Fairview Elementary School third-grader Genaro Ortiz, 8, is so eager to go to school every day that he has perfect attendance this year.
“He wants to be here at 7 a.m.,” his mother Elizabeth Ortiz said.
It wasn’t always so.
Genaro missed so many days of school last year that officials paid a home visit to find out what was keeping him away.
They learned that his grandparents had been taking him to school while his mother left early for her district manager job with a lending company, and Genaro sometimes would not cooperate.
“They discussed the outcome of absences and what could become of it,” his mother said. “We definitely decided there needed to be some changes.”
The officials, called “technicians,” are part of the new Student Advocacy and Family Engagement team at Visalia Unified School District. The team works with families of students missing too many days, or underachieving in school due to distractions at home such as their parents going through a divorce.
The techs told Genaro about a contest for students who have perfect attendance: they get their names put into a drawing for a new bicycle.
Genaro got excited about the bicycle contest, and although he didn’t win, he got another reward: a certificate for being the most improved reader in his class.
“It’s the first award he’s gotten,” his mother said. “He’s very motivated now.”
Not all cases are as easy to solve as Genaro’s. Technician Ramon Lugo said he often finds that parents don’t truly understand the consequences of poor attendance or falling behind.
“It’s a wake-up call,” he said. “We’re not here to be mean to them. We help the parents establish a routine.”
Improving student attendance means more money for districts, which are provided funds for the days students are in class — not the days they are absent. But the purpose of the project is not to boost revenues but to improve student academic success, said Jim Sullivan, director of state and federal programs at Visalia Unified.
He said a study showed that 43% of students who miss more than nine days of school each year in both kindergarten and first grade are reading below grade level after third grade. Studies have shown that students who are falling behind by the end of third grade are more at risk of dropping out later.
Visalia’s Student Advocacy and Family Engagement project is in its first year and costing the district $1.1 million.
The district set aside funds provided through the Local Control Funding Formula, a state initiative to improve academic achievement among students from poor families, English learners and foster youths by giving districts greater flexibility in funding tailored programs.
The SAFE project consists of 25 bilingual technicians, one for each elementary school in Visalia, and four who are assigned to the district office.
Technicians work with parents and students to try to solve whatever family problems stand in the way of getting to school every day or achieving academic success, Sullivan said.
“The goal is for the family to be self-sufficient,” he said.
If a family is too poor to buy clothes, the technician will contact the Assistance League, a local nonprofit whose Operation School Bell program supplies school clothes to children in need.
If a family member is ill, technicians will provide information about health providers such as Family Health Care Network and assist with the enrollment process, with the expectation that families can get help on their own the next time.
If the family has no safe place for the child to go after school, maybe an after-school program or a city recreation department program is the answer.
The project was designed by Visalia Unified and copies a strategy used successfully by the district’s migrant and American Indian education program, he said, adding that he thinks it might be unique in the Valley.
Education administrators around the state are paying attention to attendance problems, because elementary students who miss 10% or more of the school year are at risk of dropping out in high school, said David Kopperud, an education programs consultant at the California Department of Education.
“Hiring extra people to do home visits is something that can be done and is being done,” he said, particularly in Del Norte and San Bernardino counties.
Initial results from Visalia Unified’s project are promising, Sullivan said.
Last year, 17 elementary schools had lower attendance compared to a year earlier at the same time of year. But this year, only four schools have lower attendance.
“It shows we are making a difference,” he said.