Archive for June, 2011

June 24th, 2011

Tackling Health Issues to Combat Chronic Absence

Much of our work improving attendance requires that we find out why students are missing school. In many cases, the answer is simply because they’re sick.

Especially in the early grades, tooth decay, asthma and other illnesses can contribute to chronic absence. For low-income children, the problem is compounded by pollution, unhealthy living conditions and a lack of access to quality health care.

Today, Attendance Works introduces a new collection of resources and ideas to address this major barrier to attendance. This focus on health starts with our updated Tools for Health Care Providers page, which offers tools for analyzing your school-based health center’s services, information on some of the most serious health problems, and strategies for improving children’s health and, therefore, their attendance.

In the coming weeks, we will present a series of blog posts on specific health issues that create huge barriers to attendance, starting with dental health and asthma. We will continue to update our tools page with resources specific to those health issues. We welcome any materials you’d like to share. In the meantime, here are some general tips for addressing health barriers to attendance.

  • Work collaboratively: Keeping children healthy means involving parents, teachers, school nurses and policy makers.
  • Think holistically: Ask questions to figure out why exactly children are unhealthy. Is it their environment? Do they lack access to affordable health care or medical insurance? Are they and their parents educated about healthy habits? Are school nurses intervening when they see a problem?
  • Consider mental health issues: Problems from depression to anxiety over bullying can keep students from getting to school. Likewise, parental depression can contribute significantly to absences.
  • Use existing materials: Continue to check our Tools page for models of success and additional resources. The Centers for Disease Control is a good place to start for outside resources.

Healthy children are more likely to attend school and be engaged in their learning than unhealthy children. We’re excited to be able to offer these new tools and information to advance our goal of reducing chronic absence

Posted in Health, Research | 1 Comment »

June 16th, 2011

City Leaders Rally Schools, Community Groups to Improve Attendance

The first step was to look at the data: Nearly one in seven students in the Oakland Unified School District missed 10 percent of the school year. In kindergarten, 17 percent of the students missed that much school. The city’s African American elementary students were three times more likely than white students and twice as likely as Latinos to be chronically absent.

After seeing the dire numbers, the city’s Education Cabinet has made reducing chronic absence a policy priority and established a committee to explore how the city can partner with the district and other community stakeholders. The cabinet is led by Mayor Jean Quan and Superintendent Tony Smith and convened by Mills College, with support from the San Francisco Foundation. As part of Oakland Unified’s new strategic plan, Smith challenged everyone to ask themselves, “As a result of my actions, how many more students are attending school at least 95 percent of the time?”

Oakland is only one of the most recent cities to use chronic absence data to inform its policy agenda. In Baltimore, the mayor’s office, the city schools and the Open Society Institute created a task force three years ago that has helped cut middle school absences in half. In New York City, the mayor’s initiative is finishing up a year-long pilot program that used mentoring, incentive programs and a public awareness campaign concentrated on 25 schools with high levels of chronic absence. Last week, the mayor’s office joined with the school chancellor and health department director to announce an asthma initiative aimed at tackling one of the leading causes of school absences.

We expect more cities to embrace solutions to chronic absence given yesterday’s announcement that the coveted All-America City Awards will go to cities addressing this and other problems that keep children from learning to read well. We have released a toolkit that recommends five strategies for city leaders:

  1. Get, share and monitor chronic absence data: Without the right information, city leaders often don’t know whether they have an attendance problem or how best to address it. In Oakland, for instance, half the students take advantage of the city’s open enrollment policy and go to school outside their neighborhoods. To determine which communities were most affected by chronic absence, the analysis broke down the data by census tract. Some of the worst absentee rates came in neighborhoods beset not just with poverty but with environmental hazards that exacerbates asthma and other health problems. The high rates among African-American students suggested that improving school attendance, starting in the early grades, could help reduce racial inequities in academic achievement.
  2. Make attendance a community priority: City agencies, volunteer organizations, church groups, foundations and parents can all help schools improve attendance. Mayors in both Baltimore and New York City convened task forces that found new ways to reach out to parents and students. Baltimore instituted systemic changes, including reducing the number of suspensions for nonviolent offenses and shutting down troubled middle schools to create K-8 campuses. New York adopted more of a more targeted approach in which 25 pilot schools engage in an array of activities, including assigning mentors to chronically absent students.
  3. Partner with school and city-funded agencies to nurture a “culture of attendance:” City leaders can use the bully pulpit to make the case for improving school attendance. New York tapped celebrities, such as basketball great Magic Johnson, for wake-up calls to chronically absent students and taped public service announcements. Baltimore asked students to develop videos and posters that would appeal to their peers. City leaders can also use preschool and afterschool resources, for which they often control funding, to promote good school attendance. Programs in the Fort Myers area in Florida and in rural Pennsylvania are demonstrating successful approaches.
  4. Identify and address barriers to attendance: City resources, from social service agencies to transit authorities, can help break down barriers that are keeping children from coming to school. In Baltimore, police work with neighbors to create safe walking routes to school. In New York City, homeless shelters provide coordinators to ensure children living there get to school every day. In Oakland, the housing authority and school officials are working together to identify at- risk students.
  5. Advocate for stronger policies and public investments: Local officials can lead the charge in pushing for policies that would:
    • Adopt a standard definition of chronic absence: missing 10 percent or more of school days
    • Require calculating and reporting on chronic absence by district, school, grade and sub-group.
    • Establish school and district attendance teams to review chronic absence as well as other key attendance data.
    • Address improved attendance in school improvement plans.
    • Use the prevalence of chronic absence to identify schools in need of relevant community resources such as preK education, afterschool programs, health care and insurance, food and nutrition, affordable housing, free tax preparation and Earned Income Tax Credit outreach.

Posted in Elementary, Research | No Comments »

June 15th, 2011

Building a “Culture of Attendance” in Baltimore

Diedre Reeder barely needs to look at the class attendance sheets as she makes her rounds at Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School every morning. As the school’s attendance monitor, Reeder says she can simply look in the classroom and see who’s missing.

On most days, that’s not too many kids. Despite the poverty outside the school and the crowded classrooms inside, Franklin Square consistently registers one of the highest attendance rates in Baltimore. A fifth grade classroom crammed with 39 students recently boasted 32 with perfect attendance for the month.

Reeder and her principal, Terry Patton, have created a “culture of attendance,” where students know they are expected to come to school, where parents know they’ll get a call if their children don’t show up and where the community helps tackle barriers to attendance with everything from free dental care to in-school haircuts to clean uniforms.

The high-rise office buildings of the Baltimore skyline glimmer barely a mile from Franklin Square, but the row houses that surround the campus are run down, boarded up or burned out. School records show 91 percent of the 390 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Poverty is often linked to chronic absence, and Baltimore has plenty of both. Citywide, about 14 percent of elementary students and 17 of middle schoolers missed 20 or more days last year.

Franklin Square, with a 6 percent chronic absence rate last year and 3 percent the year before, is beating the odds. Principal Patton said she began paying attention to attendance when she arrived at the school seven years ago. “I took at the data and I realized [chronic absence] might be part of the problem,” she recalled. “Maybe the kids aren’t here.”

Patton now meets with the family of every new student and talks about the importance of attendance. If the child is transferring from another school, she reviews their records, looking carefully for any sign of past attendance problems.

The principal’s data dashboard, with information from the central office, shows Patton weekly who’s missing 10 or fewer days and who’s missing 20 or more. She can view this by classroom, grade and by individual student.

And then, she’s got Reeder. The attendance monitor calls the home of every absent student. After three days, she sends the family a letter. She talks to parents about why a child is missing school. “If they say ‘death in the family,’ I ask them for the obituary,” Reeder said. Once she found that a child’s caregiver, an elderly grandmother, was sick. So Reeder picked up the student and brought her to school.

As Reeder shows off the perfect attendance bulletin board, a group of middle school students gathers nearby. “Take that hat off,” she tells one of them. “You’d better stop drinking that soda,” she tells another.

“Yes, Miss Reeder,” they respond, giggling.

Beyond its explicit attendance policies, Franklin Square offers an engaging environment that keeps kids wanting to come to school. A program called Path to Pax teaches positive behavior techniques so that students learn how to handle confrontations and can focus more on learning.

Afterschool programs offer sports, clubs, even junior ROTC. Patton brings in a barber to give kids a good haircut and, with it, a sense of self esteem. Rather than send students home when they are out of uniform, she keeps neatly folded khakis and polo shirts on hand. She offers asthma and dental clinics, and won a state grant to serve healthier food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, at lunch.

The school building also hosts a food bank, a Head Start program, a day care center and programs run through partnerships with sororities and churches.

 “We treat people the way we want to be treated,” Patton said. “We make sure the children feel like they matter, and the families feel like they matter.”

Posted in Research, State News | No Comments »

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