Grant brings truancy advocates to D51 schools

About 1,000 students in School District 51, some 4.5 percent of the district’s student population, missed school an average of one day a week or more last year, according to District 51 Prevention Coordinator Cathy Haller.

The district hired six full-time employees to attempt to lower that number this year. The new employees, called attendance advocates, are paid through a four-year Expelled and At-Risk Student Services, or EARSS, grant from the state. The grant is worth $233,507 this year and again next year before decreasing to $175,130 in the third year and dropping to $116,754 in the final year, 2015–16. The grant is designed to wean districts off grant dollars in hopes recipient districts will be forced to find ways to continue truancy programs on their own, something Haller believes is doable.

“I don’t see us in the same financial situation in four years. If the state’s in a better place, we’ll be in a better place” financially, she said, adding, “I think (the district) won’t want to see (attendance advocates) go away.”

Central and Grand Junction high schools have two advocates each and Fruita Monument and Palisade high schools each have one advocate. Haller said the district decided to place advocates in high schools first because that’s where truancy rates are highest. While 1 percent of elementary students and 3.5 percent of middle school students, on average, have four or more unexcused absences each month, 10 to 14 percent of District 51 high school students are missing from school 80 percent of the time or more, Haller said. That percentage jumps to 16 to 21 percent among juniors and seniors, who are most likely to be above Colorado’s required attendance age of 17.

Kids 18 and older don’t legally have to come back to school. But Haller hopes attendance advocates will find the root of the problem for those students and their younger, absent counterparts and coax them back to school before they drop out or miss so much school they become lost in class when they do attend. Once those students are in school, Haller said, they can find a plethora of resources to keep them engaged, from tutoring centers and counselors who can get them in the right classes to graduate to alternative education offerings like online classes and the key performance program, which helps students catch up and graduate by building a portfolio and passing tests.

Thinking outside the school


Getting students to school rarely means sitting in an office at a school for the new attendance advocates. Ranleigh Gregory, Palisade High School’s attendance advocate, starts her day by hopping on a Grand Valley Transit bus at the same stop as a student with truancy issues, making sure that student gets to school.

She knows which students skip school at least four-fifths of the time and spends days tracking their attendance and grades and, if she sees them in the hallway, guiding them to class.

Conversations with teachers and administration to help arrange ways for a student who is behind to pass a class through extra work or some other agreement are also part of the job, as are home visits and phone calls with parents.

“I had four kids not going to class. Some parents knew and some didn’t. But now that I’ve talked with the parents, they’ve been calling me, asking, ‘Did he get to class?’ ‘Did she turn that paper in?’ Once you have that one-on-one relationship, they’re so happy to know someone’s on their side,” Gregory said.

Kim Bohrer and Debbie Miller, attendance advocates at Central High School, said giving parents a sympathetic ear can get them more interested in school and help advocates find the source of a student’s truancy. Miller said she found out from one mother that a girl who had been taking the bus to school and then not going to class had been teased and felt insecure about her weight. Bohrer got the girl a new backpack and other items and walks behind her to class and gives her a thumbs up and a smile to encourage her.

“She was very disengaged. Now, two days in, she’s been going to school, smiling and excited,” Miller said. “Counselors told me they’d never met mom or dad in three years and this week the whole family came to parent-teacher conferences.”

Advocates also reach out to the students themselves. Larry LeFebre and Barbara DeLosa, attendance advocates at Grand Junction High, said they sometimes track down students who hang out at fast food restaurants near the high school just to let them know they’re not in trouble but the advocates are available if they need help returning to school. In another instance, DeLosa found one student wasn’t attending class because his mom has cancer and had no way to get him to school between treatments. DeLosa told the mom about local services that may be able to assist her.

Fruita Monument High and Fruita 8/9 School advocate Lisa Will said the reasons students aren’t in school are as varied as the places to find them during school hours.

She said living in Fruita the last 11 years helps parents and students trust her. Each advocate aside from LeFebre worked in District 51 in another position before taking on long hours as an advocate.

“It’s non-stop. We’re there when the gates open and I’m taking calls at 9 at night,” Will said.


‘They need this’


As director of District 51’s attendance office, Fred Bolton’s job is to intervene when students 17 and under are missing school. With the EARSS grant, Bolton said he may see fewer students getting to the point of needing that intervention if they are identified and helped early. He doesn’t expect the grant to put him out of a job, though.

“When you get down to about 3 percent (truancy), that’s about as good as you’re going to get,” he said.

Bolton said he expects the grant will improve attendance by offering more support with school buildings. Haller said she expects attendance to improve immediately with six people paying attention to the issue. Grades may follow, she predicted, but not as quickly.

“Grades are a little slower to come along but I think we will see an increase within the first semester because if they’re in school, they’re being taught,” Haller said.

Haller said she has more hope for this program than one that fell to budget cuts this year, LEAG, which stands for Leadership for Education, Achievement and Graduation. Data and progress reports weren’t often requested of LEAG advocates, but Haller said attendance advocates, as a condition of the grant, have to log attendance and advocate interactions with truant students every day and check the students’ grades each week. The district is required to report that data and progress of the program over the four-year grant period.


Every kid is important


Some may question the importance of attendance advocates when the district just finished a fourth budget-cutting cycle.

But EARSS grant funding cannot be used for anything other than truancy, dropout and expulsion prevention, Haller said. And she believes the advocates’ presence will change school culture.

“Way down the line of importance is that it may impact graduation and dropout numbers,” Haller said. “What’s important to us is every kid is important. What we do now is going to impact what they can do. It gives them the power in what their future looks like.”

Bohrer said she hasn’t heard any push-back in cash-strapped schools.

“What we’ve heard from everybody is they’re so happy to have us. They need this,” she said.


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