Approximately 20-25% of our population at any given time is enrolled in the ESL program, with about a third being ESL Level 1 students (indicating they read, speak, and understand very little English, if any at all). The portion of students reaching 7+ unexcused absences that were also in the ESL Program was increasing (14% in 2014/15, 16% in 2015/16). Though decreasing overall unexcused absences was our program goal, we focused specifically on the ESL Population for Closing-the-Gap. Our Closing-the-Gap goal was as follows: By June 5th, 2017, the number of students in the ESL Program who reach 7+ unexcused absences will decrease by 40% from the 2015-2016 school year, from accounting for 16% of students to 9.5% or less of students with 7+ unexcused absences.
We identified two main factors contributing to this rise: 1) an inability to communicate between parents/school and 2) transportation issues, especially for Level 1 students who are not actually zoned for Brookland and receive special transportation to school. Parents often did not know the attendance procedures or have the ability to communicate with the school why their child was absent. Though we planned to integrate the ESL students into our other implementations, we knew that was not enough. 21% of parents at BMS spoke Spanish as their primary language and we felt it best practice to advocate to have an official interpreter on campus to address the language barrier. Rather than spending excessive time attempting to coordinate with county interpreters, which required two weeks’ notice and left us unable to address more immediate needs, we knew having a scheduled interpreter on campus would help us be more welcoming to parents who arrive unexpectedly and address the structural issues that arise with an inability to communicate.
After several years of advocating, we secured an on-site Spanish Interpreter for four hours every Wednesday. This proved enormously beneficial as we no longer had to request county interpreters. Every Wednesday, the counselors could communicate with Ms.Aguiar about student concerns and she would call home to translate with us present. Our registrar scheduled all new Spanish speaking enrollments when Ms. Aguiar was on campus to ensure parents understood all school procedures. Many absences from our ESL students are excusable if we received a phone call or note that explained the student’s absence. As Ms. Aguiar could explain the procedure, many parents learned how to handle absences. She created an excused absences template in Spanish that our Spanish speaking families could keep at home to use. This template was approved by our attendance secretary so that any excuse notes received from this template were automatically approved.
We also asked Ms. Aguiar to create a similar template for us to use when communicating home for parent meetings. When a student reaches six unexcused absences, we are required to meet with the parent and student to discuss attendance law and excusable absences. Our meeting notices are only written in English and our ESL parents rarely know to attend. The Spanish template clearly indicated where to input the student/parent’s information and the time/place of the meeting. We increased our Spanish-speaking parent presence at school meetings.
ESL students also participated in our other attendance implementations. Of the 17 students involved in attendance groups, five were in the ESL program (though they were level two or higher to ensure they could participate in discussion/activities). In addition, about 1/5th of students who reached 4 unexcused absences were in the ESL program (29 of 174). The counselors spoke with them individually to discuss their attendance as well.
Though none of these implementations focused on Closing-the-Gap are traditional lessons or groups, they were instrumental in helping us communicate with our ESL families. Attendance concerns for ESL students drastically decreased. From accounting for 16% of students with excessive absences in 2015/16, the ESL population accounted for only 8.3% of students with 7+ unexcused absences in the 2016/17 school year. This means that far fewer of our ESL students and parents were referred to a judge for truancy, especially when it was unnecessary to do so. We will use this data to advocate for our program and ensure we continue to have an on-site interpreter, if not asking for more hours or a second interpreter that speaks another prevalent language. In addition, due to the helpfulness of the translated attendances letters, we plan to ask our ESL County Program to provide translated versions in other languages as BMS educates students speaking 23-27 different languages at any given time.