May 22nd, 2011
California Gets the Message
California State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson launched the forum with a succinct explanation of why attendance counts: “For all the focus on school accountability, there’s a basic fact that is often overlooked: Even the best teacher can’t help students who aren’t in the classroom. Frequent absence is a red flag, a sign of trouble ahead.”
Torlakson’s remarks echoed the core message that Attendance Works and its partners in the Chronic Absence and Attendance Partnership have been conveying for the past 18 months. The Sacramento forum brought together about 175 policymakers and educators from around the state who want to know more about using attendance data to improve student achievement.
No 1. Chronic absence is not truancy. This isn’t some semantics debate or attempt at political correctness. Chronic absence and truancy are two distinctly different measures, with truancy typically taking into account only unexcused absences and chronic absence encompassing all days missed. The distinction determines not just the size of the problem, but the solution to it. Obviously, you need a different approach for a teenager skipping school than for a homeless kindergartner with asthma. We make this point abundantly clear in our radio interview on San Francisco KQED’s radio forum on Wednesday.
San Francisco Unified School Board Member Norman Yee recounted at the forum how he had to asked the school district staff for chronic absence data several times before he got what he wanted. They kept bringing him truancy figures because this is what they had traditionally been asked to monitor.
No. 2. Chronic absence is a great early warning signal, but it must be followed up with tiered systems of intervention. Bob Balfanz, the noted Johns Hopkins University researcher who coined the phrase “dropout factory,” spoke at the forum about how he uses chronic absence as an one of three indicators that middle school students are on the track toward high school dropout. His Diplomas Now program delivers a set of interventions aimed at improving curriculum and instruction for all students, mentoring students who need some extra help with attendance and course work, and bringing community resources to bear on the students most in need of assistance.
Balfanz described the critical importance of understanding why a student is missing school in order to come up with an appropriate solution. Perhaps a student is a traditional truant who thinks he has better things to do with his time. Or maybe the student is avoiding school because of bullying on campus or a dangerous walk to school. Or perhaps the student stays home to babysit younger siblings or give his grandmother an insulin shot. The reasons dictate the response.
No. 3 The state may not be collecting data, but school districts can get started. Paula Ingrum’s from The Children’s Initiative described how her nonprofit has catalyzed attendance tracking in San Diego County. Oakland’s effort to analyze its chronic absence data and its focus on improving attendance were featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News on Friday.
This isn’t rocket science. Schools, working with community agencies and resources, can reach out to parents and children who aren’t attending school regularly. The community schools model, which brings comprehensive services for the entire family into the school, has been particularly effective.
The Chronicle’s Jill Tucker described how Oakland’s Brookfield Village Elementary School has improved attendance rates through a comprehensive approach:
[Principal Adam] Taylor’s attendance arsenal includes on-site therapists to help students with emotional or mental issues; 75 reading tutors; constant communication with families; and individualized attention every day for each of the 400 students.
It’s “all the good stuff that is in addition to learning,” he said.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Staff members and volunteers walk at-risk students from the curb to class, and Taylor offers incentives. On Fridays, he publicly praises a few of the students who had perfect attendance for the week.
Classes with the best attendance rate for a select period of time are treated to a movie with popcorn, and twice a year Taylor raffles off two bicycles to students who have perfect attendance records.
If he can’t find donors, he buys the bikes.
It really isn’t that difficult to get kids to school, he said. He would love to see some of the ideas he uses spread to other schools.
In the meantime, Taylor doesn’t mind shelling out for the bikes if he has to.
“These are my children,” he said.
Photo: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle
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