BELEN — Like many school districts across the state, Belen Consolidated Schools is throwing resources at addressing chronic absenteeism, and it just isn’t enough.

Valeryia Gauthier, the federal programs director for the district, went before the Belen Board of Education last week to present the information on attendance numbers and the district attendance plan, as required by the Attendance for Success Act.

Getting a bead on actual attendance rates has been difficult, Gauthier said, since COVID-19 hit during the 2019-20 school year, just after the act was implemented in mid 2019.

“Since it was implemented, we’ve basically been in COVID,” Gauthier said. “In 2020-2021, we struggled because all the students were remote and we didn’t have devices for everyone, so measuring attendance was difficult. Last year, we have more reliable data but looking at the trends is probably not fair.”

According to the attendance information on the New Mexico Public Education Department’s website, in the 2019-20 school year, BCS reported a chronic absentee rate of 20.49 percent.

Chronic absenteeism is defined by the act as a student missing 10 percent or more of school days due to absence for any reason when enrolled for more than 10 days.

In the 2020-21 school year, that rate increased to 30.59 percent and, in the 2021-22 school year, it climbed to 66.02 percent.

Belen Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez asked Gauthier whether the state, under the ASA, differentiates between excused and unexcused absences since there has been confusion among district stakeholders.

“As far as the act is concerned, an absence is an absence, correct? An excused absence no longer exists except for school activities,” Sanchez asked.

Gauthier said that was correct.

“A student might have a broken leg, which we understand, but it’s still an absence,” she said. “We are liable to the state to report that.”

The ASA requires school districts and charter schools to classify each student into one of four attendance intervention tiers based on a percentage of absences — Tier 1 is 5 percent or less; Tier 2 is 5 to 9 percent; Tier 3 is 10 to 19 percent and Tier 4 is 20 percent or more.

The act also requires school districts to report, at each reporting period and the end of the year, for each student with an absence, the attendance intervention tier to which the student was assigned during the reporting period.

Gauthier said there were 373 BCS students in tier 4 this year, which accounted for 30 percent of the absenteeism district wide, down 10 percent from last school year.

“The Tier 4 level is where we need support from our legislators. We are struggling,” she said. “There are some families that are absolutely not sending their kids to school. We refer them to CYFD and start over again.

“We need to have something at that level to hold families accountable. When you have a third-grader not getting to school, it’s not their fault. That’s the parents’ responsibility.”

The district has four attendance coaches to address absenteeism among 3,500 students.

Students who have continued absences that require intensive support and intervention, the fourth tier, the district shall refer the student to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

The department will investigate whether the student should be considered a neglected child, or if the family is in need of services. Sanchez said the lack of teeth in the ASA is a frustration felt by school districts across the state.

“There are teeth for the district. We are working with a parent to get a student to school and they flat tell us, ‘My kid will go to school when I feel like it,’” the superintendent said. “If (the absenteeism rate) is above 10 percent, we have to write plans. Principals and Ms. Gauthier have to write plans. There’s nothing we can do to hold parents accountable.

“By the time we get to Tier 4 we’ve gone through all the steps, including home visits, consultations, multiple adults trying to get to the root of the problem. It comes down to, they’re not doing it today and there’s nothing we can do about it. Educational neglect is really a fallacy.”

Under the former state compulsory school attendance law, which was repealed in 2019 by the current Attendance for Success Act, parents of a truant child who knowingly violated the attendance laws could have received a fine of $25 to $100 or community service for the first offense, and a fine up to $500 or six months in jail on the second and subsequent offenses.

Students who were habitually truant could have had their driving privileges suspended for 90 days initially and up to a year for subsequent findings, among other possible sanctions.

The ASA still allows for the suspension of a student’s license if there’s no improvement in 30 days; the suspension of the license cannot make the absenteeism worse or cause a hardship to the family.

Saying his statements would be a reason for those watching the meeting on YouTube to either like or dislike him, board vice president Aubrey Tucker said as a high school administrator, he didn’t view poor attendance as something that manifested in a student’s ninth-grade year.

“This is learned behavior. It happened in middle school and elementary school,” Tucker said. “… amongst those responsible for children there is apathy and laziness. People need to take responsibility … if you’re dragging your kid around Walmart (when they should be in school) you’re wrong.”

Sanchez said there were many reasons students don’t want to come to school, including issues such as bullying and lack of clean clothes.

“Those are things Ms. Gauthier and her team can address,” Sanchez said. “But we can’t fix the problem if the student doesn’t come to school.”

Tucker agreed, saying parents and guardians needed to let the district know about their needs — good, bad or embarrassing.

“Let the district know. This team thinks outside the box,” he said.

Tucker said it goes back to apathy on the part of parents and an unwillingness to find out what they need to do for their child.

“We need to tell the Legislature to back off of us and put it into parents. Put teeth where they need to be,” Tucker said.

While there is communication with parents and guardians at every tier, Gauthier said students classified as Tier 4 were the most concerning.

“We had a family go a long time with no contact. They said they were going to enroll their children in Los Lunas (Schools) but they didn’t. We’ve done everything we can, include contacting law enforcement,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to track the kids down. We are legitimately concerned. We know when kids are not in school, it’s not a good thing.”

To hammer home the importance of children being in school, Tucker somewhat facetiously proposed a financial penalty to hold parents accountable.

“If (the student) is out 15 percent of the time, it’s a $1,500 tax. If it’s 20 percent, it’s $2,000,” he said. “We’ll call it the Tucker Truancy Tax.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.