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Arresting parents is last resort for getting kids to school in Merced, officials say

Students take the bus and walk to John C Fremont Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Merced.
Students take the bus and walk to John C Fremont Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Merced. vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Improving student attendance remains a major goal for the Merced County Office of Education.

The Here to Learn Program is a collaboration between the Merced County Office of Education, the Merced County District Attorney’s office and the 20 school districts in Merced County to improve student attendance.

Schools across the country are calling September Attendance Awareness Month.

The Here to Learn Program was implemented in 2017 and during its first year 12 school districts in the county saw improved attendance rates.

“I think it’s exciting when you see big improvements in attendance,” said Andrea Valtierra-Gongora, a criminal investigator for the Merced County District Attorney’s office and part of the Here to Learn Program. “When you see serious cases, that’s disheartening to know kids are suffering.”

Valierra-Gongora makes home visits, gives presentations to parent groups, and makes referrals to community agencies and attending School Attendance Review Boards.

“School districts make every effort to address chronic absenteeism with families, through notification letters, phone calls, home visits, and school site meetings,” Valierra-Gongora wrote in an e-mail to the Sun-Star. “If the absenteeism does not improve, then as the last resort within the district, the family is referred to (School Attendance Review Board) and ultimately placed on a SARB (attendance) contract.”

When parents violate the SARB contracts, they could face legal consequences.

In 2018, more than 20 arrests or citations were issued to parents whose children were chronically absent for multiple years.

“We’re not in the business of taking parents to jail unless it’s absolutely the last step,” William Olson, chief investigator for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, told the Sun-Star in January. “But in getting a parent to take responsibility for their children, sometimes that’s the only answer.”

Merced County had a higher chronic absenteeism rate, 12.6 percent, in the 2017-18 school year than the state average of 11.1 percent, according to state education data. That Merced County rate dropped slightly from 12.8 percent in 2016-2017. Statistics for the 2018-19 school year aren’t available yet.

The work done by Valtierra-Gongora and the Here to Learn Program has resulted in a turnaround for some of the most chronically absent students in the county.

One student had 30 absences in the 2017-18 school year and that number dropped to 13 in the 2018-19 school year.

During a three-year period, one student had 49 absences in kindergarten. The number dropped to 19 in first grade and then down to eight the next year.

In the 2016-17 school year a group of five children had combined for 305 absences. In the 2018-19 school year the five students combined for 49 absences.

Valtierra-Gongroa says she is excited to see attendance improvements and will call parents to congratulate them.

“It may take a while,” she said. “But as long as students continue to improve and agencies stress the importance of regular all-day school attendance, things are looking up.”

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