Communicating the importance of attendance in any language
Editor’s note: It stands to reason that when a student is absent, the child isn’t learning. For students who are chronically absent – defined as being out of class 10 percent or more – the effects can be academically devastating, potentially jeopardizing the success they could have in both school and life-time careers.
To that end, the Iowa Department of Education has created a resource page for schools to combat chronic absences, as well as a report showing best practices going on in Iowa’s school districts. Below is a novel approach that Council Bluffs took.
DENISON – For the past 20 years, Denison Community Schools has experienced a major demographic shift, as immigrant students and their families have moved to the community in search of a better life.
While diversity can bring challenges to a school district, Superintendent Michael Pardun believes this demographic change – Latino students are now the majority in the district – has actually led to increased communication with parents, helping slash its chronic absentee rate along the way.
When Pardun arrived in the district in the early 1990s, only a handful of staff was bilingual. Now that number is nearing 20, and the district actively searches for bilingual staff when hiring. The district has even hired some of its own alumni, such as Vanessa Sanchez, who graduated from Denison High School several years ago.
Sanchez, who went on to earn her teaching credential from Buena Vista University, says she tries to create the same special environment for her elementary English as a Second Language (ESL) students that her teachers created for her when she arrived from Mexico as a 7-year-old who didn't know English.
She recalled a Spanish-speaking family who came to a recent parent-teacher conference feeling anxious about how they would be able to communicate.
"When they walked into the classroom and saw me, I could see the look of relief on their face,” she said. “I let them know, 'It will be fine. If you ever have any questions, feel free to call for me.'"
When she was a student, Sanchez would return to Mexico for a few weeks every year to see family. Her teachers would make sure she wouldn't fall behind by giving her extra assignments and staying late after school to catch her up when she returned.
"A lot of the teachers that were here in the community became my mentors," she says. "They all in one way or another shaped who I am today. We're just one big family in Denison."
Overcoming cultural and language barriers has required strong relationships, clear expectations, and a system for when those expectations are not met, Pardun says.
To build those relationships, teachers routinely go above and beyond to communicate with families, whether that’s before a parent’s shift starts in the morning or after they get off work in the afternoon. In addition to the traditional Home Language Survey, Denison asks its parents what language they prefer to be communicated in and then they bring in translators to help.
“It means a lot to parents when you are able to communicate with them in the language they are most comfortable with,” Pardun says.
The school has also drawn in students and families of all backgrounds with its new, popular mariachi band and with flexibility when scheduling parent conferences, which regularly draw 97 percent of families. And when attendance becomes an issue, the school sets up an intervention with families to address any concerns early.
The most important factor in combating absence, though, may be consistent leadership, Pardun says. Pardun has worked in Denison for 25 years, including 14 as superintendent, whereas high school Principal Dave Wiebers has been in the district for 34 years.
“When there is stable and constant leadership at the top, it trickles down and creates a stable school system,” Pardun says. “New ideas aren’t bad, but new ideas often mean not working on one thing long enough.”