This East Bay school district’s success in getting kids to school is a model for the state

KALW Local Public Radio, Lee Romney
Pittsburg Unified School District

Research shows that missing 10 percent or more days a year really sets students back academically. And schools are finding when they dig into chronic absenteeism, they often learn about deeper problems impacting students, like illness, family crisis, or homelessness.

About 40 miles east of San Francisco, the Pittsburg Unified School District tracks chronic absentees and uses the data to educate families about the importance of attendance — and offer them all kinds of support to help kids get to school on time each day.

It seems to be working. But boosting attendance for the most challenged students is a slow process.

Family challenges, and pride

Inside a cavernous auditorium here, more than 250 students are being celebrated. Not a single one of them has missed school or even been late to class — for at least a year and in some cases far longer.

One student, now a freshman at UC Riverside, gets a huge trophy for twelve years without even a single tardy. After all the applause and on-stage kudos, families mingle in the lobby, snapping pictures of their kids in front of a giant wooden statue of a pirate, the High School’s mascot.

Geronimo Silva is among them. Two of his three daughters are wearing lace dresses. He counts them off from eldest to youngest. Evelyn has had seven years of perfect attendance, then comes Lesley, with four, and little Daisy, with one. Getting them to school is tricky for Silva’s wife, he tells me. She takes each girl to a different school, and Silva can’t help — because he works two jobs and is out of the house from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.

This evening, he got special permission to be here.

“I’m very, very proud,” he says.

Like the Silvas, many of Pittsburg Unified School District’s families face challenges. Nearly three-fourths of the students here receive free or reduced-price lunches. Nearly a third are English learners. Plenty of parents lack transportation.

ReJois Frazier Myers, the district’s student services director, has led the push to reduce absenteeism. She just got done handing out certificates to all those “scholars” with perfect attendance. That’s what she calls them.

“This community is a community that’s stereotyped as not being successful, because of the population,” says Frazier-Myers.

Now 67, Frazier-Myers was raised in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, and later returned with a doctorate to start a school there.

She came to Pittsburg, California, she says, because she believes in its “extremely high potential … My mission is, education is power. And the only way each and every one of our young people can be empowered is by being on time every day so that they can acquire all the necessary skills to be successful.”

Pittsburg Unified has stepped up efforts to combat chronic absenteeism as a growing number of states recognize that doing so is key to boosting achievement and improving equity.

California defines the measure as missing more than 10 percent of school days in a year, because research shows that missing that much school is a really strong indicator of future academic trouble. It reduces the likelihood that students will be able to read by third grade, and increases the likelihood that students will drop out in high school.

And there are disproportionately higher rates of chronic absenteeism among students living in poverty, most students of color, and students with disabilities.

Three years ago, California directed its school districts to use chronic absence as a measure of student engagement in their local funding plans. But it only began gathering data last year. That data, released last week, showed that one in ten students statewide were chronically absent in the 2016-17 school year.  (To search for your school’s statistics by grade level, check out this EdSource database.)

California has also joined 35 other states and the District of Columbia in including chronic absenteeism in its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal blueprint for education that goes into effect next fall.

The metric will serve as an added academic indicator for grades K–8, "given its strong correlation with future academic attainment.”

Get on up

Three years ago, Janet Schulze, the new superintendent in Pittsburg, directed more resources to improving attendance — and the district recently won a state award for its work. Parent liaisons at every school now track student absences and tardies in real time and reach out to families that are starting to slip.

Lourdes Flores was on the receiving end of that scrutiny. She’s the grandmother and legal guardian of Rodolfo Gutierrez, a shy, round-faced eight-year-old with a soft buzz cut and — until pretty recently — a huge aversion to getting up in the morning.

Flores says it was bad. She had to get Rodolfo up by force, practically pull him out of bed, she tells me while sitting in her Pittsburg living room, a framed photo behind her of Rodolfo cross-legged on a soccer field.

“We started arriving later and later and Rodolfo was always angry. ‘I don’t like it,’ ‘I don’t want to go,’” she explains.

Rodolfo’s school, Marina Vista Elementary, first noticed he was having some trouble getting there on time nearly two years ago, when he was in 1st grade. So the school started their interventions. Principal Kirsten Wollenweber-Portis says the school invites parents of kids who are showing early signs of attendance problems to a meeting.

Each family member gets a folder containing their student’s data, comparing their child’s attendance and academics with the district, state and nation, she explains, “showing them how many absences they have, and then where they are academically, especially with their reading scores, because there’s a huge correlation.”

But Flores didn’t make it to the school’s group parent meeting, and a one-on-one at the principal’s office didn’t improve Rodolfo’s attendance.

So the school went to them.

“And so then we did a home visit,” Wollenweber-Portis says, “and went to go speak with her and Rodolfo about what was going on, offering support strategies for getting him here on time.”

Accompanying her was the school’s parent liaison and one of the school district’s child welfare and attendance workers.

They found out that Flores had injured her foot and couldn’t drive, and that she was overwhelmed at home with Rodolfo and his little sister, who she’s also raising. She says she really tried to turn things around, but Rodolfo kept fighting her.

“Until the paper arrived from the district and we had to go before the board,” she says.

That board is the Student Attendance Review Board, also known as SARBs. All schools are required by state law to have them. The state Department of Education says they recognized Pittsburg for having a really effective SARB that offers a lot of support to students and families — and for pushing the attendance message and flagging trouble early on.

Flores and Rodolfo appeared before the Pittsburg SARB last spring. I pop in on a fall afternoon to see how it works. It’s a confidential process, in which parents and students come in to sit with district and school officials, and with community members, such as faith leaders, business owners, mental-health counselors, and representatives from after-school programs.

Enforcement and support

Their mission is to help solve whatever problem is keeping a student out of school. A prosecutor sits on all the SARBs in Contra Costa County for the same reason. She will take cases to a special court if all else fails.

But Frazier-Myers says that’s really rare.

“Going to court, that’s our last resort,” she says, “and then when we go to court, the court gives resources.”

On the day that I visit, a single mom explains her son missed 20 days of kindergarten last spring because she was working a graveyard shift in San Francisco. And this fall he had the flu.

Board members tell her kindergarten and first grade are crucial to a child’s learning. She agrees take a parenting class and make getting her little boy to school her top priority.

Next up is a fifth-grader who missed six weeks of school last year and nine days so far this fall, and logged dozens of tardies. The board learns he was severely burned in an accident and is struggling with lifelong incontinence.

His grandmother explains that she needs to wrap him every morning in special bandages. But “sometimes, he’ll get dressed and everything and then he would have an accident and we have to wrap him all over again.”

The boy is also being bullied at school, she explains.

Flores says that appearing before the board with Rodolfo last spring made all the difference.  They both signed contracts. Flores promised to attend parenting classes, which are free and offer dinner and childcare. She says they helped her learn how to reward her grandson for good behavior.

In his contract, Rodolfo pledged to start getting up on time, and dressing and bathing himself. The consequences if he didn’t?

“I told him,” Flores recounts, “‘Listen, it’s the parents who go to jail so in our case it’s gonna be me because I’m in charge of you, so, do you want to see your grandmother in jail?’ No ... so what are we going to do about it?”  

What Rodolfo did was step up his game. I show up at his house at 7:20 one morning, not long before Halloween. He’s already dressed. He grabs his backpack from the closet and whispers that he’s proud of himself. He doesn’t want to wake his four-year-old sister.

Rodolfo’s mom, Mirna Garcia, has come and gone over the years. But for the past six months she’s been living at home, helping with the kids.

She says she’s impressed with the district’s heavy emphasis on attendance. She’s 26 now and attended Pittsburg schools too.

“It was way different when I was going to school,” she says. “I feel like he’s been learning more now that he’s not missing school so much.”

Rodolfo’s ordeal has also inspired her.

“I didn’t finish school,” she says. “I still need to. I need to so I can be able to be like, ‘You know what I finished school,’ so that he would have to. You know? There’s no excuse.”

Focus on the family

It’s mom’s turn to take Rodolfo to school. We pile in the minivan and Rodolfo gets to Marina Vista 15 minutes early. In the hallway there are posters about the importance of getting here on time, all the time. A sandwich board near the principal’s office changes each day to show which classes had perfect attendance. They get a letter, and when they spell out Marina Vista, they get a party.  

Rodolfo heads to the cafeteria, buzzing with kids. The district schools provide free breakfast for all — another incentive to come to school on time.  When he gets to class, his teacher is pleased.

It’s mom’s turn to take Rodolfo to school. We pile in the minivan and Rodolfo gets to Marina Vista 15 minutes early. In the hallway there are posters about the importance of getting here on time, all the time. A sandwich board near the principal’s office changes each day to show which classes had perfect attendance. They get a letter, and when they spell out Marina Vista, they get a party.  

Rodolfo heads to the cafeteria, buzzing with kids. The district schools provide free breakfast for all — another incentive to come to school on time.  When he gets to class, his teacher is pleased.

She looks around, counting faces.

“Alright ... who’s not here? ... I saw Candace. Yes!” she exclaims, “Everyone’s here!”

She dives into a spelling lesson and Rodolfo’s right there with her, with his hand up.

So how is Pittsburg Unified doing? That’s a complicated question.

When the district entered its Student Attendance Review Board in the state competition early this year, it reported a 21 percent drop in the raw numbers of students deemed chronically absent between fall 2014 to fall of 2016.

But chronic absenteeism rates must take into account the number of days that students are enrolled. That rate, the district now says, is much more modest — a 2.3 percent reduction over the past three years.

Nevertheless, David Kopperud, who chairs the state SARB and helped choose awardees, says Pittsburg Unified was honored for its range of interventions to reach out to families, and its barrage of messages and celebrations of good attendance.

He says that for a high-poverty district, a 2.3 percent drop over three years is good.

“They’re moving in the right direction,” he says, adding that reversing attendance challenges is “a big ship to turn around.”

For families like Rodolfo’s, though, the difference is pronounced. Rodolfo’s had no absences this year. That’s down from more than three dozen in first grade. His principal, Kirsten Wollenweber-Portis, is proud.

“I’m excited for him and excited for grandma,” she says, “because I know she’s been stressed about it.”

She plans to honor Rodolfo soon at an awards assembly — with a special certificate and a medal for “Most Improved Attendance.”

That’s just one of a whole bunch of rewards that Pittsburg schools now offer to students who show up consistently. If Rodolfo keeps it up, he and grandma will both be honored at an ice cream social in the spring.

And maybe, in a year, Rodolfo will be celebrated in that big auditorium.

He can even slip up — a little bit.

The evening after the October perfect attendance event in the big Pittsburg High School auditorium, another group of kids filed onto the stage for the first time to get certificates, too.

They were the nearly-perfects, who’d only missed school or been late four times in a year — and there were 853 of them. Combined with the perfects, that’s 10 percent of the student body. Not bad, Frazier-Myers says, considering her first ceremony a dozen years ago. She held it in a room at the district office, and gave out just four certificates.