Latinx parents at Deering High School
Parents discussed ongoing attendance issues among Latinx students on Dec. 4, 2021, at Deering High School in Portland. Karina Del Carmen Vilchez and Andris Larrys Loaiza-Arias, originally from Venezuela, are seated at right. (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)
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Chronic absenteeism among Latinx and English language learners has caught the attention of Portland Public Schools officials, who have started a conversation with parents and students about how the district can better engage the students.

Attendance data show that the Latinx student population – “Latinx” is the School Department’s gender-neutral term for Hispanic students – is the most chronically absent in Maine, and as of last November, the rate of chronic absenteeism in Portland’s Latinx population was at 38 percent and rising.

A better understanding of the data came from conversations with Spanish-speaking parents and students that allowed them to explain their experiences to school officials.

Andris Larrys Loaiza-Arias, left, and Karina Del Carmen Vilchez
Andris Larrys Loaiza-Arias, left, and Karina Del Carmen Vilchez at home in Portland where they recently arrived from Venezuela. They said the language barrier and family finances can be obstacles for students in Latin American families. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

An initial session on Dec. 4, 2021, at Portland High School gave parents a chance to share their thoughts with Superintendent Xavier Botana and community engagement specialists in their own language. The first couple to arrive at the event, Karina Del Carmen Vilchez and Andris Larrys Loaiza-Arias, recently came to Portland from Venezuela.

In an interview translated by community engagement specialist Betsy Paz-Gyimesi, Larrys Loaiza-Arias said the discussion held at Portland High was important to put the conversation about absence into context. 

He suggested two reasons for the trend: Many Latinx students have to work to help support their families financially, so they can’t be in school the whole day, and the challenges of learning in a completely different language might discourage students from attending school.

“As we were sitting there, and families started flowing in, no one realized the amount of people that were going to show up for this,” Larrys Loaiza-Arias said. “All the teachers, all of you didn’t expect this type of turnout.” 

Paz-Gyimesi, who did all the outreach for the event, admitted she wasn’t sure anyone would show up for what became the largest parent turnout for Spanish speakers she’d ever had since joining PPS in 2016.

“It showed me – the years that I’ve been here, and been giving of myself and doing everything I possibly can to establish those connections – that was validation of all that work,” Paz-Gyimesi said.

Del Carmen Vilchez said it was a great feeling for parents to be able to fully express themselves in their own language, especially to the superintendent. She said they were thankful for the supportive and safe environment.

Both parents said the support they have received from PPS’ multilingual department has been great and enrolling their 16-year-old son Anthony at Deering High School has been a positive and welcoming experience.

Latinx family engagement session
More than 50 parents attended the Latinx family engagement session Dec. 4, 2021, at Portland High School. (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)

Grace Valenzuela, executive director of communications and community partnerships for PPS, said the role of community engagement specialists pre-dates the department’s latest equity initiatives. She said since the mid-1980s the role has become even more crucial to accommodating Portland’s changing school demographics. 

The PPS attendance data shows both the Latinx and ELL student populations have been growing since 2020. Valenzuela said community engagement specialists make the necessary connections between school and home to help students succeed.

“That’s the magic they do,” she said. And it’s “magic” that has become even more important in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

Engagement methods have had to be developed outside the box since the start of the pandemic, Gyimesi said, because connecting is now even more difficult. She has helped students and families with in-school challenges like navigating online learning, and challenges outside of schools, such as food and unemployment resources.

Her position isn’t limited to typical job or school hours, she said, and includes late-night or weekend calls to help whenever possible – a commitment that’s crucial to building the connection between schools and families. 

Putting conversations into practice

Paz-Gyimesi said economic need is impacting students’ success because they either can’t be in school all day because they have to work, or they’re exhausted because of late hours they may be working.

At the Portland High student session on Jan. 26, the 16 students who attended were grateful for the opportunity to be heard in their own language. Students appreciated that staff wanted to listen to them, and Paz-Gyimesi said she wants to continue prioritizing that going forward. For the last few weeks, she has been dedicating time to check in with students at Deering, to listen to them in Spanish.

Betsy Paz-Gyimesi
Portland Public Schools community and family engagement specialist Betsy Paz-Gyimesi, center, with PPS multilingual staff members and family at a January ceremony celebrating her RISE award nomination. (Courtesy PPS)

She has been working with individual students on their schedules to help them fit in a combination of work and school if necessary. This can help students provide some financial support for their families and better succeed when they’re at school.

But it can also delay their graduation, since taking classes out of their schedule to accommodate work means they might be unable to take their whole course load at once.

Valenzuela suggested that adding a fifth or sixth year of high school could help solve that problem and that graduation rates actually increase in Portland for students who opt for a fifth or sixth year.

Adjustments to school schedules to accommodate both work and education are being considered and were discussed at the listening session and at a Jan. 18 School Board meeting. 

The importance of having additional bilingual staff was another notable takeaway. 

It can be hard enough going somewhere and not understanding the language, Del Carmen Vilchez said, but especially difficult as a child or teen. She said her 5-year-old nephew hasn’t wanted to go to school because of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to understand the lessons.

She and her husband said they’ve been thankful for the support they’ve received, but said additional bilingual staff could help even more – especially for new ELL students.

Next steps

At the board meeting on Jan. 18, Botana shared some insight on continuing to engage with traditionally underrepresented communities.

He said PPS hopes to continue sharing the discussions broadly with school and community leaders and begin developing priorities and timeliness to address particular student and family needs. 

Addressing these needs and eventual changes will likely have budget implications, Botana said.

Paz-Gyimesi said her phone wouldn’t stop ringing on her way home from the session on Dec. 4. She recalled so many parents feeling excited and validated, saying they couldn’t believe they had the opportunity to share their thoughts with the superintendent in their own language.

She said she hopes to continue those meetings, as well as expand on some of the ideas that came out of the initial sessions. Students and parents alike expressed interest in continuing with a Latinx affinity group that was put together over the summer, she said.

Paz-Gymesi said she also wants to start a mom’s group, inspired by parents at the engagement session realizing just how many Spanish-speaking parents there are in the PPS community. She said she’d also like to be able to use involved parents like Del Carmen Vilchez and Larrys Loaiza-Arias as resources going forward.

“When you meet another family who can truly tell you what it is to be in that school, and give you all the ins of being a parent,” she said, “I think that would make schools so much more welcoming to our Spanish speakers.”

The efforts of Paz-Gyimesi and PPS community engagement specialists were recently recognized by the U.S Department of Education when Paz-Gyimesi was nominated for the national Recognizing Inspirational School Employees award.

Implemented in 2019, the RISE award celebrates education employees for exemplary service. Botana said Paz-Gyimesi’s long-term work building relationships in PPS’ Latinx community is what has made the engagement sessions so successful thus far.

“For us to do that effectively, having those pre-existing trusting relationships at an individual level provide the institution credibility to have those conversations with families,” he said.