The steps a high poverty suburban school took to achieve high attendance and what could be improved. In addition, important learning we took away from the process.
Achieving high attendance in high poverty elementary schools can be an ongoing challenge. There are mitigating factors that impact a students ability to be at school. Frequently, these challenges are beyond the control of the student. However, I worked at an elementary school that was able to assemble an attendance team that improved the trajectory as well as improved culture of school attendance. Over the course of a few months, student attendance transformed from a low of 81.7% in September to a year-end average of 93.8%, surpassing the target of 91.6%. There were three key areas of focus and upon reflection, one area that should been included but was omitted.
Background of the School
The school is a high poverty building with free and reduced lunch applications in the 75 – 80% range. In addition, the building transiency rate averaged above 60% over the last two school years. The building is part of a district categorized as suburban, but the school borders a large, dysfunctional urban district. In addition, the school was identified by the state as performing in the lowest 10% of all the elementary schools, an anomaly in a traditionally high performing district. In terms of personnel, the building had undergone an almost complete staff turnover within the last three years.
The First Change: Team Composition
The first change was to redesign the composition of the attendance team. In the past, the team was comprised of staff that volunteered or were recruited to be on the attendance team. The redesign brought all the staff that were the first line of parent contact on to the team. The team included a few classroom teachers, the principal and instructional coach, the usual team. In addition, the school nurse was added. The nurse was important as the primary point person when a student left with an illness. The nurse was direct in the communication with parents, giving specific guidelines for when the student could return to school. The emphasis was on getting students back to school in as timely a manner as possible. Also, the nurse made decisions on whether or not students were sent home based on student history and relationships built with students.
The administrative assistants also played a pivotal role.The administrative assistant responsible to attendance was added to the team. It was a glaring oversight in the past. She had the velvet touch, but with clarity on the the need to be back at school as soon as possible. She explicitly stated students should be at home if they had “a fever over 100˚, were throwing up or had diarrhea”. With a gentle tone, she would encourage parents that were taking students to doctor visits, come back when you were finished since learning was going to be continuing to the end of the day.
The other members of the team played equally important roles. They were the school social worker, the counselor and the family involvement specialist. The school social worker worked with families to identify resources within the community that could help overcome challenges, such as connecting utilities that have been disconnected or find stable housing, ultimately improving student attendance. For another example, the social worker would provide information on free clinics so the family didn’t have to spend time waiting in an emergency room for services that would generally fall under the auspices of a primary care physician.
The school counselor worked with the families and the students on internal or building level resources. The counselor might pair students with a peer or an adult “buddy” to check-in with: an accountability partner. Another technique used is to have students track their attendance. Students would be responsible for tracking the data, setting and adjusting goals. The adult role would be to monitor progress and talk about the changes the students had made to improve attendance. The conversation was framed with growth mindset terminology and phrases.
The family involvement specialist was also on the front line of communication with the families. The duties included communicating the importance of high attendance through the school messenger or monthly newsletters. In addition, the family involvement specialist created family events to educate care givers on the compounding nature of absences. She also built strong, caring relationships with parents during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up, allowing the opportunity for face-to-face conversations when necessary to feel less confrontational.
Everyone in the building played a role in communicating the importance of been in school. The maintenance staff, recess and lunch clerks, cafeteria staff and bus drivers were some of the best encouragers, since they didn’t have be enforcers. The best support for students comes from relationship built in unlikely places. The classroom teachers were able to approach attendance from a gentle perspective. They were the encourager, givers of positive phone calls to say, “we missed you today and hope you feel better soon” and giving big welcomes when the student returned. The other members of the team took the harder line approach. The principal, instructional coach and social worker had the tougher phone calls about the the “next steps” or consequences when absences became excessive.
The purpose of the team was to build trust among the families. The attendance team members had strong relationships and various points of contact with parents and students. Nel Noddings (1984) noted, “Care is in the eyes of the reciever” (Educational Leadership, p 50) and we understood as a staff that the strategy that works for one student or family may not work for another. The families learned to trust that our purpose was to provide supports in the their efforts to do best they can with their child. As a staff, we trusted the parents authentically desired to do the best for their children and they would with the proper supports. Relational trust changed the tone and temperament of the conversation from antagonistic to a collaborative encounter.
Changing the message
One change with the greatest impact on attendance was to change our message to students and families about attendance. In the past we talked about attendance in terms of percentages. Our goals were described as 90/90 – meaning 90% of students needed to be at school 90% of the time. That is tough for any parent, student or teacher to comprehend. Initially we changed the the message to a goal of 90%, but realized, no one really knew what 90% of a school year meant. In addition, this goal did not help us make up the growth necessary to meet state attendance goals or the district description of outstanding attendance. The next iteration changed the goal into a concrete number that was easy to understand.
We communicated students could miss a maximum eight days of school and meet attendance goals. This number was a composite of district description of attendance goals, state mandated goal 90/90 goal and attendance range that would build a buffer for the building and increase average attendance percentages. Eight was a concrete number that everyone understood and eliminated vague percentages.
In addition, we changed our overall message. The new message was “every minute counts” and you need to be in school every minute possible. In reality, every minute really did count in calculating our attendance percentage by the state. As the academic challenges eased, attendance was the one aspect of meeting state goals we were not achieving.
Historically, if a parent picked up a student early for an appointment, the student would not return for the remained of the day. We started asking the family to bring the child back for the remained of the day. The same idea was applied if a parent called in to say the student would miss school due to an appointment. The administrative assistants would ask them to bring the child to school as soon as the appointment was completed.
We started an “every minute counts” campaign with building signage, messages in the newsletter and with robo calls. With high frequency, robo calls (school messenger) would call the families of students with absences below a minimum threshold and say “every minute counts” and you child is currently at a percentage below the target. Families would call and ask how to get the calls to stop. The response was bring your child to school. Families with kids that had high attendance received thank you calls and positive postcards. Kids received many different attendance incentives. One of the most successful was to post pictures of students with 100% attendance at the main entrance of the school. Kids loved to find their picture. For example, the first month we had about 90 students with 100% attendance and rapidly increased the number to a monthly average of about 190 students.This sent a powerful message to visitors what was important with the walls of the school.
To help emphasize the message, in the sign in and sign out sheets, a schedule was posted to parents could see the academic content the student would miss by leaving early or what had already been missed by coming to school late. A large poster of the schedule was hung on the door for parents to see as they left. We wanted to change the thinking that one day won’t matter. One day might not matter, but 10% absentee rate is the equivalent to 18 days of one school year and over an elementary career, that is almost the equivalent to losing 3/4 year of learning when the foundations for reading and math are being established.
Developing a New Culture
In addition to changing policies and routines of the building, a major shift happened among the staff in re-culturing the school. This started by hiring staff that believed that ours students were as able as any other students in the district and a shift from blaming the families for circumstances to supporting families to find solutions.
Students felt welcomed to a safe environment that provided a consistency from the chaos they may experience at home or the neighborhood. It became a feeling of we are all in this together and we can be successful, even if we haven’t experienced success in the past. Conversations migrated from talking about the issues to talking about solutions and what works. We were forced as educators to abandon some of our perception and beliefs in favor learning new practices. The educators were there to fulfill a mission to be the best educators that authentically strived to differentiate in order to meet the needs of students instead of the students meeting our needs. The teachers valued the culture of students, encouraged students and did whatever was necessary to help students.The change in culture manifested students attendance increases and parents commenting on the fact their child wanted to be at school, along with student achievement gains.
Who Was Left Out
While we increased attendance, there was still one constituent group that was left out of the process – the parents. I have a strong belief that we are in education together. The means parents, students and school system. To frequently, the school system does to the families in the name of expediency, an attempt to problem solve and in the interest of doing what is best for kids, we ignore who is employing us. Educators are the “experts” with highly specialized knowledge, but that does not negate the input of families. There needs to be a true collaboration to achieve the best, longest-lasting results.
What Was Learned
The first piece of information we gleaned was that we needed to start early in the school year. A student that misses the first week of school fights uphill battle against the percentages the entire year to meet the goal. Missing one of the first day two days of school will drop the percentage to 50%. The family may think there will not be much learning happening (educators would disagree) but it impacts attendance percentages the entire year. A day missed at the end of the year will only cause a tenth or hundredth of a percentage point change since the numerator and denominator are larger.
We also tracked attendance and assessment scores. While not scientific in nature, tracking attendance percentages against progress monitoring growth showed that during weeks there were dips in attendance, the trajectory on progress monitoring followed suit. Here is an example…
In this student example, As the attendance trends higher, the progress monitoring line trends higher. In the next example, the student’s progress monitoring scores increase and decrease following attendance trend line changes.
In this example, even slight changes in attendance impacted learning outcomes. This supports the belief that if students are not in school, their learning suffers.
Significant attendance changes can be accomplished if there is a complete and total dedication to changing the beliefs about school attendance. I can only imaging the additional gains that could be accomplished if parents were at the table with the rest of the attendance team. It can be done. No excuses.
Nodding, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to to ethics and moral education.Berkley: University of California Press.