What I Learned from Taking Action on Attendance

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Pictured above: Clifford Hong, Principal at Roosevelt Middle School, Jacqueline Calderon Perl, Principal at East Oakland PRIDE, and Jamie Lopez, Community School Manager at Garfield Elementary School

This past Saturday was the Taking Action on Attendance conference, held at Acts Full Gospel Church, and focused on learning from the OUSD schools who have the most effective and promising practices around attendance.  I was really impressed by the amazing work that some of our schools are doing, and also liked learning from the experiences that our families and students have with our schools.

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I was ably assisted at the conference by an amazing team of volunteers, Chris Rodriguez, Robert Green, Crystal and Lirio Zepeda, Nirvana Felix and Katelyn Karnes.

One of my favorite parts of the conference was hearing about the experiences of parents John Moore and Faozia Al-Debashi, from Life Academy and CUES.  John shared that many students at Life Academy were struggling with transportation as a barrier to getting to school on time, and that he has started to pick up other students on his way to drop his children.  He believes that the strong involvement of parents at Life is what has made that possible; the feeling of shared responsibility for all students at Life. 

Faozia's story was very inspiring for me.  She got involved at CUES out of her concerns about the experience her children were having.  Her children were experiencing bullying, and feeling isolated and excluded at school.  Their Yemeni culture requires particular dress for female children, and there are cultural practices that other students at CUES did not understand.  It was hard for Faozia to get involved at the school because all school meetings were conducted in English (and sometimes Spanish). 

Through meeting with an organizer from Oakland Community Organizations, Katy Nunez Adler, Faozia and other Yemeni parents were able to start to press for fuller inclusion in the school community.  Now there is an Arabic interpreter that attends meetings at the school to ensure that Yemeni parents can participate, and Faozia has become involved in school governance, and even helped to select the new Principal for the school.  She never believed that she would become a leader in the school community, and it was inspiring to see how she has grown as a leader through learning to advocate for her children.

The student member of the panel was Gwen Santos from Oakland High, who spoke about the importance of relationships with teachers and school staff in student engagement and desire to go to school.  She has had both very positive and very negative experience with teachers, and she discussed the impact of both in her desire to attend school.

Hedy Chang, pictured below, gave a great presentation on Oakland's Attendance Journey, that provided an overview of what OUSD has tried to do to improve attendance.  My main takeaway from her presentation was that we have lots of bright spots and promising practices in OUSD, but they aren't distributed uniformly.  This is partly due to our budgeting process that gives schools a great deal of discretion about how they spend their staffing dollars, which means that some schools invest in staffing to support attendance work with families and some schools do not.

Over the years since OUSD started to make attendance a focus, there has been improvement, but we have plateaued recently.

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The highlight of the day for me was learning from staff at Garfield Elementary School about their practices to strengthen attendance.  What they really emphasize at Garfield is the importance of positive relationships between students and families, and the need for frequent communication between families and the school.  Garfield families meet with teachers five times per year, which is not the norm in OUSD schools.  The trusting relationships that are built between the school and families makes it much easier to have sometimes difficult conversations about student attendance.  I was struck by the amount of time that teachers spend on this, and that teachers must feel strongly about the importance of relationships with families to be willing to put in that kind of time.

Also, Garfield makes strong efforts to recognize all students who show improvement, not just those with perfect attendance, and they put a tremendous amount of time into publicly celebrating student accomplishments around attendance as well as academics.  Their model requires a great deal of staffing in order to reach out to families about their challenges around attendance, and they have a strong school partner in the East Bay Asian Youth Center, which has written successful grants that have allowed Garfield to hire supplemental staff who can support the school around family engagement. 

Garfield's diverse community (and strong commitment to family engagement) means that they have family engagement bodies that meet in Vietnamese, Cantonese, Spanish and English, in addition to an African American Advisory Council.  Most of these committees are staffed by EBAYC staff.  The strong relationships between families and the school are largely a consequence of the numerous opportunities for them to engage, as a result of these bodies.

My main takeaway from the day is that strong work around attendance requires a lot of people, a school community that values and works hard to build strong, inclusive relationships with students and families, and time that allows teachers to reach out to families, while still doing their main work, and a willingness to devote precious minutes during the school day to celebrating students for their attendance.

What I would like to see change in OUSD is to ensure that all schools have adequate staffing for family engagement around attendance, by including such staffing in the base staffing allocation for each school, and to change the incentives for schools to take attendance more seriously.  Every school needs sufficient staffing to build relationships with families that allow us to work with them more closely on attendance issues.

Also, we should ensure that schools that make progress on attendance receive increased funding as a result of their improvement, so that there is a stronger feedback loop between their efforts and the rewards for improvement.  I believe that we should begin to pass along any additional revenues that result from improved attendance directly to the relevant school.

And finally, making progress on attendance requires a sustained focus on the part of the school staff, which in turn requires  stability in school personnel.  This has contributed to Garfield's success, but is still an issue in many of our flatland schools. Seriously addressing attendance is going to require addressing our turnover problem as a district. 


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