How L.A. gets kids to show up at school

Schools in Los Angeles have strict consequences for truancy and tardiness, and rewards and recognition for good attendance. What can Buffalo learn?

How L.A. gets kids to show up at school

Schools in Los Angeles have strict consequences for truancy and tardiness, and rewards and recognition for good attendance. What can Buffalo learn?

Photography by Robert Kirkham / Buffalo News

LOS ANGELES — On the Friday before a three-day weekend, Jose Torres and Fabiola Gutierrez stand in the foyer of Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, generously dispensing smiles, encouraging words, pats on the back — and candy.

“Be back on Tuesday, ready to learn,” Gutierrez, the attendance improvement counselor, says to one student after another, pressing a lollipop into each student’s hand. “Enjoy your three-day weekend. Do not take a four-day weekend.”

“Happy Friday,” Torres, the principal, says to one boy, patting him on the shoulder and handing him a small pack of licorice.

Attendance counselor Fabiola Gutierrez, left, and principal Jose Torres, center, hand out candy to students who arrive on time.

Lincoln High School schedules such incentives at regular intervals to encourage students to come to school — specifically, to miss no more than seven days each year — and reward those who attend regularly.

Incentives help. So does accountability.

At 8:03 a.m., the tardy bell rings. Candy is gone — now come consequences.

Torres and Jorge Sanchez, the dean of students — who is wearing his own Lincoln varsity jacket from ’84 — each pulls out an iPhone. On each screen: trueID, an app that taps into the school’s student data system. Enter a student’s date of birth, verify the name, and that student is officially marked as late for the day.

After five tardies, a student must serve a Tuesday afternoon detention. Any students skipping out on detention can’t participate in sports or other after-school activities. They’re also likely to find themselves assigned to a four-hour Saturday detention, picking up trash on the school grounds, alongside Sanchez, who grew up in a rough neighborhood not far from the school. Seniors with unserved detentions cannot walk across the stage at graduation.

Bigger consequences have been meted out, too.

For nearly two decades, a Los Angeles law has made it illegal for minors to be in any public place other than school from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on school days. Police officers wrote tens of thousands of truancy tickets a year. Students not only had to appear in court during the day with a parent, but also faced fines in the hundreds of dollars. Those who failed to pay their fines would be unable to get their driver’s license.

Schools everywhere know that the road to increasing graduation rates lies through improving student attendance. And when fewer students are in school during the day, more are likely to get into mischief, which can create disruptions and even increased crime in the area.

The Los Angeles and Buffalo school districts both tackled student absenteeism a few years ago. Both districts have been moving from a punitive system to one that instead seeks to identify underlying factors that cause students to miss school and offer supports to students and their families.

In Buffalo, attendance has remained about the same since those efforts began: More than four out of 10 students still miss a month or more of school every year.

In Los Angeles, there has been progress in the most struggling schools, as well as in the district as a whole: Seven out of 10 L.A. students miss seven or fewer days a year, compared to Buffalo, where fewer than three out of 10 students miss nine or fewer days.

Some of Los Angeles’ strategy mirrors what Buffalo attempted. But key differences separate the two districts:

• Los Angeles has clearly defined and publicized its districtwide goals for improving attendance. Buffalo has signaled that attendance is important, but it has not set any goals. The district leaves it largely up to each school to decide how to tackle the problem.

• Both districts offer incentives and rewards for good attendance. But in Los Angeles, those occur at regular intervals. In Buffalo, each school does what it can, when it can.

• While Buffalo has almost no consequences for students who miss lots of school, Los Angeles’ consequences are clear — from detention for the tardy to community service or fines for those caught skipping.

• Los Angeles has devoted more resources to its efforts. In a best-case scenario in Buffalo, for instance, one attendance teacher splits time between two schools; in L.A., some schools have two attendance improvement counselors.

Different consequences exist at the district level, too. The Los Angeles Unified School District faces financial penalties for every student who misses school, unlike the Buffalo Public Schools, due to differences in the ways that California and New York disperse aid to districts.

Certainly, Los Angeles has had its share of challenges in trying to find the middle path between holding students accountable and being overly punitive, along with trying to address inequities in its attendance enforcement. For nearly two decades, truancy tickets have been given disproportionately to students of color. And over the past few years, community activists upset by the inequities successfully pushed local leaders to change laws and practices.

Still, in Los Angeles — unlike in Buffalo — consequences remain an integral element in addressing student absenteeism.

Attendance as priority

Four years ago, on his first day at the helm in Los Angeles, then-Superintendent John Deasy outlined his top priorities. Among them: increasing student attendance.

When he took the job, 60 percent of Los Angeles students had “proficient attendance” — meaning they missed no more than seven days of school in a year. By two years ago, he wanted 76 percent of students to have proficient attendance.

Los Angeles fell short of that goal — it reached 71 percent — but that was still well over twice the percentage of students in Buffalo who reached the same benchmark.

Los Angeles began by setting clear goals for attendance and educating students about the need to miss no more than seven days. That was paired with an aggressive series of incentives and rewards for good attendance, with the district at one point even giving a new car to a student with perfect attendance.

Fabiola Gutierrez, an attendance improvement counselor, encourages students to get inside before the final call for classes.

Los Angeles also devoted resources to a few dozen schools where attendance was worst. Four years ago, the district introduced its Attendance Improvement Program, which placed counselors — trained social workers — in 52 elementary schools and 25 high schools, about 10 percent of the district’s schools. Counselors focused on two grades where attendance was worst: kindergarten and ninth grade.

A data-driven alert system flags a student once attendance falls below 90 percent. The schools drill down into that student’s situation to identify patterns of absenteeism and look for causes. Then counselors work with parents and students to provide resources, with the goal of improving attendance and ultimately working toward graduation.

“We try to provide support. That’s what we’ve found is most effective,” said Erika Torres, director of pupil services for the Los Angeles schools. “If we identify our kids early on, we can target our resources.”

Both kindergarten and ninth grade are key transition years. Among children who have not been in preschool or day care, kindergarten can mark children’s first daily exposure to all the germs that other children carry, making them susceptible to illness and missing school. And many parents still view kindergarten as being less important academically than other grades, which makes some more inclined to keep younger children home when they’re not feeling well.

Ninth grade means moving into high school, which generally involves more of a focus on academics.

“A lot of our ninth-graders, we just lose them. It’s a high-risk grade,” said Gutierrez, whose primary focus is improving attendance among freshmen. “Before high school, they just get promoted by age. You can fail all your classes in seventh grade, but still become an eighth-grader. In ninth grade, you need to start earning credits so you can graduate.”

After the first year of the improvement program, proficient attendance — missing no more than seven days of school in a year — for kindergartners in participating schools shot up to 62 percent, from 37 percent the year before.

At the same time, the percent missing a month or more of school dropped to 17 percent — nearly half what it was the previous year.

Gains among the ninth-graders were less dramatic, but still significant. Sixty-three percent had proficient attendance, up from 51 percent the year before. That is well over twice the percentage in Buffalo.

Two out of 10 ninth-graders in Los Angeles missed a month or more of school — compared to more than half in Buffalo who did.

So how did Los Angeles make such improvements?

Incentives, rewards

Lincoln High School was identified two years ago as one of the schools in Los Angeles with the poorest attendance among ninth-graders — just slightly more than half had proficient attendance. Gutierrez was assigned to the school as an attendance counselor, in addition to the permanent counselor.

A mother of two young children, Gutierrez appears comfortable at all times — whether asking a 16-year-old girl about her pregnancy or calling to tell a mother that her child has been cutting class so much that he is in danger of failing. In a school where many of the students are immigrants or children of immigrants, Gutierrez seems to know instinctively when to speak in English and when to speak in Spanish — often transitioning seamlessly between the two in a single conversation, depending on her audience.

By mid-February last year, through her efforts and those of the rest of the staff, proficient attendance among ninth-graders was on track to increase 18 percentage points.

Students stand to receive prizes for great attendance. Prizes can include anything from movie tickets and free popcorn to passes to Disneyland or Universal Studios. “We’re big on incentives. That’s what kids want,” said Fabiola Gutierrez.

Some of that success begins simply: Set goals. Publicize them. Provide incentives and rewards.

One of Gutierrez’s first tasks at Lincoln was to make sure everyone knew the goal: Students need to miss no more than seven days of school. That message is reinforced on posters throughout the building, in morning announcements, in one-on-one conversations with students and in classroom discussions.

“When I first started the program, my goal was to make it like when they play a jingle over and over, so you know the jingle by heart,” she said. “I just wanted to blast the school with this positive attendance message.”

Incentives abound. Every 25 school days, she orchestrates an event to reward students who come to school that particular day, such as the candy giveaway. The timing is deliberate, she says: It’s possible to have one absence every 25 days and still have proficient attendance.

On the 50th day of school, Gutierrez and other staffers dressed in ’50s garb, playing music of the era, greeting students on their way into school. On the 75th day, they adopted a ‘70s theme. For the 100th day, they dressed as old men and women and leaned on walkers as students walked into the building.

Each grading period, students who had excellent attendance, good grades and no discipline problems get a “move to the head of the lunch line” pass for five weeks.

Every five weeks, parent volunteers show up at lunch and hand out churros — a type of Mexican doughnut — to students with good attendance, and students with excellent attendance are entered in a raffle for prizes that could include anything from movie tickets and free popcorn to tickets to Disneyland or Universal Studios.

“We’re always seeking donations. We’re big on incentives. That’s what kids want,” Gutierrez said. “We need to keep them engaged.”

An app for that

Making sure students show up begins with tracking who shows up and who doesn’t.

On a Friday morning at Lincoln High, a few minutes after classes started, the longtime principal of Lincoln stands in the front hallway, glued to his iPhone, looking up only briefly to greet each student — and mark them tardy in his iPhone app.

Lincoln Principal Jose Torres uses an iPhone app to log in the names of students who are tardy. Seven years ago, anywhere from 500 to 600 students were late to school on an average day. Now, about 100 students are late on most days.

Torres, an affable man who enjoys an easy rapport with many of his students, scrambles to move kids through the line as quickly as possible. He holds the phone with both hands, his left thumb selecting the month and date, and his right thumb scrolling to the correct year. A thin girl in a black tank top, her long hair pulled back at the top of her head in a white barrette, steps to the front of the line.

“August,” the girl says softly, waiting for him to scroll to that month. “Ten,” then waits for Torres’ thumb to select the date. “2000.”

Her name and photo pop up on his phone screen.

“Tiffany?” he asks.

She nods.

“Thank you.”

Tracking data and enforcing accountability have proved essential in improving student attendance at Lincoln, as they have throughout much of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Seven years ago, anywhere from 500 to 600 students were late to school on an average day at Lincoln, according to Torres.

Now, about 100 students are late on most days, he says.

The school does two things with the data collected on administrators’ iPhones: issue consequences and provide targeted interventions. Those who are late five times are assigned to detention and eventually face being barred from after-school activities, and even their graduation ceremony, if they don’t mend their ways. Staff members often show students their individual attendance reports, detailing which classes they missed on which days, to document their patterns and serve as the basis for an improvement plan.

“The fact is that we’re here and kids know we expect them to be here on time,” Torres said. “The culture of the school was a little different when I got here. Before, they were coming in late, and there was no system for tracking students.”

Pulling in parents

Lincoln students who are identified as chronic truants are referred to Gutierrez, the counselor. Her first step is a phone call home to present the facts to the parents, enlist their support and put together a strategy for improvement.

Gutierrez adopts a distinct posture when she works with students one on one: She troubleshoots but does not scold.

“Poor attendance is really a symptom of a bigger problem,” she said. “My job is to try to connect with kids and find out what’s going on.”

Parents often want to help the school address problems, she said, but many do not know exactly how to do that. She offers them options.

“I don’t want to take any power away from the parents. I still want them to be parents,” she said.

David Azpelta, a thin young man wearing a black and silver LA Kings hockey cap and a black rosary around his neck, walks into the office visibly wary of Gutierrez. His attendance has recently taken a dramatic turn for the better. He used to come to school in the morning, then ditch most of his classes, hanging out at the school’s athletic field across the street, doing his best to blend in with the gym classes.

Lately, he has been attending most of his classes regularly.

The turning point: His parents came with him to school for two days, meeting him after each class and walking him to the next one, to make sure he attended.

It’s an option that Gutierrez offers to many parents; few take her up on it. Those who do, she says, find what David’s parents did: It works. Only one other ninth-grader last year, though, suffered a parent escort from class to class.

The experience left an impression on David.

“I looked at your attendance,” Gutierrez tells him. “I’m happy to see you’re making right choices for your own good. If you’re not coming to school, you’re not learning.”

Using data as a prod

The detailed data that Lincoln High collects provides the backbone for supporting students in their efforts to improve attendance.

What often works: Presenting students with the facts, then enlisting their help to troubleshoot and strategize.

Half a dozen young women sit in a loosely formed circle in the room adjacent to Gutierrez’s office, each studying a printout of her own attendance for the past two weeks. For each class, for each day, there is a record of whether each student was present, absent or tardy.

Attendance counselor Elsy Rosado, right, holds a package of diapers, one of the prizes that members of the “student moms club” can strive for if they meet attendance goals.

If there is any group of students at Lincoln High likely to have reason to miss classes, it is this group: the teen moms.

Gutierrez presents them with the facts, then puts the onus on them to identify solutions for themselves and for one another.

“If you see anything other than a ‘P,’ it means you were absent or tardy,” Gutierrez tells them.

“Wow, they write the times down?” says Breanna Hawkins, a student startled to learn that the school tracks the actual minute she arrives late to each class.

“I’m wondering if you see any patterns here,” Gutierrez says. “I want you guys to look at your individual attendance pattern. Then we’ll talk about a goal.”

Each girl takes a few minutes to summarize for the group what her attendance has been the past couple of weeks.

Victoria, the mother of a 1½-year-old, has had trouble finding a reliable baby sitter. It’s been about a month since she has come to school regularly. Now, her father has started helping with the baby. Victoria, somehow, is still on track to graduate.

On this day, the baby was throwing up, so she stayed home. One of the attendance counselors called the house, and Victoria made it to school later that day.

“We want you guys to graduate,” Gutierrez said. “Sometimes it’s much easier to stay home when your baby isn’t feeling good. But your education is very important.”

Nixi, a thin girl with dark ringlets of hair framing her face, goes first. She has been in Los Angeles about a year, after leaving her native Guatemala by herself to join her mother in the United States. Although she is 18, she has enough credits only for ninth grade.

In Spanish, she explains why she missed school the day before: In the morning, her 5-month-old baby had a doctor’s appointment to get her shots. In the afternoon, a WIC appointment.

Gutierrez translates into English for others in the group. The baby was born early, so Nixi misses school sometimes because of health-related issues and doctor’s appointments. Nixi’s mother stopped working so she can watch the baby during school hours and take her to doctor’s appointments.

“But a lot of times, they are requesting her presence there,” Gutierrez translated. “Yesterday, they told her mom, ‘Why are you allowing her to go to school? She’s over 18. She needs to start working and be a mom.’ That’s unfortunate.”

Gutierrez asks the other girls to help Nixi brainstorm possible solutions.

Breanna volunteers an idea: Nixi can schedule the appointments for later in the afternoon, when classes are over. It’s a simple solution, but one that might not occur to an overwhelmed teen balancing motherhood with high school.

Finding solutions

Breanna is used to finding solutions. A soft-spoken girl whose easy grin belies the steady stream of struggles she navigates on a daily basis, she was taken from her home when she was 1½. She and her brother lived in foster care until she was 6. When Breanna started middle school, her mother lost her house. The girl withdrew into a cocoon of shyness, distancing herself from other kids.

In seventh grade, she took a job selling candy bars after school at a gas station — $3 apiece, $1 for her, and $2 for her boss. For four years, she sold candy bars so that she could buy for herself whatever she needed.

And then, at 17, she got pregnant. Undaunted, she is now just a few months from graduating.

Lincoln High School student Breanna Hawkins juggles caring for her new baby, school books and a night job at an East L.A. bakery.

She just started her first “real” job, working at the L.A. Baking Co., about a mile from her school. Her boyfriend’s 30-year-old cousin watches baby Alayna while Breanna works, making $9 an hour working behind the counter.

In the fall of last year, her attendance was spotty. The spring semester, though, she turned things around. Her biggest problem was that she has been late to school twice in the past two weeks. She used to live closer to school, but her mother’s one-bedroom apartment proved too cramped for her and the baby, especially with her mother’s roommates coming in and out. Now, living with her boyfriend’s family, she has to take three buses to get to school.

Breanna is confident she will succeed.

“I only need three classes to graduate,” she says, pride tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Gutierrez hopes the other girls in the group will prevail over difficult circumstances, as well. By the end of the day, each girl sets an attendance goal.

If she meets the goal, at the beginning of the month, she will get to pick a reward from among the collection the school has gathered: everything from diapers and wipes to car seats and bassinets. Each month, the girls will have a chance to improve their attendance and claim a reward.

“We’re on your side,” Gutierrez tells them.

Police play role in curbing truancy

In California, truancy is not just a local issue, it has become a statewide concern, both because of the different way school aid is calculated there, and because of the vocal advocacy of one elected official who has made student attendance a priority: Attorney General Kamala Harris.

“A child going without an education is tantamount to a crime,” Harris told reporters last year.

Students who miss too much school are more likely to drop out and more likely to end up in prison, she has often noted.

Harris has elevated student attendance in the statewide dialogue about public education, calling for a series of statutory changes to hold schools more accountable.

Among the reforms she has proposed:

• Requiring every school in the state to track and report attendance data;

• Beefing up mechanisms that refer students with persistent truancy problems to a review board with the power to order intervention by probation officers and the local district attorney; and

• Requiring prosecutors to issue reports when they press charges against students or parents under attendance laws.

Harris has issued three annual reports detailing the effects of what she has dubbed the “truancy crisis” in California. Her most recent report estimated that California schools lost out on more than $1 billion in state aid — about $204 per student — because of truancy.

While the stakes are high for schools everywhere to get students to class more often, in California, absenteeism leads to systemic consequences: State aid is calculated based on how many students attend school every day.

New York stopped calculating aid that way about eight years ago, instead basing most of its aid on how many students are enrolled rather than how many actually show up every day.

“In most systems like Buffalo, you count kids once a year, and that’s what you get funded on. It doesn’t matter if they’re chronically absent,” said Hedy Chang, a national expert on student attendance and founder of Attendance Works. “In California, if I get paid 35 or 40 bucks for every day a kid shows up, I’m going to invest more resources into making sure they show up.”

— Mary B. Pasciak


Follow the money to hike student attendance

In California, truancy is not just a local issue, it has become a statewide concern, both because of the different way school aid is calculated there, and because of the vocal advocacy of one elected official who has made student attendance a priority: Attorney General Kamala Harris.

“A child going without an education is tantamount to a crime,” Harris told reporters last year.

Students who miss too much school are more likely to drop out and more likely to end up in prison, she has often noted.

Harris has elevated student attendance in the statewide dialogue about public education, calling for a series of statutory changes to hold schools more accountable.

Among the reforms she has proposed:

• Requiring every school in the state to track and report attendance data;

• Beefing up mechanisms that refer students with persistent truancy problems to a review board with the power to order intervention by probation officers and the local district attorney; and

• Requiring prosecutors to issue reports when they press charges against students or parents under attendance laws.

Harris has issued three annual reports detailing the effects of what she has dubbed the “truancy crisis” in California. Her most recent report estimated that California schools lost out on more than $1 billion in state aid — about $204 per student — because of truancy.

While the stakes are high for schools everywhere to get students to class more often, in California, absenteeism leads to systemic consequences: State aid is calculated based on how many students attend school every day.

New York stopped calculating aid that way about eight years ago, instead basing most of its aid on how many students are enrolled rather than how many actually show up every day.

“In most systems like Buffalo, you count kids once a year, and that’s what you get funded on. It doesn’t matter if they’re chronically absent,” said Hedy Chang, a national expert on student attendance and founder of Attendance Works. “In California, if I get paid 35 or 40 bucks for every day a kid shows up, I’m going to invest more resources into making sure they show up.”

— Mary B. Pasciak