To boost attendance, build a stronger school community

Myriam Villalobos has so much optimism and energy that she has turned chronic absenteeism into an opportunity for building a stronger school community. And last month, she was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Boston Public School system to do this work. 

“I am a teacher. I am a therapist. I am not a grant writer,” Villalobos, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin School says. “I have never asked for money, so I had to learn about the process, and I was fascinated by that.”

Her approach was to think globally about the big picture – and to do so with compassion. 

The Tobin had 66 students who missed more than 20 percent of school. Another 144 students missed 10 percent. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of school. 

“Sometimes we are very critical about why parents decide to keep their children at home. But there are many social issues there. There’s inequality, transportation, and parents who don’t speak English and need their children to be translators. There are also parents who get sick and don’t have anyone they can ask to bring their children to school. 

“I grew up in Chile, and in my country we were very community oriented, so parents could rely on a friend or an aunt or another family member. People had a network to reach out to. But here, many families don’t have that.”

Working parents can struggle because they don’t have access to before- and after-school programs. The least expensive one that Villalobos could find was $4,000 a year, a cost beyond the reach of many of her school’s families. And as The Boston Globe has reported, many of these programs are plagued by staffing shortages and waitlists.

So when Villalobos submitted her grant proposal, she shared the data on absenteeism – and she shared her school’s mission, families’ dreams, and a strategic plan that would involve the entire school: the administration, staff, teachers, students, and families. 

Now that she has the grant funding, she’s going to build a stronger community that boosts attendance by supporting parents and inspiring students.

“One part of the proposal is to create a network among parents,” Villalobos says. “We’re going to educate parents about how important it is for children to be in school and about how to access resources.”

A supportive network, Villalobos says, is particularly important for immigrant families who are new to the community. “With immigrant families, they had to be strong to decide to leave their countries. They have the strength. That part is there. The question is how do we provide the opportunities?”

“Through City Connects, we reach our goal when we educate parents. It’s not just about putting together resources so students can succeed. It’s also about how you share knowledge with families.” 

There is also a new attendance team composed of Villalobos, school staff, and teachers as well as a member of City Year, one of the Tobin’s community partners. And the school will launch a student council to create activities and leadership opportunities for students that encourage students to improve their attendance and involve them in other school issues. 

“It’s all about creating connections around the school,” Villalobos says. “All these elements are very important for the future. If you create a network among parents, if you configure an attendance team, and you have a student council, then you can create a different perception of school.”

Once everything is in place, Villalobos hopes to have a celebration, which will acknowledge and publicize the school’s community growth. 

Now that she’s a successful grant writer, Villalobos has other ideas in mind. She’d like to raise $45,000 so that her school’s eighth graders can go on a trip to Washington, D.C. 

“It seems to me that we are in an ocean of possibilities,” Villalobos says of her optimism and her ideas for the future. “A conversation is a possibility. It’s all about possibilities, and hopefully we can teach our families that.”

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