Ramona High School is a large, comprehensive high school located in Riverside County, CA., and serves 2,078 students. When asked to describe the school, Assistant Principal for Student Support Services, Estephany Balcazar, Ph.D., noted that the school prioritizes student well-being. School leaders have tried to create a school environment where students feel respected, heard and are emotionally validated. Every student knows they can reach out for help at the Wellness Center on campus. The school offers more than 100 clubs and activities with opportunities that span a wide range of interests. The school motto, “Academics, Plus Two” encourages students to get involved in clubs and activities as a way to promote a stronger sense of belonging and connection to the school.

Although Ramona High’s chronic absence rate is higher than school leaders would like, it’s still well below the statewide average. Looking at the school’s disaggregated chronic absence rates, it’s important to note that simply looking at chronic absence percentages can be somewhat misleading. For example, it appears as though American Indian/Alaska Native students have very high absence rates, but in raw numbers that percentage represents six students. The rate for African American students represents 16 students.

See the key takeaways below.

It takes a team

Given concerns about its chronic absence rate, Ramona High School hired two additional staff members, including one who is a bilingual Spanish speaker, and compensated another two teachers who use their prep time to identify absent and reach out to them and their families and caregivers. These four staff members call themselves the “A-Team.” After a student has been identified for attendance issues, an A-Team member reaches out to them and then, potentially, to family members. Balcazar noted that the district and school principal have been supportive of the A Team’s efforts, but “it’s a lot of hard work.” The tone of the A-Team’s outreach is caring and inquisitive, and in this way is intentionally different from the communication from a Student Attendance Review Board which families say can feel punitive.

This caring attitude often results in a receptive reaction from students. Instead of thinking, “oh I’m in trouble, [students think] they care and want to help,” Balcazar said. The A-Team communicates with counselors and each student’s teachers about the outreach and next steps for students. Balcazar said the A-Team’s approach is “very coherent,” and everyone is on the same page. A-Team members continue to monitor students for improvement and schedule check-ins with students if attendance starts to dip.

Ramona High students are also served by a number of coordinators who focus on the unique needs of certain student groups, including a Heritage Coordinator for African American students, an English Language Coordinator, a District Coordinator for homeless and foster youth, and several counselors who staff the Wellness Center. Recently, the District Coordinator set up a space on campus where students can find clothes and toiletries free of charge. Students whose families have more comprehensive needs such as housing, family counseling or assistance filing applications for California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are supported by two community assistants.

Office hours offer a mental break in the middle of the day: Office hours – forty-five minute periods on Tuesdays and Thursdays – enable students to make up work or missed tests, receive tutoring, schedule appointments at the Wellness Center or engage in enrichment activities. Office hours, designed by teachers at the school just before the pandemic, are used for academics and tutoring , and to reinforce social-emotional learning skills such as listening, paying attention, problem-solving and self-regulation, or “just something out of the norm.” According to Balcazar, sometimes students just need the chance to say, “okay I need to reset, take a mental break and be better the rest of the day.” Office hours are an additional opportunity for students to build relationships with teachers who may not necessarily be their content area teachers.

Ninth grade support

In preparation for the transition into high school, Ramona High hosts a day when eighth graders can visit the school to participate in a shortened schedule of classes and a pep rally, all of which is designed to give incoming students a taste of what high school will be like. In addition, teachers make a concerted effort to promote their motto of “A Plus,” which engages incoming students in at least two extracurricular activities or clubs. Participating in more than academics helps build community and offers additional incentives for students to attend regularly.

District support

In addition to providing the funding to support the A-Team staff, the district convenes district attendance team meetings. School leaders meet monthly to examine district attendance data and address common challenges. Sometimes, Balcazar said, it’s just logistics like how to get updated contact information into AERIES (the school portal for communicating with families). Other times, they’re learning with and from one another by sharing ideas, such as the approach used by Ramona’s A-Team.

Ongoing challenges

Coming out of the pandemic, Balcazar, like other school leaders, said that focusing on social-emotional skill development is essential. Making the transition from middle to high school is a challenge under the best of circumstances, but doing so after two years of a disrupted middle school experience highlighted the challenges many students face. Creating a warm and welcoming community where students feel heard and are engaged in activities that promote a sense of belonging is one way Ramona High School is trying to address those challenges.

Key Takeaways

  • Ramona has a team – the A-Team – that meets regularly to examine data and target students who might need additional support. Team members reach out to students first and then later to families if necessary, A-Team members monitor students.
  • Shifting the nature of the conversation between schools, students and families is important. Research has shown that moving from a conversation that may contribute to students’ sense of disconnection because they’re “in trouble” to one where they feel cared for, seen and heard is an effective approach.
  • Addressing the ninth-grade transition is paramount, particularly since the pandemic when middle school experiences were so disrupted. Providing multiple opportunities for students and their families to participate in school activities before they arrive in September is key. Opening the school to incoming students to see the campus, experience abbreviated classes and participate in a pep rally can ease the transition from middle to high school.
  • Encouraging incoming students to participate in extracurricular activities and clubs provides additional motivation and sense of belonging for students. Ramona’s motto of A Plus 2, particularly for ninth grade students is one example of this.
  • Providing additional funding for the hard work of identifying, supporting, and monitoring students and hosting district attendance team meetings for peer-to-peer learning are key roles districts play in supporting school efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism.
  • Mental breaks during the day also give students a chance to recharge from the stress of academic classes.

This bright spot story was developed with the support of the Stuart Foundation.