Story by Courtney Anderson, photos by Kaci Felstet
The standard black school phone in Zellah Nault’s office, the kind made from sturdy plastic, gets a lot of use in the mornings. She calls a lot of parents, focusing on the numbers through her wire-framed glasses and she punches the smooth buttons. On a late March morning, she answered a ring.
“Hello?” she said, simply. It plays out like rhythm, like the exchange is regularly rehearsed. She responds with finality. “We’re on our way.”
Every morning, Nault, Rocky Boy schools’ student/teacher liaison, receives a list of students who aren’t in class and lack an excused absence. Nault calls parents, sometimes they call her. Either way she finds out who needs a ride to class.
Later that morning, several miles away from the school, a van pulled up from the dirt road, lined with debris, plastic bags and aluminum cans, and into the driveway leading to the blue-and-white-paneled house.
Nault carefully stepped out of the white van, cautious of her arthritis, and made her way to the students’ home, next to a deteriorating trailer. The 72-year old knocked, and a 25-year old woman opened the door without stepping outside.
Dorothea White, kindergartner at Rocky Boy Elementary School, darted out of the house to the van with her pink and zebra-striped backpack. Dorothea missed the bus that morning because she couldn’t find her black sequin flats.
The oldest staff members at Rocky Boy Elementary School, Nault and Joe Big Knife, transport up to 20 students most mornings who need a ride to school. It might seem like an excessive service offered by a public school, but has become necessary to increase student participation. From late September to the beginning of April, Dorothea missed 19 days of kindergarten and has been tardy 18 times.
Jamie White, Dorothea’s mother, said the family doesn’t have a vehicle so it’s helpful to have Nault and Big Knife pick up Dorothea when she misses the bus.
“Sometimes we wake up early, but sometimes when we go to bed late, she wakes up grouchy and that’s how she misses the bus,” White said.
In the last few years, the elementary school on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation has seen a drop in attendance. Since 2009, the average number of absences at Rocky Boy Elementary School decreased by two percent. However, in the last couple of years, the school has had significant increase in tardy students. Nault’s persistence in mitigating absences by picking up students may stabilize the school’s number of absences, but that doesn’t mean students will be on time.
From kindergarten to third grade, that number has more than doubled, increasing by 140 percent since 2009. While the younger grades have seen a jump in students reported tardy, fourth through sixth grade hardly changed, with a comparatively low 7 percent fluctuation in the last four years.
The reasons are many for the younger grades, from a turnover in long-term teachers to an increasing number of young parents who don’t seem to be as focused on perfect attendance and punctuality as generations passed. In any case, schools like Rocky Boy Elementary have taken extra measures to help students get to the classroom with regularity.
Though reports of tardiness have increased and absenteeism has remained somewhat steady, the number of student absences are still high. In 2007-08, the national daily attendance was around 94 percent, according to the National Center of Education Statistics. In 2009-10 at Rocky Boy Elementary, that number was 89 percent.
According to the Child & Family Policy Center, the national average daily attendance rates range from 93 to 97 percent. So far this year, average daily attendance at Rocky Boy Elementary School is 88.9 percent, meaning more than 20 percent of students are chronically absent.
Tristan Harkins, Dorothea’s kindergarten teacher, has taught at Rocky Boy Elementary School for three years. From the teacher’s perspective, the drop in attendance has been steep. Since fall 2009, the number of recorded instances where kindergarten students were reported tardy increased by about 36 percent.
“A 5-year-old can’t get themselves up at 7:30 to get dressed and get ready to go to school at 8, so it doesn’t really matter how excited they are and how much they like school it’s really more on the parents and the family to get them here,” Harkins said.
Nationally, kindergarten students most at risk to dropout of school later in life are missing 15 to 25 days of school a year, according to Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that focuses on the effect absenteeism has on student success, itself citing a quote from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Rocky Boy Elementary School kindergarten students missed on average 25 days during the 2013-14 school year.
Just around the corner from Harkins, is first grade teacher Susan Sutherland’s classroom. After working at Rocky Boy Elementary School for 31 years, Sutherland plans to retire in May. She grew up in the area, went to school in Rock Boy and said she’s worked her dream career.
Throughout the years, Sutherland has noticed a drop in attendance, and said it’s partly due to so many young parents not necessarily having the know-how of getting kids to bed on time to get them up in the morning. She thinks some parents believe that missing a few days in the lower grades doesn’t affect the student’s education.
“Usually it’s the kids that are here every day that do very well, they’re successful. Once they start missing a lot, they start having problems,” Sutherland said.
She said the attendance drop could also be caused by the high teacher turnover rate that she has seen in the later part of her career.
“It was unheard of when I started, having more than three or four openings a year,” she said. “Now I see more, and I really couldn’t tell you why except some of the people who have been here a long time, the people I started working with, a lot of them are retiring.”
Tristan Harkins agrees that teacher turnover also affects attendance. He said long-term teachers have more of a relationship with the community and stronger ties with parents. He said relationships can make a huge difference in a parent’s response when discussing their child’s absenteeism.
“If a new teacher comes in and says, ‘Hey you need your kids here, what’s going on?’ and doesn’t build up that relationship first before they start to harass them a little bit, you just get hung up on or ignored,” Harkins said. “It means a lot more if you have that relationship first.”
Three Rocky Boy Elementary teachers who have worked over 10 years at the school are retiring this year. Four elementary teaching positions are vacant after this spring along with two K-12 teachers. Sutherland said the turnover affects the student’s relationship with the school, and attendance.
Losing these long-term teachers is a huge loss for the community, Sutherland said, because they have built a rapport with families that they’ll stay through thick and thin.
“That’s how you build a relationship. I think especially in the older grades, when they see some of the teachers that have been here for a long time, they’re much more comfortable with them,” she said. “They think of them more as a family than a brand new person every year. So I do believe that has a huge effect, and I would hope that we could keep our teachers.”
She adds that the combination of teacher retention and parent involvement contribute to how strong the students’ relationship is with the school.
Sutherland specifically referred to Zellah Nault, who calls student homes every morning, offering rides to school. That extra effort Nault puts into tracking down students and picking them up in the morning plays a major role in not only getting kids to school, but creating an environment for student success.
“She really works hard,” Sutherland said. “They need to know that somebody really cares about them, she does, and I think the kids know that. And when they know you care about them and you want them to be successful, that makes a huge difference.”
Students, faculty and staff call Nault, “Grandma Zellah.”
When Nault gets to school in the morning she sits at her desk, her white-braided hair pinned back and tied with a scrunchy, and picks up the phone to call parent after parent. School members often stop in to say hi, or consult Nault about problems. In her drawer, next to her desk, she keeps simple medical supplies for anyone who needs it.
Pictures of students and her grandchildren hang side-by-side on Nault’s office walls. On the top shelf above her desk sits a dried bouquet of roses, the few kept after each school member handed her a flower on her 71st birthday.
Nault, who has worked at the school for 29 years, said they often pick up the same students. She’s worked at Rocky Boy Schools since the 1980s. She’s been picking up students since 2000. And to her, parents are the key to student attendance.
“You can tell who the caring parents are in the school, they’re the ones with kids coming to school and they come to parent teacher conferences,” Nault said.
The Parent Involvement Committee, a parent group that focuses on issues at Rocky Boy Elementary, is focused on student attendance this year. Loni Whitford, committee chair, said in the monthly meetings they plan to address how the committee can help. The group has put out advertisements, handed out fliers and aired a radio ad to try and gain more parent support.
Whitford, mother of a Rocky Boy second grader, said she’s noticed a drop in attendance and adds that parents play a major role in getting kids to school.
“Honestly there’s parents and guardians, and their priorities are not straight.” Whitford said. “The kids aren’t getting to school when they should, and getting the care that they should probably be getting. But there are also a lot of parents out there that are trying.”
She said at maximum, 10 parents come to the monthly parent involvement meetings, despite there being more than 330 students enrolled in the school from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Teachers take several measures to keep students caught up if they’ve missed class often. Students who need to practice their reading or math skills spend six-to-seven minutes during recess to get on track. Harkins said he also breaks the students into groups and addresses the skills they may be lacking, and takes time to reteach and review.
The elementary school has tried several strategies to raise attendance. Josephine Corcoran, the elementary principal, said in the last three years they’ve rewarded students with less than two absences with field trips. So far they’ve gone bowling, skiing and to the trampoline house in Great Falls. They’ve even started paying, offering a $45 gift certificate to students with perfect attendance.
“There’s a population that values education and the kids love the awards and they work for the incentives, and a certain population, they don’t care,” Corcoran said. “We have really horrid attendance. I’m not sure what’s happening other than we have a lot of young parents.”
Corcoran said the elementary school has a lot of students who are in foster care, or are being raised by grandparents. “We have a whole different family dynamic. Family structure is really different in the past, maybe, three-to-five years.”
She said 10 absences in a year used to be a cause for worry. Now 10 days is about the average.
Several factors influence student’s educational outcome such as community, family and peer environment but poverty can be the main contributor to chronic absenteeism, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
In 2008, the percent of Montanans below the federal poverty level hit 13 percent. That same year, the Rocky Boy’s reservation was 25 percent, almost double, according to the reservation’s American Indian Health Profile.
The median household income on the reservation that year reached $24,261, compared to Montana’s $40,067. Similarly, the unemployment rate on Rocky Boy’s stands at about 29.4 percent, while Montana’s is about 4.8 percent.
In 2008, the National Center for Children in Poverty released a study, “The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades.” In it, the center states that while parents are responsible for getting their children to school every day, “schools and communities need to recognize and address the barriers and challenges that may inhibit them from doing so, especially when they are living in poverty.”
In the hallway near the front office in the elementary school, Dorothea’s photo hangs on the wall for Harkins’ student of the month award for March. He chose her because she’s been working hard in class, on her homework and improving a lot over the last month.
“There were times where she would want to stay in recess and read, so I’d give her a small book and she would practice reading and get better and better,” Harkins said. “She’s really put out the effort and she just took off.”
Jamie White, Dorothea’s mother, adds that when Dorothea comes home from school, she does her homework right away.
Dorothea smiled a gapped-tooth grin, with a glimpse of silver on her back molars, when talking about her favorite activities at school, like going outside. When asked what her favorite part is about Harkins’ class, she responded with one word: “Happy.”