Bright Spots is a collaboration between Read Fort Worth and Fort Worth ISD spotlighting District elementary schools making meaningful academic progress in a variety of areas.
The pride seeped through Enrique Vega’s smile. Because the Manuel Jara Elementary third grader had perfect attendance for the last six weeks, he went into a raffle for a $100 Walmart gift card. Enrique won the prize for his father.
“I went to school every day,” Enrique beamed. “He was happy. He posted it.”
The gift card Enrique took home that dad shared on social media is just one of the many incentives Manuel Jara promotes for good attendance.
Missing class doesn’t go over well on any campus, and Manuel Jara isn’t different than any other school in that respect. What sets schools such as Manuel Jara apart is the attention, care and love students receive from the faculty and staff. Their commitment to doing everything within their power to reach student and families about the benefits of being in school is relentless.
“Our students know that everything we do in school is to help them be successful,” Manuel Jara assistant principal Adrianne Collins said. “Our students also know that we won’t allow them to fall through the cracks. We will ‘get in their business.’ If that means calling home, meeting with their parents or even visiting their homes. We never quit and we want them to have the same mindset – never quit.”
Manuel Jara is also part of Read Fort Worth’s Attendance Pilot Program with eight Fort Worth ISD elementary schools. The program’s goal is getting more students to school more often, since being in school is critical to learning.
Collins has overseen attendance initiatives at the elementary on Fort Worth’s north side since 2017. In her 24th year with Fort Worth ISD, Collins has long understood the value of students being in school. As a classroom teacher for many years, she was responsible for taking attendance and responding to absent students as a testing coordinator.
The results at Manuel Jara have been impressive. For 2018-19 academic year, overall District attendance was 94.91 percent, whereas Manuel Jara was 95.93 percent. In context, national attendance research reports that a 95 percent attendance is considered good, meaning Manuel Jara is exceeding the national standard.
Also, during a serious flu season this year, Manuel Jara increased its attendance this year compared to last year. Part of the reason, according to principal Marta Plata, is the willingness to go above and beyond. Realizing that illness is a leading factor in absence, Plata personally purchased a disinfecting fogger that that custodial staff uses in each classroom every night.
“My daughter was sick for about a week with the flu this year before going back to school,” parent liaison Angelica Andrade said. “Last year it was about a month. The fogger works.”
That’s only one step of the extra mile. Plata and her staff make a concerted effort to find out what students who are habitually absent need. It might be hot breakfast in the morning, a good pair of shoes or just knowing that someone cares.
“You don’t give your child a fighting chance unless you bring them to school,” Plata said. “For whatever amount of time we have them, we find out what we can do. Every child has a story.”
The systems in place at Manuel Jara differ from some of the other schools Collins worked at, she said. Each day, students who are absent receive phone calls at home. The reasons given are recorded in the attendance-tracking software Focus. Teachers also do an excellent job informing the office when students are experiencing excessive absences or tardiness.
“Because everyone knows what is going on, whenever parents are in the building, we use this as an opportunity to address student attendance with parents,” Collins said. “This is always done in a caring manner, reminding parents of how important good attendance is for academic success. Our counselor and Stay in School Coordinator will also make home visits. We also have SART (School Attendance Review Team) meetings in the fall and in the spring to address excessive absences with parents.”
Rewards are also a big part. The gift cards promote a sense of cooperation, as students and parents work together to win. There are also attendance contests by grade level, with classes earning ice cream, pizza and cupcakes parties.
The culture at Manuel Jara is one of accountability and responsibility. Everyone joins forces, from administrators to teachers to parents to students, to be successful.
Collins added that “persistence and consistence” are the reasons why parents and students are responding positively. Attendance is a leading indicator for academic success. In the simplest terms, students need to be in school to learn.
“Attendance is probably the first thing we look at when we examine student progress,” Collins said. “Students who have excessive absences and tardies miss instruction. Students who miss instruction have gaps in instruction.
“We have found that it is very difficult to provide services for students when they have excessive absences. In many instances they cannot be tested for special education services when they have excessive absences.”
Collins is quick to credit Principal Plata for fostering an environment built on respect where the welfare of students is at the heart of their efforts.
“MJE is a place of love, family, creativity and high standards,” Collins said. “We can’t ever have an attitude of having ‘arrived.’ We are always working to make things better for our students and their families. Everyone looks out for each other and that is what family is about. We work with each other and we work for each other.”
Just ask Enrique and his dad.