GRANGER — You’re unlikely to find the third-graders in America Velasco’s class skipping school.
The Granger students give various reasons. Cesar Carmona said he likes to learn science. Alexis Sanchez puts making friends at the top of the list. Ethan Almaguer said he just likes to learn.
That enthusiasm reflects the coordinated efforts of the schools and community that gave the Granger School District the lowest rate of chronically absent students among all state schools with an enrollment of more than 500 last year.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reported just 3.6 percent of students in the Lower Valley district were chronically absent. A student is considered chronically absent when he or she misses 18 or more school days in a year.
To put Granger’s rate in perspective, the state average was 16 percent.
Demographics would suggest Granger schools, with more than 1,500 students, face challenges. Last year, more than 90 percent of students were Latino, 87 percent were on free or reduced meal plans, and 40 percent were bilingual, according to state data.
And less than 50 percent of Granger’s adults have graduated from high school, according to Census data.
But Granger educators credit a mix of school initiatives and the town’s tight-knit culture for helping students feel that “If we’re not here, we’ll miss something,” said Velasco.
“Their willingness and love of learning, the environment in the building, the classroom culture where it is inviting, they enjoy it. I don’t know what else to say,” she said.
Perhaps part of the answer comes from the fact that Granger is one of the most family-oriented communities in the Valley, according to a recent county report. That report says 48 percent of households had two parents, compared with the county average of 23 percent. The under-18 population makes up 44 percent of Granger’s residents.
Beyond the numbers, Granger schools actively monitor attendance, with home visitors and school secretaries leading the effort to track absences.
Gloria Ramirez, now a special education/homeless student liaison, is a former attendance clerk whose roles included tracking truancies, reporting on chronic absentees and working with families.
With many parents working erratic schedules in the agricultural industry, Ramirez said she often adjusted her hours to meet with families later in the day. That showed families the schools care about their kids, she said.
Teachers care as well. At Roosevelt Elementary School, the staff adopted Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, to create a more welcoming environment. PBIS is a framework that rewards students for good behavior.
This is the second year Roosevelt has used PBIS, which is also used by other schools in the Valley. Second-grade teacher Amy Zeutenhorst said the goal is for students to follow three basic rules: Be respectful, be safe, and be responsible. If students behave well, they get positive reinforcement.
Because it’s a schoolwide effort, students learn the expectations.
On Fridays, PBIS gets an extra push. Velasco, for instance, asks students why they do or don’t come to school on a regular basis. The question offers her a read on her students.
“If you ask them why they didn’t come (to class), they’ll answer,” said Velasco. “They’re pretty honest.”
Incentives to attend school on a regular basis also help. At the elementary and middle school level, two incentive programs stand out.
At Roosevelt, students with perfect attendance get free bikes at the end of the school year; two bikes are on display to greet students as they enter the school. The bikes are made possible through Bud Clary Toyota’s PACE program, which is used in 20 participating schools in the Valley, including Roosevelt.
Robbie Bustos, community outreach coordinator for Clary Toyota in Yakima, said almost 1,200 students in the schools remain in contention for perfect attendance this year. If that number holds, it would be more than twice as high as the 2014-15 school year, when 543 kids earned bikes.
“It not only inspires the students to reach for a goal, but it empowers them to ask for their parents’ help,” she said. “Many students now ask their mom and dad to help them get to bed early and wake up on time, to eat healthier and to schedule doctors’ appointments outside of school hours.”
Bustos would not disclose how much is spent on the bikes, but said it is “well worth it.”
Granger Superintendent Margarita Lopez said the bikes are major motivators: “There are lots of students working toward that at the end of the school year,” she said.
At the middle school level, a project funded by community group Friends of Granger has motivated students to maintain consistent attendance. Friends of Granger and a former Heritage University student and employee developed an incentive program made possible with a $15,000 grant last year from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation. The money went for items like iPad tablets, refurbished notebook computers, field trips to the Get Air trampoline park, gift cards and movie passes.
The Every Child, Every Seat, Every Day program originally had funding only for last year. But Alma Sanchez, the Heritage student who led the effort, recently said continued financial support allowed the program to continue this school year.
Sanchez, now a case resource manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said she has great satisfaction seeing the success the program had in the middle school.
“It’s about creating a new culture where children attend school every day and are supported by their families, administrators, teachers and their peers to take advantage of every learning opportunity available to them,” she said.