In Partnership with The 74

LA parent voice: My daughter has perfect attendance, but my goal is to help all parents take responsibility for making sure their kids are in school

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 14, 2018



Magda Karina Vargas, right, as her parent problem-solving group presents their plan to improve school attendance to LAUSD officials. ( Courtesy: LAUSD Board District 5)

Every week, we sit down with Los Angeles parents to talk about their students, their schools, and what questions or suggestions they have for their school district. (See our previous interviews.)


Of all the things Magda Karina Vargas has learned while volunteering at her daughter’s school, what concerns her the most is how big an impact students’ absences have on their ability to learn and on their schools.

Her daughter, who started fourth grade this week at LA Unified’s Ellen Ochoa Learning Center, has had perfect attendance since kindergarten. But Vargas, a mother of two who lives in Cudahy in Southeast LA, has been so worried about why other children miss school so often that she joined a problem-solving group started by parents at her school to come up with ways to reduce student absences.

Student absences continue to increase at LA Unified, and it’s an expensive problem.

Schools get paid by the state for every day a child is in school. LA Unified loses about $630 million a year from student absences. In 2016-17, over 80,000 students, or 14.3 percent of all students, were chronically absent, which is defined as missing 15 or more days. That percentage increases to almost one-third of students if you count those who miss eight or more days, according to an LA Unified Advisory Task Force report released last year.

“I knew about the (parent problem-solving group) through other parents, and I didn’t think twice about joining,” Vargas said. “I know that’s something we as parents need to take responsibility for and make a change.”

Three of these groups launched this past year in Board District 5 to bring parents together to identify problems at their schools and form solutions. The two other groups focused on increasing the reclassification rate of English language learners and on parent engagement. They presented their plans to top district officials, including Superintendent Austin Beutner, on June 21 at the offices of the United Way of Greater LA.

Vargas has been a member of school’s English Learning Advisory Committee for two years. Since joining, she has become more involved in her school and in volunteering.

“I realized kids miss school too often, getting behind academically. I volunteer in the classroom, and I can see how those students don’t catch up but in fact fall more behind with each absence,” she said. “Some miss school just because they have a minor cold, and I have learned that’s not a major reason for not attending school.”

But Vargas said when kids miss school because of personal matters or family issues, that’s another story. “We need to really care about those students and find out what problem that family must be going through. They need additional support from the school.”

 

During his introduction as the new LA Unified superintendent in early May, Beutner said one way he is considering reducing chronic absences is to follow what school districts in New York and Cleveland have done by using direct mailers to inform parents how many days their children miss.

If LA Unified did that, “8,000 to 10,000 kids would be better attenders, they’ll learn, and absenteeism matters to the whole classroom because the revenues come back — probably $10 million of revenue for the district as a whole next year, so we can try simple things like that,” he said during a news conference.

Starting this week, parents will be getting recorded messages by phone from sports celebrities from LA teams such as the LA Lakers and LA Clippers encouraging them and their students to be in school every day, Beutner announced last week at his address to LA Unified’s leadership.

Vargas believes that by making sure her daughter attends school every day and on time, she is raising a responsible adult. “Setting this pattern would make my daughter responsible for anything in the future, that would definitely help her be successful in life.”

What have you learned about student absences that you want other parents to know?

I have learned that a routine doctor’s appointment is not an excuse for the kid to be absent or pulled out from class. Those can be scheduled at a time when kids are not in school. We as parents need to be more responsible at that and avoid our students’ absences as much as possible. Bringing our kids to school on time and every day should be a priority.

Keep in mind that they spend seven hours in school. If they miss one day, they have lost significant learning time. As long as the kid is not seriously sick with fever and vomiting or has a contagious illness, they should be in school.

What has your group included in your school’s plan to reduce chronic absences?

We want to advise parents on how to make doctor appointments outside school hours. Have more communication with the school principal, teachers, and school psychologist if they have family issues. They need to know parents have the right to be heard about their issues or concerns and can always arrange a meeting in person or by phone. Most importantly, they need to know that the school must provide support when students are afraid to go to school because they feel bullied or unsafe. Bullying is also one of the major causes of kids missing school. Most schools have a school psychologist on campus or they must arrange to have one available. When a student is missing school a lot, the school’s psychologist can call home to find out what’s going on. Some experience very difficult situations at home.

We also want to launch a campaign, starting in our school — but if it works we want it to be expanded across the district — about parents paying a fine once the kid reaches 10 absences for inexcusable reasons.

After analyzing different cases in our school, we have come to the conclusion that some parents need to stop being irresponsible. If they get a fine, I think they would start to see this as a serious issue. It is for the benefit of the kids. In my daughter’s class, there’s a student that misses school once a week. That’s not right!

Do you think there’s something the school should be doing as well?

I think we don’t receive enough information from the school about this issue. Parents are not aware that by their kids’ missing school, the school loses a lot of money that will affect not only instruction but other programs our kids need. We should get reports on attendance once a month.

We also need the community’s involvement, and the city officials and organizations to educate the community about how this affects us all.

Also, I’d ask the district to allocate some funds so the students that put so much effort into being in school every day on time can get awarded or get a prize.

For example, my daughter’s teacher, other moms, and I have had to put our own money into buying prizes, pizza, and gift certificates in order to motivate them. They are kids, they get really excited when their perfect attendance gets recognized. I think the district should give all schools money for that, to motivate students to be in school every day.


• Read more:

Easy money for LA schools: Get every kid to class one more day a year and generate $30 million

LAUSD loses ground in its fight against chronic absenteeism, but foster youth attendance is up

With Nearly 8 Million Students Chronically Absent From School Each Year, 36 States Set Out to Tackle the Problem in New Federal Education Plans. Will It Make a Difference?

 

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