Relationships crucial to combating absence in Muscatine
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 by the Muscatine Community School District.
MUSCATINE – When officials at Muscatine Community School District sought to slash its chronic absence rate, they prioritized relationships: not only between students and staff, but also between the district and the community.
First, each school formed attendance and at-risk committees made up of staff at all levels who work together to keep closer tabs on attendance data. When a student’s attendance becomes concerning, instead of taking a punitive approach, committee members ask families how can they can help, even showing up to a student’s home to demonstrate how much they care, explains Assistant Superintendent Michael McGrory.
“Home visits give you so many more pieces to understand why this is an issue,” McGrory says. “It has given us a lot more sensitivity about how we can work with families. There aren’t many parents who don’t want their children to be successful; there are just variables that are impeding.”
The district also partnered with the Muscatine Police Department and the county attorney’s office to help enforce their attendance policy. A full-time officer helps reduce absence through home visits and calls, while the county attorney’s office is ready to step in if necessary.
“Obviously, if a police officer shows up at a child’s house, it heightens the importance of attendance,” McGrory says. “But it’s not a ‘gotcha’; it’s to build a relationship.”
A citywide committee called Aligned Impact Muscatine also brings together representatives from local corporations, the city hospital, and nonprofits to brainstorm solutions to absence. Members spend time mentoring students and stepping in to assist schools when funding issues arise. The relationship is mutually beneficial: McGrory explains that these entities “see attendance as a vehicle to improve graduation and postsecondary attendance” and subsequently a way to fill the community with students who are prepared for the job market.
Collaborating with the hospital has resulted in the hiring of two Community Navigators, who will work with families to help meet outside needs. The school district has also shifted resources to hire additional social workers and guidance counselors.
“If you don’t have a plan that addresses social-emotional skills with attendance, it won’t work because that’s what drives attendance issues,” McGrory says.
Among the most successful in the district is Franklin Elementary School, which cut its chronic absentee rate from 27.1 percent to 14.6 percent in the last year. Principal Jason Wester’s emphasis on “relationships first, then academics” has paid dividends at Franklin, where 85 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches and 51 percent are students of color.
Wester told the story of a kindergarten student who missed 10 days within the first month and a half of the school year. Wester met with his parents, learning that he lived a mile and a half away -- too far to walk, but not far enough for a bus -- and that the parents share a car to get to work and to drop off their son at school.
Together, they found a solution: “If his mom can’t get him here, we go pick him up,” Wester says. “He only missed two days by the end of the year.”
That individualized approach to increasing attendance is also improving Franklin’s academic results. At the beginning of the year, 55% of students met state benchmark on the Formative Assessment System for Teachers (FAST); by the end of the year, that number increased to nearly 75%.
Wester’s goal now? Cut the absentee rate to 5% by next year.
“It’s a team thing. All our staff, paraprofessionals, teachers, the front office – we’re here to work with them.”