Trusted community member helps improve North Marion attendance
On the first morning of school in September, North Marion School District family outreach coordinator Rafael Pelaez talks with junior Juan Lomeli about what he needs to do to be successful this school year. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Rafael Pelaez adds another friendly face to the crowd welcoming students streaming into the commons on North Marion High School’s first day.
Pelaez calls out greetings. Occasionally he pulls a student aside for a few words, offering advice about key classes and letting students know what to expect.
As family outreach coordinator, Pelaez uses daily contacts to combat the North Marion School District’s attendance challenges, particularly with minority students. Students say they appreciate the attention.
“I have someone I can trust,” said freshman Esteban Compos. “I don’t feel alone out there.”
In the past decade, U.S. schools have begun paying more attention to attendance, an indicator for student success and graduation. The Oregon Department of Education recently launched a website, www.every-day-matters.org, to provide information and resources to fight chronic absenteeism.
Nearly 20 percent of Oregon’s students were chronically absent in 2016-17, according to ODE data. ODE 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.
Oregon had the fourth-worst state average for chronically absent students that year, according to a report by Attendance Works, a nonprofit focused on initiatives to reduce chronic absenteeism.
The 2015 Oregon Legislature directed ODE to create a statewide chronic absenteeism plan. The Every Day Matters campaign builds on ODE’s previous efforts, which include adding chronic absenteeism coaches and regional attendance initiative coordinators.
Every Day Matters’ research-backed recommendations include making sure every student has a connection to an adult in school. Many schools have hired family coordinators and advocates to reach marginalized and high-absence students as well as their families.
“Kids who have attendance problems think nobody cares about them,” said North Marion High Vice Principal Ron Holyoak.
Chronic absences, whether excused or not, are tied to poor academic performance, high dropout rates and low graduation rates.
North Marion, located halfway between Portland and Salem, used Measure 98 funds last year to create Pelaez’s position, a cornerstone of the district’s new attendance initiatives.
Pelaez works with grades 8-12, helping them prepare for and handle the demands of high school. Compos said Pelaez warned him that high school would be a lot harder than middle school and that if he missed school, he would fall behind.
“It’s a process,” Pelaez said. “Freshman don’t see it. Juniors start to get the message.”
The district chronic absence rate was 16.6 percent in 2016-17, but as is common nationwide, high schoolers are much more likely to miss school than younger students. North Marion’s rate of chronically absent high school students nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016, from 10.8 percent to 20.3 percent. North Marion High has a little more than 600 students.
Absenteeism tends to be particularly high among students of color. North Marion is nearly 50 percent Latino, and yet the high school front office did not have anyone fluent in Spanish.
Pelaez’s job includes being a liaison to the district’s Latino families, a role he was already filling informally as an English Language Learner instructional assistant. His new job includes translating and home visits.
Pelaez, who was a teacher in Mexico, has worked for the district since 2001. He is also the head soccer coach. He is active in the community, where he has lived for 30 years.
“The kids trust him,” said Cherie Stroud, district director of teaching and learning. “They tell him a lot.”
School board member Bill Graupp said respect and community connections, particularly with communities of color, are essential for a family advocate to be successful. He said Pelaez learns about family problems that affect attendance but that students might not share at school, such as a sibling going to jail.
“Once we find out, we can send help,” Graupp said. “When you engage as a district at a family level, not just at the student level, you re-engage the parents.”
Pelaez said he lets students know he is right behind them to provide support – and keep a watchful eye on them. Constant attention from Pelaez helped steer junior Francisco Hernandez back toward graduation.
“Every time I was late, he would call home,” Hernandez said. “He would warn my mom I was doing bad.”
Hernandez said Pelaez would check on his grades and help at conferences, translating for Hernandez’s mother. Pelaez helped get Hernandez involved with the soccer team, where participation requires steady school attendance.
“He’s keeping me on track,” Hernandez said. “He’s trying to see me succeed.”
ODE’s chronic absenteeism plan includes state support for local action and improving the school environment and data use. ODE is spending about $7 million to spread research-based practices, said Terra Hernandez, ODE chronic absenteeism lead.
The state’s plan also calls for a collaborative approach, engaging community partners and working with districts and other agencies, such as the state Health and Transportation departments, to reduce attendance barriers. Research shows positive messaging to parents and students can increase attendance.
“We are moving away from the blame and shame on parents,” Hernandez said.
When a student has improved his attendance, Pelaez calls parents to let them know the student is doing well. Often, those calls lead to stretches of even better attendance, Pelaez said.
North Marion is paying closer attention to data, starting with ensuring teachers are reliably filling out daily attendance reports. Attendance secretary Anita Whitehead checks with teachers if there are irregularities in attendance reports, such as a student reported absent all day except one period.
With teachers more accurately recording attendance, the high school’s chronic absenteeism rate jumped to 27.2 percent last school year, according to Holyoak.
“Our attendance report didn’t look very good, but it’s accurate,” Whitehead said.
Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy N. Chang said that districts around the country commonly report higher absenteeism as they get better at collecting data but that it is a positive first step.
North Marion has instituted weekly meetings focused on attendance. Administrators discuss every student below 90 percent attendance. They check up personally with students and document steps taken to help.
The district has also found smaller but effective measures, such as having administrators be more visible in parking lots and hallways during passing periods to discourage students who want to duck out.
“We are finding holes in the system where we were losing them,” Holyoak said.
Pelaez helps plug those holes.
He visits homes and directs families to support services and resources. He delivers backpacks of supplies and helps organize donations of food and clothing. He gives rides and hands out his cellphone number so students can call him anytime.
Junior Juan Lomeli said Pelaez would print out his grades and help him identify areas needing focus. That support has boosted Lomeli’s confidence.
“When my grades got low, he helped me do something about it,” Lomeli said. “Somebody actually cared.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA