Personalized approach to attendance improves academics, too
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. To that end, the Iowa Department of Education has created a resource page for schools to combat chronic absences, as well as a report showing best practices going on in Iowa’s school districts. Below is a novel approach that Council Bluffs took.
COUNCIL BLUFFS – To encourage regular school attendance, Council Bluffs has tried many initiatives: giving out trophies, issuing a citywide proclamation, signing attendance contracts, and even allowing top attenders to march in the citywide Celebrate CB parade.
But according to Martha Bruckner, who recently retired after 10 years as district superintendent, the “ace in the hole” has been treating school attendance not as an end in itself, but instead as a step on the path to increased student achievement.
“It’s not just about getting kids in school – it’s about getting kids in school and learning and becoming good citizens,” said Tim Hamilton, the district’s executive director of student and family services.
Once they’re inside the school building, the district personalizes its services to make sure every student gets what he or she needs. Particular attention has been paid to students on both ends of the district’s enrollment: prekindergarten students and high schoolers.
The district’s involvement in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading initially drew the district’s attention to its prekindergarten attendance.
“It was a big ‘a-ha’ moment when we realized that the class with the highest absence rate was preschool,” Bruckner said. “There’s a mindset among some people that preschool is babysitting. PreK is a game-changer, especially for households in poverty.”
They also conducted a “dropout autopsy” to examine if there were common characteristics among students who failed to graduate. One common factor: regular school attendance in the early grades.
As a result, the district formed attendance teams at each building to discuss and create personalized interventions for students who are struggling. They hired “graduation coaches” and “student advocates” who communicate the importance of attendance, and they personalized the letters they sent home to include not only how many days of school each child has missed, but also comparison data to allow parents to see how many days of school the average student in their child’s school has missed.
They also ramped up the ways they have promoted the importance of attendance: offering school-based attendance incentives and inviting city and state officials to join in on events, such as an Attendance Awareness Month rally, for which then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed a proclamation. Key to their success is that these efforts look different at each school. At one school, a school administrative manager might be the point person on attendance; at another, a guidance counselor or teacher might lead attendance efforts in some other manner.
“If we as the district told the principal how to run his or her building, it wouldn’t get done as well as it does,” Hamilton said. “Each school looks at what it needs to do for each student, and our district office is there to support the schools.” With each case, they take a supportive, proactive approach, seeking to understand root causes before taking action.
“If someone misses 20 days in the fourth grade because they are really sick, the problem is not that they missed 20 days,” Bruckner says. “The problem is that they’re really sick.”
Even in a district with nearly 10,000 students, maintaining that student-by-student approach has been critical to their success.
“We need to look at each school and at each student and each individual situation,” Hamilton says. “There isn’t just one solution.”