Alfonso Martinez had dropped his 17-year-old daughter off at Grant High early Friday, so he figured that Roxana had just missed morning roll call when he got the robocall from the school alerting him that his child was tardy or absent.
In fact, Roxana had skipped school -- something she's done frequently in the past and something her parents didn't realize she was doing until two Los Angeles Unified attendance counselors knocked on the door of their Van Nuys home. Only then did Martinez and Guadalupe Raygoza learn that Roxana hasn't been tardy just a time or two, as they thought, but chronically truant, and that she's no longer on track to graduate with her classmates in June.
During the earnest discussion that followed around the couple's kitchen table, attendance counselors Shira Scherb and Anna Salazar offered options for getting Roxana through high school, as well as support and empathy to the parents struggling to understand their daughter's deceit.
"A lot of what we do is just listening and then asking the right questions," said Scherb, one of 250 attendance counselors serving the district's 1,000-plus campuses.
On Friday, teams made up of attendance counselors, supported by hundreds of other district employees and volunteers, fanned out across Los Angeles Unified for the district's fifth annual Student Recovery Day. Targeting Grant and six other high schools, they spent the day making phone calls and knocking on the doors of dropouts and chronic truants in a focused effort to get them back in school.
Their goal was to add to the 4,049 students "recovered" during the first four years of the campaign, and to continue raising the district's graduation rate which in 2012 reached 66.2 percent.
Among those making home visits Friday were school board member Monica Ratliff, along with Byron Maltez and Juan Flecha, the district's top two administrators in the San Fernando Valley. There were also scores of volunteers from L.A. City Hall and from City Year Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that provides tutors and mentors to help keep kids in school.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and district Superintendent John Deasy appeared together at Fremont High in the Florence neighborhood, where they toured the campus and spoke to the crowd of educators and volunteers.
Reaching out to those teens who may be hanging out in parks or libraries during the day is key to helping reduce dropout rates, Garcetti said. He said the city workers employed at parks or work source centers can help those at-risk kids.
"They're disconnected from family, disconnected from friends," Garcetti said. "One person caring, whether it's a librarian, a coach, or a teacher, can be enough to bring them back."
But for counselors like Scherb and Salazar, it was a pretty typical workday as they tackled a list of nine students whose spotty attendance records have raised red flags that they're at risk of dropping out.
They started the day at Roxana's house, arriving unannounced and interrupting her parents' breakfast. During a half-hour discussion in Spanish, they advised her parents about credit-recovery courses she could take, and ways they could take a more active role in making sure she stays in school.
"We offered the tools to help them," Salazar said later, "We try to build a bridge between the parent and the school, to let them know we can work together as a team."
And Roxana's parents said they were surprised by the visit, but grateful for the effort the counselors had made.
"We appreciate it a lot," Martinez said in Spanish as Scherb translated. "We want Roxana to graduate from high school and work to the best of her abilities. And we want to be parents who help and are involved."
The team's next few visits weren't as fruitful, as the counselors were forced to tuck please-call-me notes into doors or mailboxes when no one answered their knock. A similar note was left behind with the suspicious sister who cracked open the door of a Vanowen Street apartment and the stepbrother of a boy who answered the door of the family's home just a block from Grant.
The hope is that they'll be able to connect with the student and strike the right chord of concern, support and encouragement to persuade the student to keep trying.
That's what happened with Ruben Hernandez, who dropped out of East Valley High after failing every class, but returned at the invitation of counselor Megan Brown. He's still in high school, and is making up credits at community college, with an eye toward getting his diploma.
Brown also connected during last year's Student Recovery Day with truant Allison Bustamante, who earned A's and B's in all of her classes after transferring to a different school. But the girl hasn't showed up this year, and Brown can't reach her parents, leading her to believe Allison may have left the district.
Despite the hit-and-miss nature of the work, attendance counselors relish the opportunity to keep kids from falling through the cracks.
"It's very rewarding work, and to be face-to-face with someone who says 'thank you for helping me,' well, it changes my life," Scherb said.
Staff Writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.