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Effort to bring back L.A.'s absent students begins at home

Alexandra Chacon was getting her 3-year-old son ready for preschool on Thursday, when a pair of strangers knocked on her door.

One of them was Rafael Rubalcava, a Student Attendance Review Board chair for Los Angeles Unified. “We’re here today because today is student recovery day,” he told her.

Rubalcava and Nisha Narsai both work for the school district. They were at Chacon’s home in South L.A. near USC on behalf of Manual Arts High School, where records show that Chacon’s 15-year-old son, Emilio, is supposed to be enrolled.

Thursday was L.A. Unified’s student recovery day, so they were one of 13 teams fanned out throughout the area around Manual Arts, knocking on the doors of students who appeared to have dropped out or had a high number of absences. At least six other schools in the district were performing the same tasks Thursday, with the goal of bringing students back to school. The district’s four-year high school dropout rate decreased from 24.7% for the class of 2010 to 17.4% for the class of 2014, according to the state Department of Education.

From Thursday through Tuesday, police have been asked not to give citations to students breaking truancy laws, which make it illegal for minors to be out in public without adults during school hours. The district’s police actually mostly stopped enforcing that rule with punitive actions in 2012, instead bringing most students to their schools and allowing the administration to find the root of the problem instead. This week, the district police also sent a request to about a dozen other law enforcement agencies in the area asking them to do the same, L.A. schools Police Chief Steven Zipperman said.

In the past six years since recovery day began (this year was the seventh), the district has seen almost 4,600 students return because of these home visits, LAUSD Board of Education President Steve Zimmer told volunteers Thursday morning. He and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti visited homes on Thursday, and Zimmer established the annual event with current Supt. Ray Cortines in 2009.

Emilio was home on Thursday, but not because he dropped out. He transferred to an Opportunities for Learning charter school last year, after his mother caught him skipping class. The charter allows Emilio to study at home under his mother’s supervision, and go to the school a few times a week for classes and exams.  

Chacon’s was one of nine homes that Narsai and Rubalcava visited on Thursday. At five of the homes, people weren’t home or didn’t answer, so they left a packet of resources wherever they could fit them—on the door, or wedged between grates of a gate.

In two of the homes where parents did answer, the situation was similar to Chacon’s — the students were enrolled, but at other schools. That is often the case, Narsai said. Recovery day also allows the schools to make their records more accurate, to find out where students have moved and why, if they didn’t drop out.

It’s also an opportunity to help the parents find services regardless of the school they’re attending now.

Evangelina Gutierrez, the last stop for Narsai and Rubalcava, said in Spanish that her son had also transferred out of Manual Arts last year for a nearby charter school, and she was moving him again this year to a high school with more resources. However, Gutierrez speaks Spanish and was worried about finding someone at the new school who would be able to help her. Narsai knows the pupil services and attendance counselors there who speak Spanish, and she gave Gutierrez their names.

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There was only one home they visited where the student appeared to be a dropout, Narsai said. The student and his mother were home, and the school’s records showed that he had not enrolled in Manual Arts this year, meaning he was a dropout.

The student, dressed in pajamas, told them he had enrolled and that he wasn’t in school that day because he had run out of clothes.

The difference between the dropout recovery team and a school counselor is that the counselor might be more familiar with the student’s circumstances, and might have more information such as his transcript, which would inform the conversation. 

“I think it’s challenging because we really can’t confirm anything,” Narsai said in an interview. “All we could show the mom was that according to the records we had, he wasn’t enrolled in school that year.”

The teen said he was interested in joining the military and Manual Arts wasn’t a good fit for him, Narsai recounted. So the volunteers directed him toward the youth services center, talked up the credits that he had completed and explained different high school completion options.

The mother told them she would take him to school herself, and Narsai and Rubalcava told her the school would be expecting him. The school’s counselor will follow up, Narsai said.

The role the volunteers play is similar to what the school’s counselors do every day, but recovery day allows them to do it on a larger scale and early in the year, said Luz Cubias, a pupil services and attendance counselor at Manual Arts. She says she calls homes if students don’t show up for three days, and does home visits if they miss a week.

But for this number of students, Cubias said Thursday, “it would have taken me weeks to find them.”

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