By: Steven Van Auken
Poor student attendance is a problem that can plague schools serving students from virtually every socioeconomic status. However, it is an issue that is most often concentrated in schools serving children that live in poverty. The reasons kids in these schools are absent vary and include homelessness, lack of transportation, lack of parental involvement, illness, living in families that frequently move, and a lack of value being placed on education. However, with hard work by dedicated individuals and a multi-tiered approach, the problem of poor school attendance can, and in some cases is being greatly alleviated.
I was recently invited to attend a newly formed School Attendance Team meeting at Winnwood Elementary school in the North Kansas City School District. The team meets monthly to discuss their school’s attendance trends and how to improve them. Comprised of a variety of school employees including the Principal, Teaching Coach, Nurse, Social Worker, Administrative Assistants, and Office Clerk, the team focuses on a multi-faceted approach, with the idea in mind that there is no one “solve all” answer to getting kids to come to school. Since beginning the team in August, Winnwood school wide average daily attendance has increased by 10% (from 82% to 92.8%). Perhaps more importantly, the number of chronically absent students (those children missing more than 10% of the school year) has been reduced from 98 students to just 14, an improvement of 85.7%.
How They’re Reducing Absences:
This dedicated group of staff addresses each student exhibiting poor attendance on an individual case-by-case basis. They discuss potential reasons for why the student might be missing school, and come up with a personalized attendance contract that has actionable steps to help the student improve. The contracts can be as simple as a letter or call home to the parents, or as detailed as assigning a student with an attendance buddy who checks in with them on a daily basis depending on the frequency of absence. Another way the team is working to improve attendance is by empowering their students through duties and responsibilities that require them to be in school. These duties include leading school wide morning announcements, becoming early morning front door greeters, and helping to plan and decorate attendance boards in the hallways. This not only has improved daily attendance, it has also improved the culture around school, giving kids added excitement for showing up to school each day.
The second part of the team’s approach revolves around holding parents more accountable. In the past, it was not uncommon for a student to miss an entire afternoon for a one hour doctor’s appointment. The office staff now verbally confirms with the parents that they will bring their children back for the remainder of the day following appointments. They also have posters plastered around the office with real examples of the important subject matter their children miss when they’re not present. For families struggling with tardiness, the school has started early morning interventions including everything from sending an alarm clock home to setting up morning wake up calls from the school.
A focus on data:
Aside from the direct staff to family involvement, the last way Winnwood is combatting the problem of absent students is by looking at the data from all angles. Assigned staff members look for attendance trends on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and break down the reasons for absence including arriving late, leaving early, missing all together, appointments, and suspensions. They are also in the process of graphing attendance rates versus achievement in order to come up with a statistical visualization of the importance of being in class every day.
There are as many reasons for school absences as there are ways to improve the issue. However, a few things hold true: Making improvements requires addressing the issue head on; it requires assembling dedicated staff members to fight the problem; and it requires not only getting families and students involved, but holding them accountable on a daily basis. Winnwood Elementary is a prime example that holds true to all of these, and the results speak for themselves.