When truancy laws don’t work

A New Mexico principal ponders a tougher approach to keep frequently absent students in school.

 

Española Valley High School Principal Tom Graves thinks the laws don’t work.

Last academic year, under a previous principal, the high school’s student body had a truancy rate of nearly 43 percent, among the highest in New Mexico. Graves wants to introduce radical changes to reshape Española’s culture of truancy.

“If (the laws) were effective, New Mexico wouldn’t be ranked 50th in the country for education,” he said. “And we wouldn’t have the lowest attendance rates in the country.”

Española Valley High School students enter the front doors of the main building at 7:30 a.m., Oct. 12, at Española Valley High School. Administrators patrol the hallways and greet students in an effort to have students seated in classrooms by the first 7:55 a.m. tardy bell.
Andrew Martinez/ Rio Grande Sun

To improve its consistently high truancy rates, last academic year Española Valley High School implemented a new truancy and dropout prevention program aimed at shaping up poor attendance. The results are yet to be determined — but debate still rages within the school about the best method for battling truancy.

Why students are truant

Marcella Maestas and Jesus Maes are student success specialists working on Española Valley’s truancy and dropout prevention program. The program was sparked by a grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department, introduced last summer, under the administration of former Española superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez and former principal Leslie Romero-Kilmer.

Maestas and Maes work closely with students who have struggled to attend school or arrive on time, or who have struggled academically. Intervention by success specialists takes place in what Graves has called “Accountability School,” a separate period of academic and behavior instruction at the high school from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Having worked closely with students since last summer, Maestas believes a lack of accountability by past administrations is to blame.

“What parents in the Valley tend to forget is state law is (once you’re absent for) 10 days or more, the school can automatically fail you,” Maestas said. “The culture at Española Valley High School is that they have not upheld that standard.”

According to Maestas, a particular problem is high turnover among administrative positions in the District, which has had three superintendents and three principals within the last three years.

“It’s like we’re a foster child moving from family to family,” Maestas said. “If you look at the developmental characteristics a foster home exhibits, they’re the same characteristics our kids exhibit.”

Both Maestas and Maes noted that many students simply leave early on Fridays or arrive late on Mondays, and generally arrive late to school in the mornings — sometimes more than an hour past the tardy bell, which signals the beginning of instruction at 7:55 a.m.

Given Rio Arriba County’s 24.1 percent poverty rate, students may also be absent for a more pressing reason. Many high school students have to babysit their younger siblings or work.

“It’s a lot of choices,” Maes said. “Either go to school or take care of your family. They’re already experiencing adulthood by carrying those responsibilities.”

Enforcement

There’s no debate about the merits of New Mexico compulsory law, which requires attendance for instruction until graduation, or until a person has reached 18 years of age.

It’s the intervention and enforcement for habitually truant students where the debate begins. Habitual truancy is defined by both the State and the District as 10 or more unexcused absences.

State law calls for the school to send a written notice to a parent to set up a meeting with school representatives. Should the student continue to be habitually truant, probation services are notified, resulting in a written notice calling for a meeting, and the option for a children’s court to suspend driving privileges for up to 90 days.

Española’s current truancy policy dictates that a letter be sent after three unexcused absences, followed by a meeting at five days, with administrators, parents, a student success specialist and an officer from the Children, Youth and Families Department or juvenile probation. The current tardy policy, implemented by Graves, follows a less serious, though still impactful, path.

“I think the fact that we at least say JPO (juvenile probation officer) will get involved, I think it’s working for some,” Maestas said, with the threat of a juvenile probation officer intervention for habitual truancy taken seriously. “It’s not working for everybody, but it’s working for some.”

Extreme measures

Maestas and Maes have students agree to a formal attendance contract during the intervention process for a truant student, with terms involving attendance at Accountability School.

Graves favors a potentially stricter approach.

Graves has a career in administration, with stops at the Washington County Public School District in Virginia, as an assistant superintendent, and districts in Tennessee and Wyoming.

His plan for turning around truancy and tardiness has been shaped by his experiences over his 20-year administrative career.

His solution for tardy students, which he implemented this academic year, follows a three-strike policy. Once a student reaches three tardies, they have to arrive to campus at 6 a.m. for one day — either to perform academic work, prepare breakfast with the cafeteria staff, or work with the custodial staff to get the school ready for the day.

A student doesn’t have to arrive at 6 a.m. again, unless they are late arriving to class a subsequent time. Any student who fails to arrive to school at 6 a.m. is contacted by a student success specialist during the first period of school, and sometimes sent to Accountability School instead.

“We talk to them and counsel them on the importance of getting to class on time,” Graves said. “It’s a lifetime skill.”

Graves estimates approximately 100 students, or about 10 percent of the student body, has experienced what Graves calls “School Improvement Detail.”

While it’s unclear how truancy and tardiness rates have changed in the first two months of the academic year, Graves said students have done a good job of learning from the program.

“Because those programs exist, even if it’s repeaters, I got 1,100 kids doing what I want because they (school improvement detail students) exist,” he said. “The principal, himself, comes in every morning at 4 a.m. That usually takes a lot of the argument away.”

The school improvement detail plan wasn’t a popular idea among some students who were forced to arrive early on Oct. 12. The students met briefly with Graves in his office before departing to the cafeteria or outdoors to perform cleaning duties — if they didn’t have homework or testing to complete.

“I don’t think it should happen at all,” high school senior Christie Garcia said. “It’s pointless.”

Some students struggled with the 6 a.m. start time because of their longer commute to campus.

“I live an hour away,” high school junior Christian Fernandez said. “It sucks for me, I’m tired all day.”

Other students attending school improvement detail didn’t mind the penalty for consistent tardiness, noting that past administrations had failed to address the issue.

“I think it’s good for us,” high school junior Jairo Garcia said. “Back in the day, it wasn’t like this. People did whatever they wanted to do.”

A draconian approach

Graves’s proposed fix for truancy takes an even more aggressive approach.

If he has it his way, students would get five unexcused absences before their sixth truant day forces a meeting with childrens court.

“The parent and/or child (would) go to jail for one night,” he said. “They pay a $100 fine and they pick up trash the next day, and you publish it in the newspaper. I’ll have a 90-something percent attendance rate within a month.”

He admitted the idea may be viewed as absurd, and that both students and parents probably wouldn’t be fans of the idea. In fact, he may already reaping negative reactions to his policy.

Less than two weeks ago, the front windshield of his van in the high school parking lot was smashed in the middle of the night.

Graves said he’s approached District Court judges with the idea, without success, but hopes to receive a waiver from a District Court judge for his unique pilot program idea, which he has yet to implement successfully at any of his administrative posts.

As unorthodox as it may sound, the state compulsory law allows the imposition of increasing fines, community service and even imprisonment for the parent of a student knowingly violating the Compulsory School Attendance Law for a term not to exceed six months.

Successful strategies

The high school’s student success specialists admitted working with Graves’s ideas has been a difficult process.

“Dr. Graves has a different philosophy from our grants (which pay Maes and Maestas),” Maestas said. “We’re constantly learning a new system.”

Both specialists emphasized the importance of forming meaningful relationships with students to gain their trust, again emphasizing the high turnover among staff at the school.

“A lot of kids were like, ‘How long are you going to be here?’” Maes said. “You can tell there’s some kind of attachment disorder, they won’t open up.”

The community has taken notice of Graves’s stricter-than-normal attendance, tardiness and no-fail policies, but he thinks they’ll transform the school if they’re accepted.

“Even if I’m crazy, we have nothing to lose,” he said. “You’re 50th in the country. It can’t get any worse.”

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.