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John Hernandez coached football in three disadvantaged school districts in Texas.
When a player missed practice, Hernandez took it on himself to visit their home. He knew many players faced poverty and other home problems. He would check in on them and offer rides, so the players wouldn’t miss practices and games.
Today, Hernandez directs student services at East Central Independent School District in San Antonio.
He continues to see students facing poverty and trauma, resulting in missed school, which has disciplinary and even criminal consequences.
However, his district didn’t have a program to identify, support, or counsel these students.
Hernandez took it on himself to start one.
The Problem of Chronic Absenteeism
As director of student services, Hernandez is in charge of attendance at East Central Independent School District (ECISD), in San Antonio, TX (68% Latino), where every campus was struggling with attendance issues.
School attendance is big for academic success, and also future wellbeing, Hernandez said.
In fact, “chronic absenteeism”—missing 15 or more days of school a year—makes a child more likely to fall behind academically and drop out of school. It also has serious long-term health, employment, and financial consequences. More than 10% of kindergarteners are chronically absent.
Why are some kids chronically absent?
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are a big culprit. ACEs can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, domestic violence, family member with substance abuse, family member with mental illness, family member incarcerated, homelessness, economic hardship, parental separation/divorce, and loss of a parent.
Across the nation, 46% of children suffer at least one ACE, according to a Salud America! research review.
Among the 10,300 students at ECISD, 7 in 10 are economically disadvantaged. Hernandez estimates that more than 2 in 10 suffer an anxiety disorder. ACEs are linked to anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Yet the state didn’t classify any ACEs other than homelessness among the 13 risk factors for dropping out of school, as defined by the Texas Education Agency.
Hernandez worried the punishment for absenteeism was too harsh, and overlooked childhood traumas.
“We were suspending kids, but we were not asking the right questions,” Hernandez said.
When state law changed, Hernandez jumped at the opportunity to modify how ECISD handles absenteeism.
Texas Absentee Laws Changed
All states have compulsory attendance laws; however, age ranges, definitions of truancy, and compliance tactics vary across states and school districts.
Prior to 2015, Texas was one of two states that made truancy a criminal violation. Truancy is three or more unexcused absences within a four-week period. Texas children with unexcused absences faced punitive action, which could include criminal charges and costly fines.
“Students were already dealing with trauma and now had to face criminalization,” Hernandez said.
In 2015, HB 2398 removed the criminal offense from the student and requires schools to do more to address attendance problems, such as meeting with parents and enrolling students in truancy prevention programs. The state would now dismiss truancy cases if the students met one of four of the state-defined 13 at-risk indicators for dropping out of high school.
“If the school determines that the student’s absences are the result of pregnancy, being in the state foster program, homelessness, or being the principal income earner for the student’s family, the district shall offer additional counseling to the student and may not refer the student to a truancy court,” according to the new law.
Previously, there was never any documentation or counseling for the student, Hernandez said. It was just truancy and their case was sent to court.
Courts now are involved only as a last resort.
Hernandez Starts New Truancy Solution
Before sending any family to court, Hernandez wanted to know what led to students’ absences.
With the support of the new law, Hernandez created a three-tier intervention system for how ECISD campuses should handle truancy and absenteeism:
- At three or more unexcused absences, Hernandez would meet with parents. In a 30-minute informational meeting, known as an Attendance Forum, he would explain where to find attendance on the child’s report card and demonstrate good vs worrisome trends; and warn them of consequences of more absences. At any time after three unexcused absences, a student can be enrolled in a truancy prevention or individual attendance program on a case-by-case basis.
- At 10 or more unexcused absences, Hernandez would meet with parents to determine if absences were because the student is homeless, pregnant, in foster care, or the primary earner for the family. If so, the family would be connected to the school’s Social Services Department and the case would not be sent to court. If not, Social Services would do a home visit and case managers with the municipal court would do a home visit to determine the family support needed.
- If the parent doesn’t cooperate or proves to be negligent and absences continue, the case is sent to court.
“The goal is not to send them to court, anymore,” Hernandez said. “We learn as much as we can about the student and connect them to proper resources right away.”
In October 2015, Hernandez began meeting with parents whose children had three or more unexcused absences (1,041 students) in four months and those with 10 or more unexcused absences in six months (656 students).
Of the 656 students with 10 or more absences, Hernandez did not proceed to court with 148 of the cases because the students were experiencing trauma. The other students were enrolled in individual attendance programs.
Only 30 cases went to the court system, which a significant decline from previous years.
While this was a clear win for ECISD and its students, Hernandez’s meetings with parents shed new light on reasons for absenteeism that weren’t covered by the state’s at-risk indicators.
Many students struggled with the incarceration of a parent, loss of a loved one, a parent in hospice, immigration of family members, bullying, food insecurity, unstable housing arrangements, divorce, unreliable transportation, and job insecurity.
Trauma doesn’t stop at 4 o’clock and it doesn’t stop at graduation. We have to build the students with the skills and tenacity to overcome adversity and continue with their dreams.John Hernandez
Director of Student Services at East Central ISD
“As a father and taxpayer, I did not feel comfortable sending these kids to court with their stories,” Hernandez said. “We have to get those kids some help.”
For example, the father of one of a top-10-academically-performing high school student committed suicide. The student was traumatized, but according to state indicators, would not be considered at-risk.
“The state’s at-risk indicators are academically driven, not emotionally driven,” Hernandez said.
Looking ‘Beyond At-Risk’
During the time Hernandez was meeting with ECISD families, he attended the National Dropout Prevention Network Conference in San Antonio and discovered that there is so much more to being at-risk.
A colleague encouraged Hernandez to specifically attend a pre-conference workshop hosted by Dr. Joe Hendershott, author and co-founder of Hope 4 the Wounded, and nationally recognized expert in dropout prevention and intervention.
Hernandez was amazed by Hendershott’s presentation.
Hendershott talked about a “wounded” student, who was “beyond at-risk,” with deep scars of emotional, physical, and mental pain that deeply affects them. Yet this affect often goes ignored or neglected with the belief the pain will be outgrown or forgotten as they age.
This fit exactly with what Hernandez was seeing at ECISD.
“I felt terrible hearing that because it’s kind-of is what we do as teachers and coaches,” Hernandez said. “I felt terrible for the wounded children that have come through my office over the years because I didn’t do anything to connect them to additional resources.”
Hernandez also learned the difference between how a healthy brain and how an abused brain form and function. He learned more how ACEs affect children’s concentration, and social and emotional skills.
Because these traumatic events are not covered by the state’s 13 at-risk indicators for school drop-outs, Hernandez knew that he needed to do more for his students.
Trauma-informed care is critical to help children overcome the harmful effects of ACEs to boost school performance and lifelong wellbeing.
“Trauma doesn’t stop at 4 o’clock and it doesn’t stop at graduation,” Hernandez said. “We have to build the students with the skills and tenacity to overcome adversity and continue with their dreams.”
Are ECISD Students ‘Beyond At-Risk’?
After the workshop, Hernandez talked to Hendershott, who told him to poll students on their traumatic experiences.
Hernandez did just that in November 2015. He polled students on the bus going to the District Alternative Education Program at the at-risk campus.
He found that 35 of the 40 kids (88%) had experienced a traumatic event.
“I was on to something,” Hernandez said. “The children on that bus to alternative school don’t know how to cope with the trauma they experience.”
Hernandez polled another group of students in April 2016 and 93% had experienced a traumatic event.
That summer he attended another dropout-prevention conference and became even more determined to help his students overcome trauma.
“It takes a village to get a student to graduate,” Hernandez said.
Starting a Focus Group
On the flight returning from the drop-our prevention conference, Hernandez wrote down all the trauma students had previously communicated to him on a napkin.
After landing in San Antonio, he drove straight to the office of ECISD Superintendent Roland Toscano, without an appointment, and explained the idea of wounded children and how trauma was causing big absentee issues across all campuses.
Toscano asked Hernandez, “What’s your plan?”
“I asked to get a focus group together, and he said, ‘Yes,’” Hernandez said.
Hernandez contacted each of the 11 ECISD campus principals and asked for a focus group representative. He also targeted certain teachers and staff, such as a social worker, the program grants coordinator, community relations, and special education.
The focus group first met in August 2016.
Hernandez shared ECISD attendance data, the list of reasons that students communicated for not coming to school, as well as the latest research available on ACEs and traumatic experiences and Hendershott’s theory about wounded students and beyond-at risk.
How to Explain Trauma to Parents
The focus group, which has met every six weeks since its inception, created a one-pager that explains indicators—based on Hernandez’s findings in his student polling—and highlighted local resources and services, which Hernandez personally vetted.
“You have to make sure the phone numbers are legit,” Hernandez said.
The focus group decided to call themselves the EC Cares Committee and named the list of beyond-at-risk indicators, EC Cares.
Hernandez also took time to share his list with officials at Education Service Center Region 20. These state service centers help districts improve student performance and school operations.
He learned that the Texas Education Agency allowed districts to add a 14th local indicator based on their specific needs.
This wouldn’t work for ECISD because the EC Cares Committee wanted to add over a dozen more indicators. They are working within the district office to add the entire list of EC Cares indicators to serve as the 14th local indicator.
In the meantime, how would they put the EC Cares indicators into action?
EC Cares Tracking
The committee began to discuss the logistics and confidentiality of tracking EC Cares students.
Hernandez wanted something basic. He knew teachers and district staff were already overloaded.
They decided to use the existing school management software, Internet-based Texas Computer Cooperative Software (iTCCS), because it is compatible with their gradebook software and counselors and administrators were already familiar with the system. They decided to use the software’s existing Red ALERT field on each student’s profile, which provided important student and family information, such as a restraining order against one of the parents.
“We wanted to include information about wounded students without creating something new,” Hernandez said.
They agreed that counselors at each campus would know the specific details of each EC Cares student and could determine the level of support the student needed.
They decided on three simple pieces of information to report in the Red ALERT field of a student’s profile:
- EC Cares, the program
- Campus, the location
- Date, the date the traumatic event occurred
It would be up to the counselors to inform teachers about the details and severity and to connect across campuses when an EC Cares students changed campuses.
The final protocol is simple. When a counselor clicks on the Red ALERT in an EC Cares student’s profile, they will see “EC Cares-Harmony Elem-11/18/2009.” The counselor will inform the appropriate staff to learn more. For example, maybe the child’s dad died on that date a couple years ago while the child was at a different campus. Now the counselor, teacher and staff on the current campus can be prepared with supports in place to begin monitoring that student a few days before the date indicated in their file.
Each campus maintains their own list of EC Cares students, and counselors work in coordinated efforts to keep track of transferring students and their siblings and their needs.
This new reporting system would be ready in December 2016.
Meanwhile, students with attendance problems continued to come through Hernandez’s office, and he felt much more prepared to help those who were dealing with trauma at home.
However, he knew there were many more wounded students that were not coming to him.
“If you have 1,000 students, you are going to have at least 250 that have some sort of trauma,” Hernandez said. “You have to find them. They aren’t going to come to you.”
How could Hernandez identify beyond at-risk students across the entire district before their file crossed his desk for attendance problems?
Training District Staff
Hernandez and the EC Cares Committee wanted to train the entire staff at ECISD about their role in recognizing trauma indicators and getting students the support and counseling they needed before absenteeism becomes an issue.
They knew that they needed to learn more to truly become resident experts.
In 2017, Hernandez and 15 members of the EC Cares Committee registered for Hendershott’s National Wounded Student Certificate Program online. They received 16 hours of training on the latest research, tools, assessments, references, and practical ideas to understand the effects of trauma on learning and behavior and how to work with wounded students in schools.
Then, the committee came up with an initial responder reporting system.
If any staff member was concerned about a student, they would alert their direct supervisor or a designated staff member, who would contact the campus counselor on the EC Cares Committee. The counselor then would meet with the student, add them to the EC Cares list, and Social Services would meet with the family to determine the appropriate level of support.
Hernandez created a PowerPoint with information about ACEs, beyond at-risk, how to treach the wounded student, the new EC Cares indicators, and the new reporting system, and scheduled to present to many departments.
The first department Hernandez met with was transportation, as they see these students every day before and after school at their homes and could identify possible indicators.
“If a kid is really emotional, there is no excuse why a bus driver can’t ask,” Hernandez said. “That kid has got to talk to somebody. Never let a kid off your bus without talking to them.”
It was an emotional presentation.
Although previously unaware of ACEs or the term “wounded,” the transportation staff recognized certain behaviors and understood immediately that many of these students must be dealing with trauma at home. Some also recognized indicators from their own childhood and use resources themselves.
Hernandez went on to meet with coaches, nutrition experts, custodial staff, the entire faculty at one middle school, and even the student health advisory council.
“If a kid is cussing you out, suspend judgment and ask what is going on,” Hernandez said. “They didn’t wake up that morning wanting to cuss you out. Somebody has got to get in the ditch with them and keep communicating high expectations. We can deal with the inappropriate language later.”
He wanted all ECISD staff to help identify unique behaviors of beyond at-risk students so they could get the support and counseling they need, and track them through graduation.
“I tell everyone in our district, that their voice matters,” Hernandez said. “If you tell a director or coordinator that that a kid has a situation going on, it matters. And the director, counselor or I are going to help.”
Hernandez not only wants to ensure that all district staff understand ACEs and wounded children, but he wants to create a toolkit for other districts to start a similar program.
“My goal is to present to every district staff, and eventually go into the community to speak to churches and families,” Hernandez said.
You Can Do This in Your District!
Sign up for the new Salud America! “Trauma Sensitive School Action Pack.” It is a free guide with coaching to help school personnel talk to decision-makers, build a support team, craft a system to identify and support traumatized students, and more!
The Action Pack was created by Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of the Salud America! Latino health program at UT Health San Antonio, with input from John Hernandez.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.