Home Education Chronically absent… HMS struggles to get kids to school to learn

Chronically absent… HMS struggles to get kids to school to learn

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Chronically absent

HMS, other districts struggle to get kids to school to learn

Andy Brosig/News-Sun

Making sure students are in the classroom where they can learn is an ongoing battle parents and school officials fight every day.

And, in some cases, it’s an uphill battle, local school officials say.

In Hobbs, for example, students miss an average of 17 days per year, said LaShawn Byrd, deputy director for data analysis in the Hobbs Municipal Schools.

“I think we have a little higher rate of students missing school,” Byrd told the News-Sun recently. “It’s as big an issue here as it is anywhere else (but) it’s a little bit worse now than it was probably prior to the pandemic.”

With 10,650 students reported in the 2022-23 school year — the last year for which data is available from the New Mexico Public Education Department — the overall absentee rate was 36.11 percent.

That compares to statewide numbers, with 39.22 percent of New Mexico’s 342,357 students absent on average during the 2022-23 academic year.

School districts across the state regularly report the number of students missing school to PED, which tracks and ranks districts annually based on a number of criteria including attendance.

And how absences are handled differ between local districts and the state.

A law passed in 2019 changed the way the state qualifies absences. Prior to the so-called Attendance for Success act, which went into effect in 2020, the state differentiated between excused and unexcused absences.

But no more.

Parents could call the local district, for example, and have their student excused for a variety of reasons, including doctor appointments and funerals. Today, while local districts still allow students to miss part or all of the school day for those and other legitimate reasons, the state doesn’t differentiate.

“The way the law views it now is if you’re missing instruction, you’re missing instruction, regardless of the reason,” Byrd said. “As a district we still allow parents to call in or bring doctor’s notes to excuse absences. Most districts in the state do.”

The greatest rates of absenteeism in Hobbs Schools are at opposite ends of the educational spectrum, she said.

Kindergarteners and high school seniors chronically have the worst attendance record across all the grades in Hobbs.

“And it trickles down from there,” Byrd said. “Secondary has higher absentee rates (because) there’s less control by the parents in terms of making sure kids are in school.

“In my 23 years in education, attendance has always been a push. But I will say having more than 30 percent, more than a third of the students absent, is alarming.”

And school funding is directly related to attendance numbers through a complex formula that allocates so many dollars per full time student.

There’s no financial penalty to districts based on chronic absenteeism, which the state classifies as missing 10 percent or more days per year, Byrd said. But, with New Mexico schools ranked dead last in education in the country, there are deeper concerns than dollars and cents, she said.

“We do know that poor grades typically go with poor attendance,” Byrd said. “Poor attendance can be a symptom of other (negative) behaviors.”

Another thing changed with the Attendance for Success Act was doing away with truancy officers and the school district’s ability to hold parents legally responsible for their children being in school.

Jason Parrish, head principal at Hobbs High School, told the News-Sun last month there’s “no teeth” in current school attendance regulation. Byrd, a former campus principal herself, agreed.

“When I was a principal, students who were chronically absent, who met certain conditions and we’d try to intervene, we could refer them to district court and the Juvenile Probation Office,” she said. “Since Attendance for Success came out … it changed that. Now it has to go through” Children, Youth and Families Department.

“We used to have truancy court, there used to be things we could do,” she said. “Sometimes, when it came down to the end, the district attorney would decline to prosecute parents but at least there was a threat that we meant business and that (attendance) is important.”

To replace truancy officers and truancy court, Hobbs School instituted a group that counsels parents and students on the importance of being in school and how to break down barriers to regular attendance, said Gene Strickland, Hobbs Superintendent of Schools.

These Parent Attendance Liaisons, “bring about a different discussion and different process on how we deal with kids and their families.

“Absenteeism is probably no better or no worse (in Hobbs) than in other areas of the state. But we have very little control over getting kids to school. That’s the most difficult part (but) we’re an educational institution not an attendance institution.”

Donna Jones, deputy director for secondary education for Hobbs Schools, agreed.

Before the laws changed, doing away with compulsory school attendance and the possibility of serious consequences for parents and students if kids weren’t in school, the system in Hobbs worked better, she said.

“Locally to us we had an effective truancy court,” Jones said. “When a child was chronically absent, habitually truant, we were able to refer them to the local magistrate court.”

Truancy court judges could take a variety of actions to curb chronic absence, said Solia Loya, one of the Parent Attendance Liaisons, or PALs, in the district.

With the advent of Attendance for Success, the number of PALs in the Hobbs Schools increased to 10 people who once would have been called truancy officers.

Loya is one of the group who was brought on board when the act went into affect, but she’s worked as an attendance secretary — the person responsible for tracking and reporting who’s in school and who’s not — for most of the past 20 years, she said.

“We’re there to assist, suggest, help to determine what’s going on, why children aren’t coming to school,” Loya said. “What resources are there for that family. What can we do to help them come back to school.”

Loya works at Highland Middle School on North Jefferson Street which, with an enrollment of 824 students, has a cumulative absentee rate of 27 percent as of the 120th day of school, according to data Byrd presented to the Hobbs Board of Education in March.

Before the change, judges could penalize parents with fines, and put the children on legal probation through the Juvenile Probation Office. Parents could be charged with educational neglect and, in extreme cases, the state’s Income Support Division which manages state financial aid could cut off funds to the worst offenders, Loya said.

“When I started (in education) in the late 1990s, attendance secretaries would make reports to the Juvenile Probation Office or the Juvenile Community Corrections program,” she said. “If (families) were getting public assistance money the state could remove that income support and parents would have their kids in school the next day.”

But all those tools were stripped away and the district is greatly limited on what it can do today.

“This is all up north,” Loya said. “I can’t remember what year it was but the state took that power away. They said we couldn’t take their public assistance away.”

And some parents have learned to “play” the system, taking advantage of the limited enforcement options left to school districts in New Mexico. Loya remembers one parent who’s daughter was chronically absent.

“He just said, ‘Do what you have to do,’” she said. “They know the system.”

Today, HMS uses a four-tiered system to address absenteeism.

It starts with contacting the parent or guardian of students who are absent less than 5 percent of the time, informing them their children weren’t in school.

For those absent 5 percent to 9.99 percent, the school schedules a phone conference with parents and students.

At 10 percent and more, there’s an in-person conference where staff discuss interventions and strategies with the family and a school attendance team and the campus principal may be involved.

Only with the worse offenders, students missing 20 percent of school or more, can officials refer the student and family to Juvenile Probation and to a specialist from the state Children, Youth and Family Department.

“Educational neglect is (still) the charge,” Loya said. “But we have to have reasonable suspicion to get CYFD involved.

“There have to be other things going on in the home. We have to be to prove not only educational neglect but other things” such as drug use or physical or sexual abuse.”

In the absence of straight-forward consequences to children not being in school, the district has adopted a more proactive approach to attendance and truancy.

Rosa Paz, a PALs officer at the elementary level, said the group focuses more on rewarding students who show good attendance habits, the idea being positive reinforcement making kids want to be in class regularly.

The PALs group started this year with a pep rally in September, featuring the Hobbs High School band, football players, cheerleaders and more praising students and talking about the importance of being in school.

They also host weekly, monthly and quarterly competitions to reward schools and even individual classes with the highest attendance numbers.

“One school has an attendance trophy, traveling weekly,” Paz said. “The class with the highest attendance gets to display the trophy in their room for the week. And we provide goodies, extra recess, help the principal or help the teacher days for perfect attendance.

The PALs this year also started working with local restaurant Texas Roadhouse to host special lunch outing to reward perfect attendance, she said. And some schools host special days for parents to come into the classroom for arts and crafts events or to watch movies with their kids to entice parents to become more involved in addressing the attendance issues.

But barriers still remain, particularly at the elementary level, where transportation seems to be the biggest issue, Paz and Loya said. With the youngest students who can’t walk to school alone, if a parent’s car has a flat and they don’t have the money to get it fixed, that makes it difficult for them to get to school, they said.

“Another one is clean clothes,” Paz said. “We have parents call and say they don’t have the money to buy new clothes. We also have parents who are off work one day a week and have to keep the kids home with them.”

To address those concerns, the PALs are working with the local United Way of Lea County to put parents in touch with local non-profits who can help with car repairs, clothing and more to break down those barriers and encourage parents to get their kids to school.

“We’ve tried to come up with so many things, what we can do and how we can help (parents) get their kids back in school,” Loya said. “Elementary kids can’t help it if their parents can’t get them to school. Other kids, the older kids, can walk if there isn’t a bus, they can catch a ride, is there anybody in their neighborhood who can host a car pool?

“We’re trying to implement what can we do to make (students) successful and get them back on track? They need an education and if they’re missing school, they’re missing out on that. They’re missing so much.”

And there are still parents out there who got used to their children learning from home during the school shutdown implemented by the governor in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and still insist that’s a viable option when their students aren’t in school for whatever reason, Loya said.

Breaking down that belief is a big part of the mindset change school officials say is necessary to even start to curb the absenteeism issue.

“We’re trying to push and let them know (students) need to be here to get instruction physically,” Loya said. “Not only for that but for the social interaction to help them get back into the groove of getting back to school.”

 

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