March 30, 2007

Education takes a backseat to family time, for some

By Raymond R. Beltran

Students are gearing up for their spring break that begins this week. District wide, they get two weeks off, and teachers say that means ski trips for some and for others, visiting relatives in Mexico.

In essence, it can be a time for families to recoup as a unit, minus the academic and work related baggage. But educators say that leaving that kind of baggage behind turns into extended vacations for Latino families, creating a detrimental setback for students.

The main excuse for absences: medical. But the real reason, according to educators: reuniting with family in Mexico.

Alfredo Vargas, a first grade teacher at Horton Elementary in Southeast San Diego, says that out of his twenty five students, he expects at least four to remain on vacation, two weeks after they’re due back.

For many, this is their one chance to visit distant relatives, meet their grandparents for the first time or maybe just hang out with the family for a little while longer, but to a teacher, that’s two weeks of classroom instruction for a student, an experience that can’t be replicated.

Though this issue only applies to a quarter of classrooms, teachers say, it becomes serious when some students, by the end of the school year, have missed a month during both winter and spring break.

“They say a family member gets sick and you can’t discriminate, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Vargas says. “But it’s not [the student’s] fault. They’re not the adult in the house.”

A recent fact finding mission by the San Diego Unified School District, about attendance trends, found that out of 38 schools, a handful of campuses include in their description a sentence like, “Many students have relatives in Mexico and will go there over a break and not return for weeks.”

Jennie Breister, the district’s grant coordinator for the project, says it’s a ‘chronic issue’ that impacts approximately ten percent of the overall student population and mainly Latinos.

“There’s a lack of understanding of the importance that one day makes,” Breister says.

Teachers, like Vargas, say that when a student misses one day of school, it takes them three days to catch up to the rest of the class and prepare for future lessons.

Students return to class and find themselves in small groups, away from the general class, a method usually used for students who have trouble learning the criteria.

“Sometimes their parents haven’t been home (Mexico) for fifteen years and this is their only chance to visit relatives, grandparents and parents,” says Rachel Gonzalez, an attendance clerk at Baker Elementary. “I don’t think it’s fair to quantify it like a Latino issue either, because the school is mostly Latino, so of course it’s going to look that away … and it isn’t a constant issue, but yes, it does happen.”

The exact number of students who miss school due to extended vacations is difficult to track and there aren’t exact figures, because absences are defined in two ways, ‘excused’ and ‘unexcused.’ And that is another issue that educators say parents are becoming savvy to.

Parents have five days to excuse an absence, and educators say that, no matter the reason, they usually do. If not, schools provide other routes.

Currently, they allow parents to fill out ‘independent study contracts’ where they notify the school of extended vacation time and the teachers compile assignments that the student has to complete upon their return. If the work is complete, the student gets the attendance credits.

It’s actually designed to keep students up to par during absences, but educators think it becomes a free pass to miss out.

“Parents are becoming smarter about the process,” says Marco Dapeau, the parent academic liaison at Roosevelt Middle School, which was highlighted in the districts attendance report. “They say it’s a medical issue or something and that skews the numbers because they can’t be penalized and they’re (the student) falling farther and farther behind.”

The main conception among educators is that parents are trying to avoid being ‘SARBed,’ or being referred to the Student Attendance Review Board.

The model process goes, three unexcused absences and the family receives an awareness letter. Six means the family is invited to a school conference. After that, the family is sent a last letter. If that doesn’t work, a family is referred to SARB by the school and meetings begin to take place at local police stations, where parents are required to sign legal contracts outlining an immediate resolution, usually to ensure their child will be in school.

“The whole process could happen within six months to a year, depending on the school’s response,” says Pat Winters, a SARB coordinator.

Parents can be cited fines, referred to the City Attorney for action, or worse, they can serve jail time. Winters says those cases are close to none.

Some teachers think SARB takes too long and doesn’t solve the problem. And for the ‘independent study contracts’, they say they help the district more than the student.

“They’ll miss the support, the basic skills from the staff that the children need,” says Marco Samaniego, a sixth grade teacher at Horton. “It’s not the same rigor you’ll see in the classroom.”

Though the student may not get the proper education with the contract’s assignments, if the work is done, the district will still receive the Average Daily Attendance ADA state funding for the child’s attendance credits, a source of a $600 million income according to Mike Price, head of the district’s financial operations division.

At Horton Elementary, Principal Robin McCullogh has adopted into her budget a unique prevention program for parents, PAL (Parent Academic Liaison) classes, where parents attend two hour classes four days a week to engage parents about the importance of education.

Martha Villagomez attends PAL classes while her daughter, a perfect attendance student three years in a row, goes to Horton.

“It depends on her and she’s very responsible,” Villagomez says about her daughter. “She knows she has to come to school.”

McCullogh says she wants to run a family friendly school by including PAL, a $90,000 a year program, into the school budget to employ a teacher and buy class material. Title I funds and donations from the non-profit organization Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation are also used for PAL.

She says she’s also witnessed families extending their vacations to save money by living in Tijuana.

“I see this as an issue for a culture of poverty,” McCullogh says. “Sometimes parents become overwhelmed by social issues. If you don’t have an income and you have to pay a thousand a month in neighborhood like this, then the child’s education becomes secondary.”

Breister says district-wide, campaigns are in motion like “Everyday Counts” where parents are mailed home letters about the importance of attendance, websites are created in various languages and like at Horton Elementary, schools are creating Family Fridays, where parents join educators to mingle and discuss anything.

But in a community where phone numbers are often false, families move frequently or there’s no internet access at home, these solutions are, at times, next door to useless.

Baker, Chavez, Horton, Jackson and Roosevelt Elementary Schools were among those highlighted for having an average 95 percent attendance rate with extended vacations issues.

Attendance Clerk Rachel Gonzalez from Baker disagrees that this is culturally a Latino issue. She says that she converses with children on campus who may have met their grandparents for the first time. On one occasion, she says a student’s grandmother fainted at the site of her long lost family.

Ultimately, taking the extra time off disrupts students’ achievement, and all educators who spoke on the issue agree that it’s difficult to measure importance when class time is up against re-uniting families.

“It’s not necessarily a cultural thing, but we’re close to the Mexican border,” she says. “If we were next to the Canadian border, then it would be a Canadian thing. I would say it’s more of a family issue.”

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