How this poor, rural California district is keeping kids in school
At a time when rural schools all over California struggle to keep students in school, a three-year-old experiment in the southern Fresno County community of Parlier is showing some interesting results.
And, officials say, chronic absenteeism isn’t the only problem the Parlier experiment may eventually solve. Like many Central Valley communities, Parlier doesn’t have enough doctors for its residents.
In 2015, Parlier Unified School District and United Health Centers partnered up to address both issues by building a federally-funded health center down the street from the elementary and high schools in Parlier.
Local leaders acknowledge it’s still too soon to declare victory but, they say, the early data is encouraging and other school districts should take notice.
“I think even a small improvement — like numbers going in the right direction — might be enough for other school districts to want to know more,” said Alma McKenry, director of health services at the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Office.
Fighting chronic absences
Parlier in 2015 turned attendance into a citywide issue.
The school launched a superhero-themed campaign to promote attendance. High school students and even administrators dressed up as popular comic book characters, posters and banners went up around the city, and good attendance was rewarded with pizza parties.
“The thing that Parlier does is you’ve got the mayor, chief of police, groundskeepers, transportation people on board,” said BethAnn Berliner, senior researcher and project director at WestEd. “You’ve got high school students mentoring younger kids on why it’s important to come to school. They have posters in the windows of local businesses. Last year, the first thing you saw when you got off (Highway) 99 was a billboard about reducing chronic absence.”
Compared to the rest of the state, Parlier’s rate of chronic absenteeism has been consistently low over the last three school years, but after the clinic opened, their numbers got even better.
Parlier in 2015 reported its chronic absenteeism rate at 8.4%. The following year, after the clinic opened, that number tumbled to 5.9%.
In the 2018-19 school year, 7.3% of Parlier Unified students missed more than 10% of school, according to the state Department of Education. Last year’s rate was a small step backward for the district, but still significantly better than the 12% state average and one of the best in Fresno County.
Parlier’s success is surprising, officials say, because the district has one of the highest poverty rates and largest migrant populations in the region.
More absenteeism means less money from the state. But a growing body of evidence also connects it to dropout rates and college readiness. By keeping kids in class, the district also can ensure low-income students access resources like social workers, food, clothes and hygiene products.
“I think the school and the clinic working together is huge for us,” said Praxades Torres, director of child welfare and attendance at Parlier. “If the health clinic wasn’t here a lot of parents would keep their kids at home because they don’t have a ride to a clinic or the proper resources for their child.”
Torres said illness isn’t the only culprit. Some kids, he learned, stayed home because they hadn’t slept the night before over fears of their parents being deported. Others were embarrassed because they couldn’t afford to get a haircut. A local barber is now offering free cuts.
The Valley’s physician shortage