Customer-service approach results in attendance gains
Editor’s note: It stands to reason that when a student is absent, the child isn’t learning. For students who are chronically absent – defined as being out of class 10 percent or more – the effects can be academically devastating, potentially jeopardizing the success they could have in both school and life-time careers.
Below is a novel approach that Cardinal Community School District is taking.
ELDON – When Joel Pedersen, superintendent of Cardinal Community School District, thinks about how to increase student attendance, he thinks like a small business owner.
“When you walk into a restaurant or a car dealership and you are greeted with a friendly face, it makes a difference,” he says. “You want to be there. It should be the same when a student walks into school.”
That explains why as students arrive at Cardinal each morning, teachers stand at their classroom doors ready to greet them while their animated superintendent is posted outside, high-fiving students and thanking them for coming to school.
“It’s about customer service and building a culture around making the kids and parents know that we care,” he says. “It doesn’t take money to open a door and high-five a kid, or to let him take a nap if he can’t keep his head up, or to say, ‘Johnny, it’s good to see you today!’”
This approach has allowed the rural district to reverse a trend of declining enrollment and weak academic achievement and turn into a place where students are proud to go to school. On the brink of Pedersen’s seventh year as superintendent, the district now serves more than 600 students from a 130-square-mile radius; about one-third of those students are open enrolled.
Walk onto Cardinal’s campus today and you’ll see a school transformed: Walls are emblazoned with motivational phrases, lighting is bright and inviting, and significant capital and programmatic investments are giving the school new life. Pedersen’s successful push for $11 million in infrastructure improvements since 2011 has revolutionized the facilities, including state-of-the-art athletics facilities; a 21st-century classroom outfitted with mobile furniture, 3D printers, and whiteboard walls and desktops; and a welding program that offers a certificate from Indian Hills Community College, equipping students with the skills necessary to enter high-paying and in-demand jobs.
Les Shepherd, whose son Seth graduated this year, says the welding program was a big draw, ultimately leading Seth to a full-time, full-benefits job in addition to a ticket to the national SkillsUSA competition in Kentucky, where he competed against the nation’s top young welders.
“I don’t know what job he would have gotten into if it wasn’t for the welding program,” Shepherd says.
Enrollment in the welding program has more than tripled this school year and is just one of many examples of Cardinal’s philosophy of how best to meet student interests and needs. Doing so has required challenging the status quo. For example, when a student arrives late, “Instead of asking, ‘Where were you?’ we wrap our arms around them and say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here,’” Pedersen says.
In a district where nearly 60 percent of students receive free- and reduced-price lunches and kids who miss the bus are often unable to find alternative transportation, Pedersen says a level of understanding is necessary, but that doesn’t mean he lets the educators off the hook.
“We can focus on the fact that we have 60 percent of our kids in poverty and we can look at all the reasons for why our kids might not be successful, or we can look in the mirror and think about what we can control,” Pedersen says.
Fittingly, Cardinal eschews quick fixes in favor of what Pedersen calls “cultural fixes” that create a lasting, positive learning environment. The district’s “Be That One Person” initiative, for example, aims to ensure that not only teachers, but also custodians, cafeteria staff, and other adults build connections with students to ensure they feel welcome – and show up. By focusing on strong relationships and attention to students’ interests rather than reprimands, Cardinal aims to capture students’ hearts and to make them want to come to school.
“Letters home about bad attendance build compliance not capacity,” he said. “You can’t wait for chronic absenteeism to be a problem. You’ve got to tackle it with everything you do.”