Rural schools are banding together to tackle chronic absenteeism

Attendance is critical to student success, yet it can be difficult for individual schools to ensure children are in their seats, needs met and ready to learn on a daily basis, especially in highly rural areas — which is why several districts in Shasta County, spread across approximately 1,500 square miles, are working together.

Through the Mountain Valley Education Consortium — which includes Columbia, Junction, Cottonwood Union, Happy Valley Union, Grant County, Bella Vista, North Cow Creek and Black Butte Union elementary school districts and Pacheco Union School District — two chronic absenteeism coordinators were hired using Community Schools grant funding at the start of the 2021–22 school year.

Consortium officials said the coordinators have already made an immeasurable difference with students, families and schools, making home visits and serving as connections between students, school site attendance coordinators, vice principals, counselors and principals to craft a plan for each student that is struggling to come to school.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to families’ needs. We are all different, with different struggles,” said Heather Caldwell, one of the new attendance outreach coordinators, who serves 10 schools across four districts.

“The most valuable thing we can do is meet with our families and have a conversation about what is occurring in their life and determine the best way to serve our families. People want to be heard and valued and we are able to do that through this program,” she continued. “Most of the families we work with are already living very tight and the increase in housing, food and gas has been very difficult for some. I am able to connect families with programs within Shasta County to help provide them with the resources they need in order to be successful.”

Coordinators monitor attendance daily and contact families to find out the barriers that are keeping students from school. Sometimes, interventions don’t need to be extensive to make a difference in the lives of students. For some students, it may be as easy as providing them an alarm clock or arranging for transportation to and from school.

Caldwell recalls one young student whose trust she had to earn over the course of about five months through weekly and sometimes daily check-ins. One day during lunch the child shared some of the trauma they had experienced. Upon learning about the student’s situation, Caldwell worked with the principal and the Parent Club to purchase a new bike for the student.

“The student was so proud to call this their very own. I overheard them telling a friend that their bike had brakes and they no longer had to drag their shoe to make the bike stop. The student also was excited that the bike had gears,” she said. “The student is getting themself to school daily and seems to be more engaged and connected to school. I think this student realized how much the staff cares and is making more of an effort for themselves.”

In other cases, Caldwell must work with community partners to connect at-risk families to meal, health and housing services, or get students clothing or the academic supports they need to feel confident participating in class. Coordinators also attend School Attendance Review Team and School Attendance Review Board meetings and coordinate professional development in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Additionally, they work with the local sheriff’s department and the Redding and Anderson police departments to assist with home visits, if necessary.

“This program has been an incredible opportunity for the schools and community partners to work together to serve children and families within Shasta County,” Caldwell said. “This work could not be successful without the many individuals that come together to help make our families successful.”

Consortium officials said the goal now is to use Community Schools Grant funding to expand these services to other small districts in the county, including Castle Rock ESD, French-Gulch Whiskeytown School District, Whitmore ESD, Oak Run ESD, Tree of Life Charter School and Shasta View Charter School.