Sometimes I Am the Most Hated Person at School

graduateI admit it. Sometimes I am the most hated person at school… but let me explain. I am the attendance dean at an alternative high school and middle school. Most students who come to us do so because they are behind on credits due to failed courses. They may also have issues such as drugs, alcohol, emotional disorders, violent behavior, teen pregnancy, and excessive absences. My job is to keep these students in school. That means I am fighting an uphill battle with students who already don’t want to be at school. Attendance is one of the biggest factors that impacts student achievement, and I do not take my job lightly.

This past year I implemented strategies to help improve attendance at our school:

  1.  I attend every new student orientation and meet with the students and parents. During this orientation I explain the attendance expectations, consequences for lack of attendance, and stress the importance of us acting like a team.
  2.  Students are placed on attendance contracts. If they break their contract, they must face the consequences. There is no one-size-fits-all, the interventions must be customized for each student.
  3. If a parent does not call the absence in by mid-day, I call the parent. I always explain that it’s not to harass the parent, but instead to find out if the student is okay. If a student is truant, I want the parent to know as early as possible.
  4. I meet with parents and students regularly. Both students and parents have my direct phone number. This is especially important for non-English speaking parents. These parents do not typically feel comfortable calling the attendance line because they feel self-conscious. If they call me, they know I will make it an easy experience by using our language line. They know that I will call back and meet with a moment’s notice.
  5. I follow-through. If I say I am going to do something, I do.
  6. I travel to all classrooms with my PowerPoint about attendance policies. I answer questions and I explain the expectations. If a student doesn’t understand the rule, how can they follow it?
  7.  I communicate with all staff. One student may  sleep in because he just doesn’t want to come. Another might have been up until 5 AM working and then overslept because he’s exhausted from working 30 hours a week and going to school. Each student has a different story.
  8. Students who have perfect attendance for one week, receive an award. Their photos hang on the wall next to my office. Their names are announced every Monday.
  9. If a student needs to talk, I just let them. It’s okay if a meeting that should only take one minute ends up being a 45-minute conversation. These students have a lot to say.
  10.  I know EVERY student’s name. I say “hello” and “good morning” every day to each student I see. I think EVERY teacher, EVERY staff member should  greet EVERY student they see. When students feel they are loved, cared about, and missed, they are more likely to want to come back.

I consider it a personal victory when I see changes. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a team. We celebrate progress with high-fives and squeals. Our truancy has decreased. Instead of students thinking they are going to be late to school, so why bother going at all? – We have students who now think, “I’m going to be late to school but I gotta’ hurry up!” Parents call and check that their child is at school. Staff members ask questions about why students are absent and how they can help the students.

Is every student in school everyday? Nope, but we celebrate the small victories.

The other day I asked a student how he was doing. “Truthfully,” he said, “I wasn’t going to come to school today. But then I realized if I didn’t show up you’d call so I figured I might as well just come.” I said that it made me happy he came and it was okay if he hated me for making him come to school. “That’s okay,” he said, “I know you’re just trying to get me here so I can finish and get my diploma.”

Baby steps. It’s okay if they hate me, just as long as they walk across the stage and get that diploma.

What strategies do you use to help students with attendance problems?

—-Stephanie Scott  http://effectivek12schools.com—-

What’s Life Like for an At-Risk Youth?

asleep at desk

-Tracy DeTomasi

I remember being 15 and in high school. I grew up in a small, rural, White Christian town in the Midwest.  My parents had been married for almost 30 years by the time I graduated high school… as had most of my friends’ parents.  My dad made sure I valued education because he dropped out when he was 15 and never finished.  My mom never went to college and wanted to be certain that I received the grades to go to any university I wanted.  I thought the hardest thing in my life during high school was the fact that my farmer parents raised me to be a tomboy so I wasn’t the girly girl who boys wanted to date.

I ended up becoming a social worker. I’ve worked with at-risk youth in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Seattle, and Chicago–mainly in residential settings where I became a pseudo parent and educator. I have been inspired by the stories they have told me about their educational experiences. I believe the most important stories to understand are those that many minimally privileged people don’t typically think of.

This is what they taught me… imagine going to school when you haven’t eaten in 3 days and the last meal you had was pulled from the garbage. Your mother and her current boyfriend have been on a weeklong bender and hit you when you came home so you chose that it’s safer to be on the streets than at home. You aren’t sure where you are going to stay each night or if it will be safe once you find a place. You worry about getting shot in a drive-by or getting jumped by gang members to and from school because that has happened to at least 10 of your closest friends.  Now, imagine having that experience and actually making it to school. Imagine having other kids bully you because you smell since you haven’t had a shower or a place to wash your clothes.  Imagine the teachers yelling at you because you fell asleep in class again, although it’s the first time you’ve felt safe enough to close your eyes. Imagine getting in trouble when you yell at someone although you mainly just snapped because you are hungry and tired and mad at your mom. Imagine not being able to put words to what you have experienced or being too scared that if you tell, you will get hit harder, might get shot, or might not have a couch to sleep on.

This is a common experience for an at-risk youth. While I grew up in a family privileged enough that I thought school was a need, working with at-risk youth made me quickly realize that education is a privilege, not a basic need. A basic need is housing, food, safety, and love.  Understand that most youths that experience situations like these don’t have the words to speak about them or understand that this is an experience they do not deserve.

–Tracy DeTomasi is a social worker with more than 10 years of experience. She is passionate about helping at-risk youths and provides a unique perspective about how to help these youths flourish. We hope to see more of her insight in our blogs (hint, hint).