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Posted September 16, 2014

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How a Caring Community Can Decrease Truancy

Lessons from Valle Vista Elementary School

Article contributed by Tony Watkins, Truancy Prevention Coordinator

Nationwide, children living in poverty are more likely to be chronically absent than children living in more affluent homes and communities, according to a 2014 New York Times article.

Reasons for the disparity may include parents’ need to work more than one job, a lack of access to basic resources like transportation and healthy foods or the inability to sleep soundly at night due to overcrowding or a lack of heat. 

Yet, at Valle Vista Elementary School in Albuquerque’s South Valley, where 100 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the chronic truancy rate is less than half the rate of the APS district as whole.

According to school counselor Margaret Cisneros, their success begins with how she and others at Valle Vista see the families they serve.

“It’s not that families with attendance problems don’t value education- any of us could find ourselves in those situations at any particular time,” Cisneros said. 

By participating in the APS cultural proficiency initiative, Principal Teresa Archuleta highlights the importance of examining personal beliefs in order to create school climates where negative stereotypes are not perpetuated. Archuleta models this “inside-out” approach, and gently challenges her staff to do likewise.

“I have shared what I learned in cultural proficiency- personal reflections and personal struggles with my leadership team,” Archuleta said. “I feel blessed that my staff and community trust me with different perspectives.”

This has resulted in the ability to act on teachable moments around diversity and inclusion when they arise, and it has contributed to creating a school community with more engaged students and families. 

“When we help families and they know they can trust us, they are more likely to bring their kids to school and be more involved in school life,” Cisneros said.

Sometimes helping required administrators to expand their job descriptions. For example, when the family of three students experienced homelessness, Cisneros, Assistant Principal Melissa Salazar, and Family Liaison Linda Perez made a home visit to the family’s motel. Rather than require the family to come to the school, Cisneros delivered a monthly food box provided by Roadrunner Food Bank. Perez, as a Notary Public, secured legal permission for the grandmother to speak on behalf of the mother at the one of the student’s IEP meetings. Archuleta found space for a therapist from the Southwest Family Guidance Center to help one of the children control his anger. Lastly the staff secured a bus to pick the children up from their motel room with the help of the APS Special Education Department and Title I Homeless Project.

The results have been impressive. All three children are doing better, including coming to school more regularly. The eleven year olds’ behavior has improved too.

One might think dealing with problems associated with poverty would put a damper on the spirits of students and staff, but this is not the case. Families and teachers celebrate learning together at monthly family nights, such as where families and staff play board games together or students dress up as a favorite character from a book.

Working hand-in-hand with these initiatives is a system for catching attendance problems early.  At registration, families who were chronically truant last year were asked to recommit to sending their children to school every day. Teachers call homes at three unexcused absences, and Cisneros meets with families at five unexcused absences.

But this system would not be effective if school was not a place where students and families felt safe.

“The students want to be here because they have built relationships with the teachers and other staff members,” Cisneros said.  “They feel comfortable.”

For Cisneros, Archuleta and the other staff at Valle Vista it is about “…putting yourself out there…” both with each other, and with the students and families they serve.   

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