The eighth grader had already missed 32 days of school since August — an average of 10 ½ days each month. Waianae Intermediate school officials couldn’t get through to the girl to learn why she was gone so much.

So they tackled the problem head-on: school attendance officer Ocie Kuhaulua visited the girl’s home one Wednesday morning. It isn’t far from the school grounds: just a short walk by the basketball courts and past a locked fence in a residential neighborhood adjacent to campus.

Kuhaulua, clipboard in hand, sat across from the girl’s mother on her lanai, along with a school counselor, Ryson Mauricio. They talked. The mom said her daughter was reluctant to return at this point since, “she’s shamed because she’s out so long.”

Kuhaulua, a former substitute teacher who grew up in Waianae, encouraged the mom to still bring her in the next day. She then rose and gave the mom a hug.

Waianae Intermediate staffers Ocie Kuhaulua, left, and Keahi Puahi, after visiting the home of a student who has missed roughly 32 days of school in the first three months of the school year. 

“This is good, actually,” observed Kuhaulua’s colleague, Keahi Puahi, who works with her in the school’s attendance division. “At least we let her know what’s going on.”

It’s unclear what led to the girl’s absences in the first place. She struggled with flagging attendance at her previous school as well, according to officials. What’s important is that school representatives made contact.

Home visits, while not new or unique to the school, are part of the relationship-building strategy Waianae Intermediate — which includes the seventh and eighth grades — has deployed in recent years as it grapples with a chronic absenteeism rate of nearly 40 percent.

Chronic absenteeism in Hawaii is defined as missing 15 or more days in the 180-day academic year.

Waianae Intermediate has the highest absenteeism rate of all of the 41 public middle schools in the state, according to Strive-HI data for the 2016-17 school year. Among all schools, only Waianae High School and Kau High and Pahala Elementary on the Big Island had higher rates.

The statewide chronic absenteeism average for all 256 public schools run by the Department of Education, plus 36 public charter schools, is 15 percent.

Medical issues such as asthma, lack of access to proper health care and difficulty with transportation to and from schools on Oahu’s Leeward Coast — located about 30 miles west of Honolulu — contribute to local schools having some of the highest chronic absenteeism rates in the state.

According to national research, chronic absenteeism disproportionately affects children living in poverty and communities serving large ethnic minority populations. Missing extensive amounts of school at a young age increases the likelihood of dropping out of high school and ultimately affects a community’s economic viability, according to research.

Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, English language learners and special education students miss the most school, according to a Civil Beat analysis of the Strive-Hi data for 2016-17 school year.

Moreover, in the 2013-14 school year, 16 percent of Hawaii schools had levels of  “extreme chronic absenteeism,”  meaning 30 percent or more of students are absent more than 15 days out of the year, according to a report by Attendance Works released in September.

The national median for extreme chronic absenteeism was 8 percent that year. Only five other states had a higher percentage than Hawaii’s — Alaska, Washington state, New York, Oregon and Michigan, according to Hedy Chang, executive director of the initiative.

New Strategies

At Waianae Intermediate, where a majority of the 913 enrolled students are Native Hawaiian or part Hawaiian and 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, school leaders are trying out different methods of early intervention.

They’re encouraging more adult-student mentorship through weekly professional development for teachers and building relationships with families in the community through the attendance division. The school will also bring in a new mental health counselor in partnership with Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, which currently operates an on-campus health center.

Waianae Intermediate Principal John Wataoka says the school is emphasizing relationship-building as a way to reduce student absences. 

The idea, says John Wataoka — school principal for the last two years after heading a feeder school, Waianae Elementary — is to let teens know that teachers and staff care and are looking out for them.

“In their own way, (the students) are looking for that adult affirmation, even though they’re not saying it,” Wataoka said. That idea of “‘someone wants me to be at school, so I’m going to be there.’”

A professional development session might consist of the following tips: greet students at the door at the start of class, or learn one personal thing about each student to foster a relationship.

The school also has the only attendance division of its kind on the Leeward Coast. They collect attendance data from teachers and follow up on students who are frequently absent. They also make home visits all over the community, including to the homeless camp next to the Waianae Boat Harbor where some of the school’s students live.

The school also runs an after-school program from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. known as “Twilight” that allows absent kids to make up for missed credit earlier in the day. They also visit sixth-graders at the feeder elementary schools, instilling the importance of school attendance early on.

Waianae Intermediate is also in the third year of a pilot program involving family court in Kapolei. Probation officers and school officials first work with a family to identify reasons why a chronically absent student is missing school and see if they can arrive at a solution. If that intervention isn’t enough, the student and family are summoned to court to talk with a judge.

Those cases often involve severe circumstances that relate to issues of homelessness, trauma or domestic violence and where court-ordered services can help.

“Truancy cases are never just about kids not going to school,” said First Circuit Court Judge Mark Browning, who spearheaded the program in 2015. “They’re about things that are happening to that kid that are very difficult problems and things that are happening with the family.”

The program appears to be making a dent: in its first year, 78 students at Waianae Intermediate were identified for early intervention; among those, 15 were summoned to court. In 2016-17, 92 kids were identified as needing services. School-tracked data shows the students who have gone through the pilot have shown attendance improvement.

Statewide Efforts

This effort is occurring amid a statewide DOE focus on reducing chronic absenteeism, listed as a “success indicator” in the state’s strategic plan for 2017-2020. Hawaii has also incorporated the metric into its accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

DOE officials say they want to push down the statewide 15 percent average to 9 percent within the next three years.

School attendance officers at Waianae Intermediate often use bicycles to make home visits around town. 

“Based on feedback from the Board of Education, an ambitious goal was set to bring chronic absenteeism down to the single digits,” spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said.

Several statewide initiatives are underway: an effort to bring more registered nurses into the schools through “Hawaii Keiki: Healthy and Ready to Learn” and “Challenge 5” in Big Island’s Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area which tries to get student absences down to five in one year.

Wataoka says stemming absenteeism at his school will require a community effort.

“A lot of it is just relationship-building with the families, getting to know them, and seeking out other community resources that the Department of Education doesn’t have access to,” he said.

Progress is relative: In 2015-16, Waianae Intermediate’s chronic absenteeism rate was 38 percent, meaning a slightly larger percentage of students were chronically absent the following year.

But the school also deals with extreme levels of absences, with some kids missing up to as many as 100 days in a single school year. If a student is absent 20 days the following year, that’s progress, he said.

“Even if by the state’s definition, (those students) are still considered chronically absent, they’re still coming to school 80 more days a year,” Wataoka said. “We’ve noticed improvement, but the state definition of chronic absenteeism doesn’t necessarily reflect in those numbers.”

Waianae Intermediate’s goal is to reduce its chronic absenteeism rate to 25 percent by 2019-20, according to the school’s three-year academic plan.

Incentives are also part of the picture.  The school will throw pizza parties for students who show attendance improvement.

Such incentives are used elsewhere in the state. At Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate, which also had higher than average chronic absenteeism last year, the school rewards improved attendance with “high-end field trips” to places like the skating rink, water park or a banquet at the end of year, according to principal Noel Richardson.

‘The Right Personnel’

Waianae Intermediate’s strategies to get more kids to school are premised on greater engagement with kids and families. School officials say that rests on community trust.

Waianae-born-and-raised Ocie Kuhaulua, who works with students and families to try and reduce absenteeism at Waianae Intermediate, is a fixture in the surrounding community. 

Kuhaulua, the attendance counselor, is a 1969 graduate of Waianae High School, a longtime sub and former education assistant who used to work at the alternative learning center across the street. Known as “Ms. Ocie” to the kids, she’s a recognizable face.

“We don’t want our families to feel like they’re being judged,” she said. “You’ve got to have the right personnel,” when it comes to interacting with families and making home visits, she added.

When asked what students say when they’re asked why they’re missing so much school, “the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, bullying,” she said.

Not all the students aspire to go to college, Kuhaulua said. Some are more interested in trade school so they can go on to become a mechanic or do other type of work.

But her goal is to encourage them to attend school so they can learn core content areas like math, science, social studies and language skills. The parents also want to see their kids ultimately find success, she said.

Results will not happen overnight. It’s a matter of trial and error and seeing what sticks. And oftentimes, it’s a frustrating uphill battle.

The girl who was paid a home visit last Wednesday didn’t come to school the next day, according to Kuhaulua. “No show,” she said.

But the school officer won’t give up.

“We have a plan B: she can go to our evening school. We’re going to offer that today,” she said.

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