia Chambers and Wendy Duran pose for a photo in the district’s Community Outreach Center food pantry. (Ruth Campbell | Odessa American)

ECISD’s fall attendance has remained lower than the district would like it to be.

“We’re still higher than last year, but we’re still lower than where we want to be, or need to be, probably by at least a couple of percentage points,” Director of Support Services Scott Randolph said during an interview at the Community Outreach Center.

Ector County Independent School District started out at about 94.9 percent attendance and as of Nov. 18, it was 91.6 percent.

“It typically does that. It starts out high, then it goes down when the flu season comes and then you get towards the end of the year and it starts coming back up. So it’s always kind of a curve like this,” Randolph said.

Last year at this time, they were at 90.4 percent, so they are up about 1.2 percent compared to last year.

“But last year was a terrible year. That was the Omicron surge and so it’s not a great sign. It’s good that we’re above it, but we’ve still got more to do,” Randolph said.

He added that they would like to be up around 96-97 percent.

“Sometimes people don’t speak in attendance terms, they think, oh, 96% or 95, 94, those are still A’s. That’s good, but every percentage point you’re talking huge dollars. And you’re talking huge amounts of learning loss, so you could be talking 2 percentage points is millions in lost revenue and lost learning for the kids,” Randolph said.

Each percentage point is worth about $700,000 to $1 million, he added.

Getting students back to school requires a lot of hard work.

“We do have a new program where we are communicating with parents quicker through text messages; letting them know when their child has missed that day. We’re also sending the letters out to parents whenever their kids have unexcused absences. We text those out as soon as they hit a threshold, so they’re getting that quicker,” Randolph said.

“Campuses are ramping up their interventions. They’re having teachers call parents; principals are calling parents. So really a big outreach to try to fix the problems. We’ve doubled our staff here for social services. Attendance problems, most of the time, are an indication that something else is going on. It’s usually just the tip of the iceberg and so our challenge is to figure out what is bubbling up beneath the waterline. Is it maybe the kids don’t have uniforms, or maybe there’s domestic violence, or maybe they’re having problems at school? So there’s really, the attendance is just an indicator. There’s something else underneath the surface and our job is to try to figure out what that is,” Randolph said.

Most of the services at the Community Outreach Center are designed to remove those barriers.

“We’ve got a clothes closet. A lot of times we show up and they’ll say, well, I only have one uniform. I can’t wash them every night, or he outgrew his clothes and I can’t afford clothes right now. So we’ve got those resources, we can just quickly get them to them. A lot of times we’ll show up and it’s a vacant house the family has been evicted and they’re moving place to place,” he added.

The Community Outreach Center can usually set up clothes and school supplies for students.

“Sometimes it’s parents and kids. As they get older, it becomes more of a parent and kid-type issue. The older the kids get, the harder it is for the parents to get them to school. We have a parenting class that’s proven to help parents in that situation, help them communicate with their kids because parenting teenagers is difficult nowadays, so (we) try to provide the resources to help improve that,” Randolph said.

He added that Parenting Wisely comes in a teen edition, for parents of teens, and there is an edition for parents of young children.

“It’s proven to reduce child abuse. It’s proven to reduce behavior problems and kids, and it’s proven to increase overall family functioning. It’s totally free and it’s in English or Spanish and they can do it from home. It’s really a great resource. We wish more parents would take advantage of it because every time I do it, I learn something new, something I was doing wrong as a parent and it’s just good ways to develop skills,” Randolph said.

Before staff was increased, there were four social workers serving the whole district, dealing with attendance problems, dropouts and general social work.

“We added eight additional staff that are all kind of working in the same direction that we did get a grant from TEA (Texas Education Agency) to help homeless kids specifically. We have case managers at the middle schools and high schools that just help homeless kids to try to help them graduate. Then we have other social service specialists here that cover the rest of the schools. That work is like attendance officers/social service specialist,” he added.

“Now we’ve got four in the middle schools and then we’ve got four at the two high schools,” Randolph said.

The grant from TEA was about $380,000 each year for three years. Additionally, they got $300,000 of ESSER funding through the state to spend over three years. ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund.

Roughly $280,000 in ESSER funds from the district went to fund four additional social services specialists.

They are now fully staffed, which is different for Randolph’s realm.

“We were putting out fires. When you have 12 schools and you’ve got kids missing it’s really hard to make a dent. But now if you only have four schools, they can get to know the families better. They can follow up. They can take them to school one day to have to go back another day. So it’s really helping,” Randolph said.

He added that they have hired additional attendance clerks at the middle schools and high schools, which he thinks will help.

The clerks call the parents when students are out and they receive the calls that a student will be out that day.

“If you have a school of 4,000 kids and 10% are out that day, there was no possible way for two or three of them to field 400 calls. It was kind of a snowball effect, so they couldn’t field all 400 of those calls so the absences may have been incorrect, and then it just dumps into a system. I think it’s really going to streamline it, especially during COVID we really struggled. You may have two attendance clerks out and you may have tons of staff out. You had kids out in huge numbers and it was just a vicious cycle for attendance, but it seems to be getting better,” Randolph said.

Sometimes parents don’t realize there are laws regarding attendance.

“There’s two laws. There’s one that we usually just referred to as truancy. That’s the one where parents get taken to court if their kids miss too much. … If a child misses three unexcused within a four-week period, state law says we have to mail them a warning letter, send them a warning letter, and we do. Then the school starts their intervention, so they’ll have the principal meet with the kids, the counselor, try to remove any barriers,” Randolph said.

“If the attendance just keeps going when they get to 10, unexcused absences, we file charges against the parent. It’s called Parent Contributing to Non-Attendance. We file those in municipal court. We have a dedicated court that handles those cases. That’s the truancy laws. Three gets your warning letter. Then we send a final warning notice at five.”

“The campus starts their interventions and then at 10, we file charges against parents. Hopefully before they get to 10, we’ve tried to implement services to try to fix the problem. But there’s a certain percentage that just keep keep missing. So that’s one side of it.

“Then there’s the credit side of it. State law says a child has to be in attendance 90% of the school year, in order to move on to the next grade level, regardless of the reasons for the absences. So we also send out what we call credit warning and credit loss letters. On the elementary and middle school level, if a child misses 18 or more days by law, they’re supposed to be retained, unless there’s extenuating circumstances. And that can be all excused, so they could be getting sick; they could have various reasons. Even if they go over that 18, they’re supposed to be held back. But at the end of the year, they have committees that meet with the parents and try to figure out okay, what was the reason? Do they have bona fide reasons? Why was Johnny missing and then they also look at the child’s progress in academics,” Randolph said.

They don’t want to hold back a whole bunch of students because that’s not good for them, he said.

“There’s the law that says they’re supposed to be retained, but the school holds meetings to determine if they need to be retained. On the secondary level, it goes by semester. So if a child misses nine or more days in a class, so let’s say I have English first period, and I just keep missing English I’m getting to school late every day. I’m supposed to be no graded for that English. If I came to biology second period every day and did well, I would get my grade in biology but English I would be no graded,” Randolph said.

High schools and principals work hard to get those students in and get them to make up that seat time.

“First thing in the morning (is a) struggle. Right after lunch is a struggle. So if you have English and you mess around and don’t get to class eight or more times, you’re supposed to not get a grade for that class. It’s really a big challenge on the high school level to get those kids to class on time and to make up that seat time,” he added.

Randolph said 80 to 90% of parents are awesome.

“They are on their kids. They’re making them go. It’s just that 10% that are struggling,” he added.