July 18th, 2014

Bright Spot: Kent County, Mich., Drills Down to Reduce Chronic Absence

This post was first published as a Bright Spot on the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading website.

When young children repeatedly miss school, this can be a sign of problems at home: Mom has lost her job. Dad has been deported. The family is living in a shelter. A parent is ill.

To address this, Michigan’s Kent County uses Kent School Services Network (KSSN), a community school initiative that places providers such as community school coordinators and behavioral health clinicians in the county’s highest-poverty schools to help students and their families succeed.

Each week, at 28 KSSN schools in seven districts — including 16 elementary or K-8 schools — providers hold attendance meetings with school staff to identify and help students with attendance issues.

“They drill down to see what else is going on, what barriers and problems exist, and how to help a family make sure that their child goes to school,” says Carol Paine-McGovern, executive director of KSSN, a member of Kent County’s grade-level reading coalition.

Decreasing chronic absenteeism — students missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason — is a key strategy to achieve KSSN’s goal of ensuring that students are at school and ready to learn.

“If kids don’t show up, they aren’t learning in class,” says Paine-McGovern. The most urban, minority and high-poverty school districts in Kent County had higher chronic absence rates and lower academic performance, a 2009 report found.

Attendance also is considered an indicator of KSSN’s success. Satisfactory attendance — students attending 95 percent or more school days — increased by 7 percent in 2012-2013 over the previous year, across schools in six KSSN districts. “It’s statistically significant. We were thrilled,” says Paine-McGovern, noting that data will soon be available for the largest district, Grand Rapids, thanks to a new data-sharing agreement.

This also means a corresponding drop in chronic absence overall of 3.2 percent. At Burton Elementary, for example, chronic absence fell from 23 percent in 2006 to 12.2 percent in 2013.

Another positive sign: The first six schools to join KSSN in 2006 — including five elementary or K-8 schools — each made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the academic performance measure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, after three years in the network. For each school, this was a first.

KSSN’s attendance work is rooted in Kent County’s embrace — during the late 1990s federal welfare overhaul — of a dual-generation approach to combating poverty by helping adults succeed in work and children succeed in school. “It’s about building that culture of ‘showing up’ at a job or at school,” says Paine-McGovern.

Begun as a collaborative effort among schools, county health, mental health and social services, a nonprofit health system and several funders, KSSN aims to improve student achievement by creating community hubs in high-poverty schools that provide easier access to family supports and services. In many schools, providers also include a human services department worker and a nurse or health aide. Creating the network and attendance focus involved several essentials, including parent outreach; strong leadership from superintendents and principals; buy-in from other key players; regular attendance meetings; a clear attendance policy; multi-agency case management; and the blending and braiding of public and private funds.

KSSN has inspired fledgling efforts to create similar networks with an attendance focus in almost 200 Michigan schools, from Detroit to the rural Upper Peninsula, and earned support for implementation and ongoing evaluation from national funders including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, based in Michigan. Paine-McGovern points to a recent survey finding that 83 percent of responding KSSN parents reported that their child has at least one adult at school whom they can go to with a problem.

“That’s huge — the relationship piece,” she says. “Does that mean that child will continue and go on to graduate? You hope so. With this team in the school, there are more adults looking out for children and figuring out what those barriers are to attending and learning.”

For more information, contact Carol Paine-McGovern at 614-447-2480 or carolpainemcgovern@kentssn.org


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