At Waipahu Elementary, a push to reduce student absenteeism has served as a prism into the larger challenges facing the community and why students miss school in the first place.

That insight has allowed school administrators to devise solutions that meet students’ needs, keep better track of which families need the most outreach and rebrand the school to improve attendance.

Strategies include phone calls and more phone calls, home visits and more home visits. The school has also created student attendance “challenges,” where the rewards can mean extra recess, indoor games or a coupon to the school snack bar. It’s also organized a new emergency supply closet stocking clean clothes and shoes for kids.

Waipahu’s efforts are taking place amid a statewide push by the Hawaii Department of Education to lower the average student chronic absenteeism rate, defined as missing 15 days or more of school in one year, from 15% to 9% by 2020 in all 292 public schools. That average has consistently hovered right around 15% the last several years.

Waipahu Elementary School Vice Principal James Suster stands in front of attendance board.
Vice Principal James Suster, pictured in front of an attendance board near the main office, spearheaded the school’s successful effort to cut down on missed school days. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It was always an issue. We’d been talking about absenteeism and kids not coming to school since I’ve been here,” said Waipahu Elementary Vice Principal James Suster, who started working at the school 14 years ago as a teacher.

As part of a principal professional development training project, Suster started tackling the issue several years ago. The Leeward school has since seen its chronic absenteeism rate plummet from 17% in the 2016-17 school year to 8% by 2017-18.

The K-6 school, situated in a former sugar plantation town, is jammed with an enrollment tipping past 1,000. A pedestrian bridge links the main building to portables across Waipahu Street that provide extra classrooms.

It has a transient and large immigrant population, with families often relocating in and out of the Kalihi-Waipahu corridor.

There is a lot of “exiting and entering” and students who “bounce around from place to place,” said Suster.

Opened in 1899, the school’s student body is about 40% Filipino, 25% Pacific Islanders, including Marshallese and Chuukese, 15% Polynesian students including Samoans and about 10% Native Hawaiian students. The surrounding area is cradled by Section 8 housing, with some units not located quite far enough away from campus to be served by school buses. That means on rainy days, kids may opt to stay home rather than make the soggy walk to school.

During home visits, Suster has seen multiple families crammed into a single apartment, often with no furniture in the common spaces.

The circumstances are a sharp reminder of issues plaguing students from economic insecurity to homelessness to the lack of a clean shirt to wear to school.

Although only about 10% of the school’s students are documented as homeless, Suster estimates as many as a quarter could be considered as such under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.  The act defines homelessness as, among other things, having to share housing due to economic hardship.

Start With Small Goals

The lessons of Waipahu Elementary provide one window into ongoing efforts by DOE schools to tackle chronic student absenteeism, which is one of the indicators of student progress in Hawaii’s Strive-HI school accountability system, as well as the DOE’s strategic plan and federal plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“We started learning about some of the issues, and how we can support some of those things,” Suster said. “School administration is really putting a focus on positivity, making students want to go to school. Making things fun, having events. When I talked to the kids, they were sad that summer was coming.”

Waipahu Elementary School portable classrooms.
Waipahu Elementary uses portable classrooms to accommodate a student body that tops 1,000. Founded in 1899, the school is located in a former sugar plantation town. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the five years since chronic absenteeism became a focus of Strive-HI, other DOE schools have made this a priority. Less than a mile from Waipahu Elementary, Honowai Elementary has also cut down its rate from 23% in 2013-14 to 7% for the past three years.

It serves a smaller student population and has also used “attendance challenges,” incentives like extra recess time and early intervention as successful strategies.

“The bigger picture was the focus of improved attendance versus perfect attendance,” said Carl Matsumoto, a vice principal at Honowai. “You have to set small goals. You have to put the kids in a position to succeed.”

Four Or Five Home Visits Per Day

In the final quarter of the 2016-17 school year, Waipahu Elementary began making phone calls home to students who were absent that day. Those turned into home visits to the kids who were missing a lot of school. The more Suster left the school walls and got out into the community, the more he learned.

“For parents, their view of the school is changing. They see us wanting to help,” James Suster, Waipahu Elementary School vice principal.

Lack of reliable transportation. Lack of clean school T-shirts or shoes (students must wear a school uniform consisting of a yellow or blue school T-shirt and pants of their choosing). Misplaced backpacks. Kids who woke up late and parents believing they’d be tardy anyway so choosing to keep them home. Other times, just excuses.

Sometimes, he’d find that parents did not have a working phone number or that they’d moved away.

Suster estimates he now makes on average four to five home visits a day, sometimes up to 10 to 12.

The system is not fail-proof. After the school’s absenteeism rate dipped to 8% in the 2017-18 school year, it slightly rose again this past school year to 10%. But Suster said he’s noticed the outreach is making a dent on area families.

“For parents, their view of the school is changing. They see us wanting to help,” he said.

And when it comes to those phone calls or home visits, the inquiry is more than surface deep.

“We don’t have a written script but pretty much it goes, ‘Just checking on Bobby to see if everything’s OK.’” he said. “If (a parent) says the (child) is sick, we ask, what kind of sick? When we probe, you can tell over the phone if the parent is making an excuse or if there’s really something wrong.”

Before this initiative, Waipahu Elementary didn’t really have a strategy for addressing student absences. The school office might send an automated message to the student number on file, but it was never a live person making the call, making it easy to simply hang up.

Or if a student missed three days or more of class, it was incumbent on the teacher to also call home — on top of all the other responsibilities they have to run and manage classrooms.

Now, the task falls to school counselors, with Suster making the home visits. He said it’s forced administrators to shift how they manage their work day. They may wait to respond to emails and do other administrative tasks until after students have left for the day.

Waipahu Elementary Schools Auntie Carolyn’ closet. Volunteer Carolyn Denny set up this to help with students who need clothes.
Waipahu Elementary community volunteer Carolyn Denney was instrumental in helping set up this emergency clothing and shoe supply closet at the school to help students in need. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s a lot of work and it can be defeating at times,” he said.

But he added, “I wish all of our teachers could go on these home visits and hopefully we can get to that point where some of them can. The biggest eye-opening thing is the amount of people that will live in a certain apartment and how many things our students don’t have.”

Even during its most challenged years, Waipahu Elementary fell somewhere in the middle of the pack when it came to its chronic absenteeism rate. Some DOE schools have seen their percentages soar to as high as 40% in any given year, while at others the percentages consistently fall below 10%.

The complex area that sees the highest rate of absenteeism is Waianae-Nanakuli on the Leeward coast. Some of the schools out there have used their own methods to tamp down on absences.

At Waipahu Elementary, the lessons learned during student outreach has led to creative solutions. One initiative the school has come up with is soliciting donations and shopping at Savers, a second-hand store, to stock an emergency supply closet of clean clothing, shoes and other attire for kids to wear at more formal school events.

In a small converted storage room near the main administrative office, shelves are stocked with neatly folded girls’ and boys’ clothes, designated by size. Carolyn Denney, a longtime Waipahu resident and volunteer at the school, is largely credited with that effort, so much so it’s known as “Auntie Carolyn’s Closet.”

Suster knows boosting attendance is only part of the equation, but a crucial part of laying the foundation to improving student outcomes.

“Students are coming to school,” he said. “What is the next big step in getting them proficient? How do we make Waipahu that school where you’ll be prepared for 6th, 7th and 8th grades?”

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