John Hernandez
John Hernandez, East Central ISD's director of student services stands near the football field where he got his start as a coach. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Two years ago, East Central ISD tried a new approach to improving truancy rates in the district: Rather than taking disciplinary action toward chronically absent students, school staff instead began working to identify and eliminate barriers to success by providing students and families with resources to help address the issue.

The district-wide program – EC Cares – educates school staff on how student behavior is shaped by difficult experiences, including homelessness, domestic violence, neglect, grief, and abuse, and trains them to shift focus away from what students did wrong to instead asking what happened, and why.

The program was so successful in reducing truancy and absenteeism, and improving communication between staff and students, that Salud America!, a national organization based at UT Health San Antonio that focuses on Latino health issues and policy, created a digital toolkit to guide schools across the country through developing and implementing similar programs.

Since going live at the end of May, educators and school staff across the nation have requested the digital toolkit more than 180 times.

East Central ISD is home to just over 10,000 students, with a 73 percent Hispanic majority population, according to data compiled by the Texas Tribune. Of the total student body, 66 percent are considered economically disadvantaged and nearly 56 percent of students are considered at risk of dropping out, according to State-defined standards.

In its first year, 2015, the EC Cares program helped significantly reduce the number of students being sent to truancy court for unexcused absences, East Central ISD Student Services Director John Hernandez said.

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, only 9 students in the district were sent to truancy court. Hernandez has since met with nine other San Antonio area school districts whose administrators expressed interest in the program.

“I realized that we had to listen better and ask [students] the right questions to help them become successful,” Hernandez said.  “I didn’t feel comfortable sending them to [truancy] court knowing all the things they were struggling with.

“For some students, they were struggling to make it to school because they were head of their household,” he said.

Of 656 East Central ISD students with 10 or more unexcused absences during the first two months of the 2015 school year, 148 were experiencing trauma, Hernandez said. A 2015 poll of students enrolled in the district’s alternative education program found that 88 percent had experienced a traumatic event; the 2016 poll came back with 93 percent having experienced trauma, he said.

Tazlyn Olivier, lead counselor in East Central ISD, said children may experience various types of trauma due to family situations such as divorce, domestic violence, foster care, abuse, loss of a family member, incarcerated family member, and drug and alcohol addictions.

“Some of the effects seen in schools are withdrawn students who don’t trust easily, students who are unable to stay awake due to lack of sleep, students who are unable to concentrate on learning because they are worried about what is going on home, students with failing grades, attendance issues, and dropping out of school,” Olivier said.

Instead of simply punishing students for truancy, school staff will delve into the reason students are absent and provide assistance with transportation, clothing, or food as needed. If the troubling behavior includes fighting or other classroom misconduct, school staff work to understand why the situation occurred, as opposed to responding to the behavior alone.

This provides a platform for communication where students feel respected and staff can provide meaningful help, Hernandez said.

The Student Services building at East Central ISD.
The Student Services building at East Central ISD. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“In a perfect world, we would have every elementary school be a trauma-informed school,” said San Antonio Metropolitan Health Director Colleen Bridger. The City has been working to educate the local community on the effects of adverse childhood experiences and how they lead to long-term health complications and diseases later in life, she said.

Metro Health’s proposed 2019 budget includes a funding request for a full-time staff member who would educate residents and organizations about the long-term impacts of trauma.

“What we see is kids who have a lot of adverse experiences are more prone to take offense, fight, try to fade into the wallpaper, which are all detrimental to that child’s ability to thrive in the education system,” Bridger said.

The digital toolkit created by Salud America! outlines the approach Hernandez took in East Central ISD: recruiting staff to serve on a committee that will learn about and educate staff and the community on the effects of trauma, identifying vulnerable students, and getting parents and the community involved.

Through the toolkit, Salud America! officials are available to help schools create a program that meets their individual needs.

“It’s about raising awareness about the science of trauma, resources to connect kids and families, and establishing some type of chain of command,” said Amanda Merck, senior researcher with Salud America!.

East Central ISD is using existing school management software to flag students’ profiles with important student and family information, such as a restraining orders against a parent.

“There [are] so many different layers in a trauma-informed system, but there are many steps that can be implemented quickly that don’t require funding or major changes in policies,” Merck said. “If [school staff] can reach out with less judgment, more mercy, [and] more grace in that immediate reaction,” entire schools can improve.

To request a copy of the guide, click here.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.