Friday, September 22, 2023

Questions from the Press, Friday September 22, 2023.

Per my usual practice, I have answered questions from our local newspapers below in writing. The subject of this week's questions concerns attendance. To underscore the importance of physical presence, the theme that runs through this subject, I have included a photo collage of my daughter Siena, with me as we recently attending a Taylor Swift concert.


1. What was your overall impression of the content of the presentation?

Ironically for something that seems so simple, attendance is the source of the stream of benefits that flow from education. Empirical data on the point is beyond question. Further, school for our students is the place where they have permission to let what is within their nature be and allow it expression. In school, we affirm our students' struggles and encourage them to live rich, full lives. They learn every day that their lives are in their own hands, that each has a spiritual summons to be honored, and that when they miss days, they miss another opportunity to bring out their more developed selves to share. I hope every student feels that a day at school is an opportunity to be seized, not something given.

As a community-funded school district (so-called "basic aid"), Sonoma Valley's finances are largely unaffected by attendance. Our community is wealthy and successful, and our school district has been running surpluses for years and is solidly in the black. We care about attendance because it matters for our kids, not because it affects how much money is available. This common misconception should regularly be debunked, as it creates cynicism about why SVUSD cares so much about seeing our students every day.

2. In your opinion, what were some of the positive things in the report?

Our District is engaging in exactly the type of program I would hope it would implement to encourage attendance, and our very strong staff in this area, particularly Ms. Jillian Beall, has taken the academic research and translated it into a fun (indeed, sometimes hilarious) effort to encourage kids to be excited about coming to campus. Attendance Works' Attendance Awareness Campaign (which our staff has been implementing) underlines the need for a supportive and caring response with an emphasis on making students feel valued and establishing trust-based relationships. The campaign reiterates the importance of creating a secure, caring and engaging environment for learners.

Using a data-driven, solution-oriented approach is another essential aspect of this campaign. The welfare and health of students, families, and school staff is emphasized. Additionally, the campaign calls for a joint effort among the wider community, families, and schools to overcome entrenched obstacles to student attendance and engagement. 

Specifically, Sonoma Valley Unified employs a system called multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), which encompasses a variety of strategies aimed at promoting student attendance. The first level includes approaches such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), proactive communication through various channels, creating welcoming school environment, utilizing attendance data, conducting empathy interviews, and making phone calls home. 

The second tier consists of interventions that provide a more individualized approach, such as School Attendance Team Problem Solving Meetings (SART), forming belonging groups, promoting consistent two-way family communication, and regular monitoring of attendance. The third tier applies strategies for students with chronic absenteeism issues, which includes collaborative problem-solving, a program called Keeping Kids in School (KKIS), School Attendance Review Team Meetings (SARB), and conducting home visits.

At the core, though, our staff has managed to inject life into the program, by making it fun in the way experienced teachers know best. A small example was the theme days used to get kids excited and through the door in the morning. As a parent, I was particularly amused and gratified that they managed to do it without turning to "crazy hair day," which as the father of three daughters, has been something of an issue in the past. I include below the listing of the days, to illustrate exactly how our team is making this happen. 
3. What do you feel were some of the troubling things in the report?

What troubles me more is the information we received Saturday in our finances overview, rather than the information in the attendance presentation. There has been a significant deviation between enrollment and attendance for some time in SVUSD. 

Our attendance is, and has been for some time, about 2,800 students per day, as the below graph from Saturday's presentation showed. We have been narrowing the gap recently (to be expected with the transition from pandemic to endemic COVID), but the figures illustrate just how small the student population of our Valley has become. Sonoma Valley's enrollment peaked at 4,673 students in 2012, and attendance  at 4,022. The decline shows just how serious the issues are for our District in terms of realignment -- we are staffing a system designed for another era, and the entirely reasonble complaints from our teachers and staff regarding the waste that creates is a continuing issue I am committed to addressing for our community. 

4. Do you feel confident about the approach the district is taking to improve overall attendance and reduce the number of students who are chronically absent?

Yes. Staff are doing exactly what I would expect to narrow the enrollment/attendance gap and the objective data show that they are getting results.

5. How can the board help to improve overall attendance and reduce the number of students who are chronically absent?

We have made addressing this issue a priority for our staff, and in doing so, the board has exercised the leadership role the community expects of us. We, as board members, take attendance seriously. As a parent myself, I know just how hard it can be to encourage students to go to school sometimes. From a tired high-school-aged teenager to a stressed-out middle schooler, to a slightly-under-the-weather first grader, all of whom I support on a regular basis. In that capacity, we are doing what we have advocated. Finally, the most important thing we, as a board, can do, having set the direction and being in the process of ourselves following the advice, is to let our staff implement the program they have devised with fidelity -- which I think is happening.

6. Would you like to say anything else?

No, thank you.