Tribal project’s family advocates help students connect with school, improve attendance
Warm Springs K-8 Academy fourth-grader Damitri Smith likes being at school every day now because “we have lots of fun here.” Smith developed better school habits with the help of Warm Springs’ family advocate Tony Cortazar, who was hired as part of the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Fourth-grader Damitri Smith is proud of himself. He wakes up at 7 a.m. and gets himself ready to walk to school every day. He doesn’t want to be late or miss a day.
“School is important so you can learn,” he said.
Last year was a different story. He missed school frequently, preferring to hang out at the nearby Warm Springs community center.
Tony Cortazar, the Warm Springs K-8 Academy family advocate, would go get him, and they would talk about why Smith needed to be at school.
“It was pretty helpful for me to find out how school was important,” Smith said. “He made me feel like it was good to come to school.”
The Jefferson County School District in central Oregon hired Cortazar under the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project, a district and tribal collaboration to raise the attendance of Native American and Alaska American students. Early Warm Springs data show year-over-year improvements by cohorts, and administrators point to individual success stories like Smith’s.
Although the program is focused on Native American students, districts say students schoolwide benefit.
Oregon’s overall absentee rate was 19.7 percent in 2016-17. The Oregon Department of Education defines chronically absent as missing 10 percent or more of school days between the school year’s start and the first school day in May. Native Americans’ 30.6 percent chronic absenteeism rate was the highest among Oregon subgroups, and Native Americans tend to have among the highest absenteeism rates in the country.
Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes identified 17 schools in nine districts to participate in TAPP, beginning with the 2016-17 school year. The Legislature allotted $1.55 million to the program for 2017-19 to hire family advocates and institute measures to improve attendance.
Oregon has the fourth-highest state-average rate of chronic absenteeism, according to a recent study by Attendance Works, a nonprofit focused on initiatives to reduce chronic absenteeism.
Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy N. Chang, co-author of the report, pointed to TAPP as an example of how states can address tribal issues and broader attendance problems.
“When you have high levels of chronic absence, it’s not just the kids who are absent who are affected,” she said. Classes are disrupted, and teachers must adjust lesson plans to keep students caught up.
ODE Indian Education Specialist Ramona Halcomb said the advocates develop research-backed, school-specific attendance initiatives, such as developing good habits in the early grades, positive reinforcement and engaging families in students’ education.
Schools offer rewards for even short periods of good attendance. Advocates also look for better ways to track attendance and communicate positively with parents, such as phone calls home to let parents know their child is doing well. Some measures are as simple as stationing adults in hallways to high-five students as they arrive, Halcomb said.
“Our strategies are low-cost, but they are high-value and they are about people,” she said.
ODE plans to share TAPP’s best practices. Of the 17 TAPP schools, 10 reduced chronic absenteeism in the first year, according to Halcomb.
The Pendleton School District used Tribal Attendance Pilot Project funds to post all Washington Elementary’s signs in Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu to show the district values Native culture and heritage. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The Pendleton School District uses its TAPP funds at Washington Elementary, where most of the district’s Native American students attend. The school holds monthly family meetings, with dinners, awards and speakers.
Washington Elementary parent Kelley Spencer says that her son Karter, a third-grader, looks forward to the meetings and that they get him excited about good attendance.
“It’s a good camaraderie for the parents and the kids,” she said.
Matt Yoshioka, Pendleton School District director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said it was important to get families in the building so they could feel comfortable, learn about resources and make connections.
The district’s TAPP family advocate, Stacey Jacobs, checks attendance every day and calls if a student isn’t there. She offers small prizes for all sorts of attendance achievements, and the school has big traveling trophies for classrooms with the best attendance.
Yoshioka said the district has seen individual success stories and encouraging trends but cautioned that dramatic results are unlikely to show up quickly in school data. Even though many students who had been missing the most days significantly improve their attendance, they often still miss enough days that they are considered chronically absent, he said.
“To change and improve the Native American attendance gaps, it will take a program like this to be sustained for a generation,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time to rebuild relationships and trust with some of our Native American families and our education system.”
Historically, tribes have had troubled interactions with U.S. schools, but Oregon tribal representatives praise the program.
Molly Hockema, higher education coordinator for the Coquille Indian Tribe, said the program is respectful of tribes and is having a positive community impact. She appreciates that the family advocate works closely with families and looks for underlying absenteeism causes.
Bev Youngman, programs manager for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, said the family advocate coordinates with outside resources, including the tribe. She said the program was helping the relationship between the district and the tribe.
School districts are also seeing broader benefits.
Pendleton School Board Chair Dale Freeman said TAPP has helped the board develop family supportive polices for the rest of the district.
“If you get all those services working together in one location, you’re going to have a lot of success,” he said. “It’s helped even our non-Native students attend better.”
Jefferson County School District Superintendent Ken Parshall said TAPP had taught the district lessons about family engagement and removing barriers.
“You start looking at it and you discover this is a dynamic at other schools,” he said.
Warm Springs kindergarten teacher Renee Rodin said Cortazar, who has lived in the community for nearly 30 years, helps teachers reach out to families, taking some of the time and stress of those contacts off teachers. She said Cortazar’s community connections help him find chronically absent students and their families whom she could not find on her own.
Cortazar has instituted positive awareness campaigns, such as the “89 Percent Club” last school year. With less than a month of school left, he alerted 58 students and their families that they had an 89 percent attendance rate. If they didn’t miss another day of school, they could raise their attendance out of the chronic absence category. He offered prizes and encouragement, and 38 made the goal.
Warm Springs K-8 Academy Fourth-grader Yadira Stacona says it’s important for her to go to school so she can earn a college scholarship and play sports or study to become a doctor. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Fourth-grader Yadira Stacona started her school career missing a lot of school. Cortazar would talk with her regularly and give her little prizes, such as candy. Stacona said he helped her understand the importance of school. Last school year she had nearly perfect attendance.
“I’m growing up, and it’s important not to miss school,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA