Chronic absenteeism is a common problem among low-income schools; Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood is no exception. The neighborhood has the largest concentration of high absenteeism students in the city – and teachers say there are some students who miss up to 40 days of school in one semester.
But many students aren’t skipping class to avoid schoolwork. Some lack transportation; others are dealing with health issues. Still, other have responsibilities like raising siblings or working to support their families.
Isay Medrano is one of those students.
A Year of Challenges
Last year, his family faced one challenge after another, putting a lot of extra responsibility on his plate. His mother, Estela Manuel – who is raising three children on her own – got hurt in a car accident, then became very sick with a debilitating kidney infection. Isay says he and his family would take care of her, which meant he started missing way too many school days.
“We would go and get her medicine, and I would keep her eye on her and give her some water when she needed it, remind her about her pills, wake her up, and sometimes I would make her something to eat," he says.
Then Manuel lost her job and they had to move in with relatives.
"Then he missed classes because he didn’t want to leave me by myself," she says. "[Isay] would tell me he’d come to school once I was well. He’d come sporadically – say one day – but he’d stay with me because he felt bad leaving.”
She says sometimes they just didn’t have gas money to drive her son to school. Teachers would warn him he could fail his classes or could be taken to court for missing so much class time.
"My mom would explain it with doctor’s notes and proof of injury, and [because] there’s no one else to take care of her," Isay remembers.
Responding to Truancy
Despite repeated requests for an interview over a four-month period, Austin school district officials declined to comment about how they enforce their truancy policy.
But for Isay and his brother, the school district’s actions seem anything but consistent.
Isay says he missed more than 10 days, meaning the school is required to file a truancy report – but he says the school was supportive of his situation. He passed all his classes and he did well on his standardized tests. After two weeks of summer school, he was able to move on to the next grade.
His brother, Jose Ruben, who graduated from Mendez a few years ago, had a different experience.
Jose has pancreatitis, so he also missed a lot of school – days and weeks at a time. His mother says the school filed truancy charges against him.
“They told me they thought he was missing school because of drugs, and gave my son two drug tests without my permission," she says.
Yet on annual disciplinary reports, the school reported no one from Mendez was charged with truancy that year. That changed the next school year. During the 2011-2012 school year, Mendez Middle School filed more than 10 percent of all truancy charges against students in the district.
Jose is now in 11th grade at Travis High School.
Finding a Passion in Music
For Isay, it was orchestra that kept him going. Even when he was missing school, he would practice three to four hours a day. His mother says she’s proud of his playing:
"Oh, when I hear him play – forget about it. I sometimes cry because I never thought my son would, " she says. "They even give him solos."
"I try to be there, to support him 100 percent as much as I can," Manuel adds. "We go wherever he plays. I drive him around. I bring him for practice. He stays late, then when he gets home he plays for three or four hours and I just listen.”
Orchestra teacher Jeffrey Hall says his classes have higher attendance rates than others at Mendez.
"I believe when kids are involved in things that they really love, they really want to come to school," Hall says, who also has a strict attendance policy for his students.
"If they miss one, and they don’t bother to bring me a letter from their explaining or giving an excuse, then they’re out," he says. "If they miss and they didn’t tell me they were going to miss, then they’re out. I want to teach them responsibility. That’s how it works in the real world."
But Hall’s tough attendance policy isn’t the only reason students show up for class and practice after school.
"A lot of them, rather than be at home, would rather just sit here at practice and be around kids who want to practice," he says. "These kids have a place here and a lot of friends who have a shared common interest."
Some of the students have taught themselves contemporary songs on their instruments, like Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and Capital Cities' “Safe and Sound.”
Saved by Music
Isay’s mother says the music has kept him from doing drugs, getting tattoos, joining gangs – and actually skipping class.
"Sometimes I tease him – I tell him I’m going to pierce his ears and he’s like, 'No, thank you.' When I ask him why, he says 'I’m in an orchestra and one day I will play professionally and they won’t want me looking like that.' And I can’t help but think I am doing something right – I am doing something right with him. I pray he continues to think that way."
Next year, Isay heads to high school. He applied to AISD’s McCallum High School – an arts academy that’s on other side of the city and will be difficult to get to every day. He says that mean he’ll most likely go to Travis High next year – where he’ll continue playing in the orchestra and teaching himself music on his violin.