Dean of attendance among Berkeley Unified positions on chopping block

Allen Boltz, left, at a Berkeley High staff May Day rally. His dean of attendance position might be eliminated next year. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

As the Berkeley Unified School District prepares to make $1.8 million in cuts to its 2018-19 budget in February, a number of staff positions throughout the district are on the chopping block. The Berkeley High Parent Teacher Association interviewed one of the administrators whose position might be eliminated. Berkeleyside is republishing the PTA’s interview with Allen Boltz, BHS dean of attendance.

What experience do you have at BHS?
I came to BHS in 2009 and taught Forensic Science in the Academy of Medicine and Public Service. I became the dean of attendance this year. This is also my first year as an administrator of the science department. Previously I co-led one of the academies.

What are your thoughts on the district’s recommendation to eliminate your position?
Students are the end clients and the position should serve them. If I can’t justify the position, it shouldn’t be here, so I’m very reflective on what I do. If this position is eliminated, someone else will have to do the work.

How does the dean of attendance foster relationships with students?
The 10-15 kids missing class on any given day doesn’t really affect the Average Daily Attendance (ADA) but it can have a big impact on the culture of the school. I focus on these kids. We don’t want administration to communicate to kids that we don’t care or give them the message that it’s OK to miss class. I spent my initial weeks talking to kids, finding out where they hang out, and talking to them to shift their thinking, to show them that administration cares. I circulate, walk kids to class, give them rewards and encourage them.

What makes you effective in this role?
I understand truancy from the inside because I was truant in high school; I didn’t have family support and didn’t see opportunities for my future. So I understand some students’ reluctance and can speak from my personal experience. Kids are adults in training; positive relationships will get them to class. Historically school administrators are enforcers who dole out punishment, but if we stay in our offices we’ll only see kids on their worst day. So I’m all over this campus, I know every secret place. The entire BHS Admin team moves around campus and talks to kids.

If having a dean of attendance is unique to Berkeley High, why isn’t it expendable?
The title might be unique, but the work isn’t; eliminating it gets rid of an administrator. The dean of attendance contacts parents for Student Attendance Review Team (SART) meetings, coordinates with counselors, sets up Student Study Teams and attends Student Attendance Review Board meetings at the district office. Daily I check in with teachers, validate their attendance numbers, support staff to track down what’s unverified and reconcile them so that there are no loose threads, and I sign off on what goes to the state.

At TK-8 schools, clerical staff track attendance. Berkeley High has one-third of all BUSD students and takes attendance 18,000 times a day. I call parents to determine if there’s an oversight or an error or to problem-solve what’s going on with the student. The position was created in 2009 to have someone watching attendance and holding everyone accountable. The BHS ADA was 91-92% in 2009 and has gone up schoolwide to 94% for the year (we have higher percentages in the beginning of the year; it’s currently 97%, but attendance tends to drop off towards graduation). Every ADA percentage at BHS brings BUSD $230K in annual revenue. With the dean of attendance position, BHS has sustained the ADA gains it’s made and continues to climb. Without this position our ADA may slip. This week alone I have to contact 81 families to schedule face-to-face SART meetings.

Recently you were arrested, can you share what happened?
I was detained, but not photographed or processed. Two students were thrown onto the ground and the officers had a knee on their backs. I approached an officer who was standing on the side and said: “These are my kids, I know them, can I talk to them?” The officer said: “No, you need to get back.” After the students were cuffed and removed I left to talk with another administrator. Later an officer came and handcuffed me for interfering with an officer.

If you had been allowed to talk to the students, what would you have said?
I would have told them to calm down. They were scared and resisting. A survival instinct kicks in when you’re in a prone position with a knee in your back. I hoped to talk to them and to de-escalate the situation and help them understand that the police were responding the way officers are trained to handle situations.

Describe how you interact with students.
When I step in, what’s most valuable is to assume positive intent versus react. High school students’ prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, it won’t be until the age of 25. We can’t always expect rational thinking. As adults we have the ability to cool off; kids don’t know how to do this. When they act out towards me, there’s something else going on. I don’t want my interaction with them to be a continuation of the negative. I want our students to have positive relationships with authority figures at Berkeley High. It’s safe here, but out on the street it’s very different.