Five Questions with Sheri Hanni and Adrianne Watkins: Supporting Chronically Absent Students in Rural Communities

Sheri Hanni

Sheri Hanni is the K-12 Program Coordinator for the Butte County Office of Education’s (BCOE) Student Attendance Review Board (SARB). Having worked for BCOE for 25 years, she also serves as the county lead for the Multi-Tiered System of Support state-wide initiative and as a Coordinated District Support (CDS) Team member, which provides training, coaching, and support primarily to districts qualifying for Differentiated Assistance due to low ratings on the State Dashboard.

Adrianne Watkins is a Case Manager for the BCOE’s Homeless Education Program. She has worked for BCOE for six-and-a-half years, providing support to students and their families who are experiencing homelessness and/or have entered the SARB process. Her primary role is to advocate for the educational rights of homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and to provide case management support to students. She serves as a liaison between the family and the school systems, ensuring that educational needs are met, linking families with local resources, and helping to identify and address barriers to attendance.

Butte County is located in rural northern California, approximately 80 miles north of Sacramento. It is comprised of 13 school districts serving 33,000 students, four of which are single-school districts primarily located in the foothills of Butte County. Approximately 62% of the student population is identified as low socio-economic status, and 2.5% of students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year. BCOE’s homeless education program provides direct services to approximately 500 students each year.  

What are some of the unique needs of your district? How do these unique needs affect student attendance?

Sheri: Butte County, like many rural areas, is impacted by high rates of unemployment, single-parent households, and poverty–often generational poverty. Butte County has also been identified as having the highest rate of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) in the state. There is a lack of mental health providers as well as a shortage of medical doctors serving our area. Many of our families do not have a regular doctor, so if a child is ill, they often spend a great deal of time waiting in emergency rooms or drop-in clinics–which leads them to miss time at school. Even when mental health and medical services are available, transportation is a barrier for many families. 

We often hear from families that they have one working vehicle or limited money for gas. If someone has an appointment, they need to do all their errands and shopping that same day—which means that the whole family needs to go. If parents cannot finish their errands and appointments in time to pick up their kids from school, the children don’t attend school that day. Or, if the kids miss the bus, they don’t go to school. We have students with mental health challenges who have anxiety about attending school. On especially difficult days, parents can struggle to get their kids to school, resulting in missed days. Many of our families have a lack of trust in school staff, often due to their own school experience, so they may not communicate challenges that prevent them from getting their kids to school, or getting the support they need.

ALL school staff need training on how to identify when a student may be experiencing trauma or a mental health challenge and how to communicate in a caring, supportive way. Many districts provide trauma-sensitive training to all staff, including classified personnel such as bus drivers, food service staff, campus supervisors, etc. This has been beneficial in identifying when a student may need additional help. Because challenging behaviors often appear during unstructured time during the school day, training ALL staff can make the difference for children.

Chronic Absenteeism in Butte County
Chronic Absenteeism in Butte County

In your district, how do you identify students experiencing homelessness who are chronically absent? Do you collaborate with your district’s homeless education liaison–and, if so, how?

Adrianne: I think chronic absence is an early indicator to school staff that prompts student check-ins, often revealing housing instability in the process. In collaboration with targeted case managers, student advocates, and district homeless liaisons, students who are identified as homeless through early intervention are then referred to our program. Our homeless education program is able to provide supportive services to mitigate attendance concerns by assisting with transportation (e.g. providing gas cards, bus passes, or advocating for district transportation). For any students who were not initially identified through this process, they are eventually identified through the School Attendance Review Board (SARB) process.  

The School Attendance Review Board is a panel of representatives from schools and community agencies that regularly hold meetings with families of students showing attendance concerns in order to provide support and interventions to alleviate barriers to attendance.  I have the opportunity to attend the SARB meetings for our districts, giving me the chance to participate in the collaborative efforts to establish a plan for successful attendance. 

Families often disclose their homelessness for the first time at the SARB hearings, as their living situation is often self-reported as a contributing factor to the attendance issues. We often hear that an eviction left a family displaced, living outside of the district boundary lines, either living in a shelter or a temporary living arrangement, or a domestic violence situation that has forced a parent and their child(ren) to relocate to another city in order to access confidential, emergency shelter. In these scenarios, the SARB panel works to link the family with supportive services on the spot, such as establishing a transportation plan in order to keep the student in their school of origin, placing a referral for counseling services, and ensuring that the family is able to leave the meeting with resources in hand for housing programs, food assistance, and other basic needs.

 A specific case that comes to mind is that of a mother who escaped a domestic violence situation and had to seek emergency shelter 25 miles away from her child’s school. There was not much time left in the school year, so enrolling in the local school did not seem to be in the child’s best interest, nor was the daily commute feasible for the parent at the time. With close collaboration between our office and the school district, I was able to advocate for a temporary independent study arrangement to allow her child to complete the school year successfully. I picked up the paperwork from the school site, delivered it to the family at their new location, returned completed paperwork, and also submitted the completed school work on behalf of the family, since they were without reliable transportation at the time. This arrangement promoted school stability for the child.

In your experience, what are some of the most common causes of chronic absence for students experiencing homelessness?

Adrianne: Frequent moves. The current housing crisis in our community, paired with the lack of shelter facilities and affordable housing, often means that displaced families find themselves living “doubled-up” (i.e. couch surfing, or staying temporarily with other people). This can leave students living outside of their school district, and, in a rural area, far from services and support. The students that I work with also often experience multiple moves throughout the school year. For example, I worked with a student who was entering the 7th grade with a cumulative file that reflected 14 different school changes. This is a testament to how challenging it can be for families to be able to continue to access their child’s school with each unexpected and abrupt move that they may experience. When they are unaware of their rights to school of origin and transportation support, they often end up enrolling their child in the nearest school for the sake of accessing the school bus or being able to walk or bike to campus.  Families that experience frequent moves often find themselves in situations where a common issue such as car trouble can leave their child unable to access school for days at a time, as they are so far away from the campus, support systems, and public transit options.

Berry Creek School, one of four school-single districts, located in the foothills of Butte County, approximately 25 miles from Oroville, the nearest town. It serves approximately 60 students in multi-grade classrooms.

Sheri: These frequent moves also make it difficult for families to access or maintain support services.  Some of our service providers close cases if they cannot contact the family or don’t receive calls back.  This, combined with transportation challenges, often results in families being dropped from services and having to restart the application process. 

What strategies, programs, or policies do you use to enable consistent attendance? Do you leverage data in any way?

Sheri: We regularly provide education to school staff on policies related to the education of homeless students. Our Student Attendance Review Boards include school and community representatives who understand the challenges unique to students experiencing homelessness and are willing to provide whatever support is needed for students to be successful in the school setting. One advantage of being rural is that we are familiar with each other and our programs so we can easily collaborate on behalf of our students and families. It is often the relationships that make a difference. Our School Ties program provides case management to homeless students and families and works closely with all of our districts and schools. The Coordinated District Support Team provides training and coaching around student behavior, including positive alternatives to suspension such as a focus on social-emotional learning, mental wellness, trauma-responsive practices, student-staff relationships, and more. We customize support for districts based on their data. 

County Office of Education, School Ties.

California has a statewide data system, the California Dashboard, that provides easily accessible data on student groups in the areas of academics, behavior, and chronic absence. Many of our schools participate in the California Healthy Kids Survey, which provides additional data on school culture. Our work with districts and sites is focused on systems and the use of data to identify root causes of barriers for students. When we can better identify the root cause of a challenge, we can better select the appropriate supports and interventions that will bring positive change for all students–especially our most vulnerable student groups.

Recognizing that there’s no silver bullet, what is your “top tip” for supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?

Sheri: In my experience as a County Office of Education Coordinator, we see the greatest success when we can assist schools and/or districts with implementing changes that are focused on the identified needs of our students. The biggest celebration of the past year or so has probably been witnessing the shift in mindset of so many educators in how we perceive and respond to students who are struggling. 

Oftentimes, students don’t want to say that they are homeless–but when educators understand the specific struggles and indicators, they can intervene in non-judgmental, supportive ways that respect the students’ confidentiality and show them that there are people who will help. 

I am proud to work with so many who go above and beyond for our homeless students, and all who are facing barriers to education.  It’s hard work, but together I believe we are making a difference for young people in Butte County.

Adrianne: From the case management perspective, I would emphasize the importance of fostering connection, collaboration, and competency in homeless students’ rights.

In my experience, students and parents are so fearful of revealing their housing status. Many parents have disclosed to me their fear of losing their children to protective services if they were to simply admit to being homeless. Perhaps this perpetuates a disconnect between the school and the family in such cases, where outreach services are triggered due to attendance concerns, yet a parent is resistant to engage in services out of fear of the consequences of disclosing their homelessness. I think it is so critical that rapport is established with parents, and that the school culture leaves a parent feeling safe enough to disclose their living situation and to ask for support. Imagine if all families could start out the school year feeling comfortable enough to communicate their situation and establish connections with school staff from Day One. We can’t support our students appropriately if we aren’t aware of their situation. Once fully aware, we can “meet them where they’re at.”  

I truly believe that connection and collaboration can make a difference in a child returning to school or not. For instance, when a family that does not have a personal vehicle or a working phone and lives outside of public transit access, it just takes one staff member who has rapport with the student and is aware of their living situation to advocate for district transportation so that the child can access school no matter where they may be staying.

I would also emphasize the importance of ensuring competency in the protections in place under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Although I am one person at the county level with the role of advocating for homeless students, I could not do my job without the assistance of dedicated school staff. Their connection with their students, their insights into their situations, and their commitment to advocate for their students and go above and beyond to assist students in each unique situation is what makes the difference. This could look very different if staff were not well-versed in homeless student rights. The better we train all our campus staff, the earlier our homeless students are identified, provided with supportive services, and informed of their education rights. The more awareness and support that is available, the less powerful the stigma becomes.