n their way to school early one Monday morning, the students of Franklin Elementary School and their families were greeted by a new crossing guard. Principal Jeanette MacDonald was filling in that day, enthusiastically welcoming each student and family while directing neighborhood traffic. MacDonald’s warmth and energy reflects the engaging, nurturing environment that awaits the nearly 800 Franklin students when they arrive at school. That environment, combined with a veteran staff and strong community partnerships, has helped the Oakland school maintain one of the best attendance records as well as academic performance in the city. While the average chronic absence rate for elementary schools is 11 percent, Franklin’s rate has always remained well below that figure, with some years as low as 5.1 percent, or less than half the district’s average. Franklin students score 100 points above the district average on the Academic Performance Index.
Franklin’s success rests on a strong culture of attendance, which originates with the families, many of them immigrants. It continues with strong leadership to create a school environment where teachers and staff want to stay for many years and develop ties to the community. And it depends on well-developed relationships with community service organizations that bring extra hands and expertise to help students succeed.
Strong Culture of Attendance
Franklin is a large, multilingual-school that attracts—and actively recruits—many first-generation immigrant families. The school offers 11 bilingual classes for students speaking Cantonese, Spanish and Vietnamese, as well as 20 Structured English Immersion classes for other language groups. Students of Asian and Latino descent make up 70 percent of the student population, and 67 percent of the students are English language learners. More than eight in 10 students have been identified as low-income. The staff at Franklin Elementary reports that despite the numerous barriers these families face, many place a high value on education and attendance—viewing education as a main source of hope for their children’s future. Franklin students “come to school because their parents want them to learn so they can get a good job in the future,” says one fifth grader. “If they keep going to school every day they can go to a great college and make their parents proud!”
Family enthusiasm is matched and reinforced by the staff and teachers early and often. Beginning in kindergarten, teachers work to create a foundation for families that emphasizes the importance of attendance and education. Franklin educators continue to convey this message during Back-to-School nights, in newsletters and phone calls home to parents. If the attendance data reflect continued absences for a student, attendance clerk Anita Goodwin or another staff member who speaks the family’s home language reaches out to connect with the family. The approach, Principal MacDonald says, “uses the carrot, not the stick.” School officials explore the barriers each family faces and ask, “How can we help?”
Welcoming Environment and Sense of Belonging
Establishing a sense of belonging and engagement for the entire school community—students, families, staff, teachers and community partners—is crucial to maintaining this culture of attendance. Given the diverse population, it’s essential for Franklin’s staff to recognize and respect the cultural and linguistic differences that many of their families bring. The school achieves this by intentionally hiring staff members with linguistic capabilities that reflect the community.
“The parents like to hear and see people who listen to them and can speak with them in their own language,” MacDonald notes. Her multi-lingual administrative team includes staff members who are fluent in Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese or American Sign Language, as well as English. School officials also respect cultural traditions, such as the extended trips to the home country that many immigrant families make. Staff and teachers adapt attendance policies and create independent study packages to support the academic needs of these children while they’re out of school. The Franklin team also engages parents through an active School Site Council that meets once a month, adult education and ESL courses for parents offered Monday through Thursday, Families also come and shop together for fresh greens and fruit each Tuesday at produce market hosted by the school.
An interesting and equitable curriculum, MacDonald says, also motivates kids to come to school. The school psychologist, Giovanna Otfinowski, observes that students have the opportunity to experience “school ownership” at Franklin by taking an active role in creating and improving the school environment through gardening, recycling and the student conflict management team. “When children feel welcome and competent, they will come to school,” Otfinowski says.
Building a sense of belonging and engagement does not stop with students and parents. MacDonald works to see that staff members, teachers and community partners feel equally welcome and involved. In her 18 years at the school she has fashioned her budget to ensure she has the right administrative team. The size of the school, with nearly 800 students, gives her added budget flexibility. For instance, after social worker Juan Quintana began working at Franklin through a partnership with a community organization in the 1990s, MacDonald was so impressed with his work that she found a way to use school funds to hire Quintana and keep him as part of the team.
She also works to find the right teachers and provide them with enough support, and create an environment where they feel comfortable raising issues and contributing ideas. Her success is reflected in the extraordinary longevity of Franklin’s staff—the average tenure at Franklin is about 16 years. A fifth grade teacher who has worked at Franklin for 14 years believes that a big factor in that staff stability is the great work environment at the school. MacDonald stresses the need for teachers’ participation in finding solutions and allows them time and space to do just that.
This includes monthly planning time and professional development among grade-level teams, as well as monthly faculty/staff meeting time on core subjects using benchmark data and technology. The school opens early in the day and closes late to allow more access to teachers and the principal. Four times a year, Franklin has Saturday workdays with classroom and office access. The school provides substitutes so that teachers can attend district workshops at other schools or plan for school-wide projects, such as the science fair and spirit week.
Strong Community Partnerships to Promote Attendance
Principal MacDonald and the Franklin staff extend this welcoming environment to their community partners in promoting attendance. Otfinowski describes Franklin as a “place for partnerships” that nurtures long-lasting, collaborative community and interagency working arrangements. “We are really a community school,” MacDonald said. “The community looks good when the school does well, and the school does well when the community does well.”
MacDonald fights to maintain funding for these community partnerships and student and family support services, which include an in-house referral system with a full-time nurse, several mental health professionals, case management and afterschool programs. She also consults with these community providers frequently and provides them space and computer access when they need it.
Otfinowski and Quintana form the core of a counseling team for students, many of whom are dealing with the side effects of poverty and immigration. Some of the older students are caring for younger siblings and taking on very adult roles in their families’ lives. The school’s work is augmented by a team of therapists from the Ann Martin Center, which operates in several Oakland schools. Poor attendance can be a reason for referral to the therapists, just as improved attendance can be a byproduct of the intervention. The long tenure of the school counseling staff helps them build relationships with several children from the same family. This can be an important asset when dealing with the families facing the most challenges.
Throughout the school day, Playworks works with teachers and students to use healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to create a positive and active school environment. Nearly 300 Franklin students also have the chance to receive assistance with homework and participate in meaningful afterschool activities through a partnership with the East Bay Asian Youth Center and Harbor House (a faith-based organization located in the neighborhood). Franklin also has partnerships with such agencies as the Lung Association and Pathways; Alameda County, Dental Services; Alameda County, Champions for Change nutrition program, East Bay Asian Mental Health, Oakland East Bay Symphony, Random Acts and Oakland Firefighters.
Charismatic, Compassionate and Intentional Leadership
MacDonald’s energetic leadership represents the common thread that sustains all of these components—culture of attendance, welcoming environment, sense of belonging and engagement and strong community partnerships— to support Franklin’s academic success and its low chronic absenteeism rates.
School-wide structures that promote peer sharing, peer learning and collaborative problem-solving at all levels. For example, a mentoring and coaching system among new and established teachers fosters collaboration. Similarly Otfinowski facilitates a mentorship program for new clinicians to orient them to Franklin’s students, families, staff, procedures and dynamics. A coaching program also exists for students as junior coaches in Playworks and as conflict managers in the school.
MacDonald pays close attention to detail as she supports the basic social, emotional and physical needs of students, families, staff, teachers and community organizations. This can be seen as she hosts daily “coffee hours” where teachers gather for coffee, snacks, socializing and support, or when she fills in as crossing guard.
She sums up the supportive philosophy she strives to create at Franklin Elementary, saying, “It is important that this door is always open and the coffee pot is always on.”