Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

February 3rd, 2015

Principal Spotlight: Building a Culture of Attendance

Paige Swan could see the results of his attendance push when he asked all the students with perfect attendance to come to the front of the auditorium: 103 students rose and stood proudly beside the principal at the June assembly.Snip20150130_7

Then he asked for students with one or two missed days to come forward. Most of the student body at his rural California elementary school was standing at the front of room. In a single year, the average daily attendance rate at Smith River Elementary School rose from 94 to 98 percent. And the chronic absence rate fell from about 8 percent to below 6 percent.

“We’ve made it a school-wide priority,” Swan says. “We had a plan, we followed the plan, and at the end of the school year we analyzed the plan. Our plan worked.”

Swan’s success was part of a countywide initiative in Del Norte County in northwest California aimed at reducing chronic absence and improving achievement. The county provided professional development, tools and incentives for Swan and other principals, as well as regular access to data on chronic absence. When improved attendance brings the district more state aid, the district shares the “profits” with school sites.

His school, Smith River, serves a diverse population of 242 students; 85 percent qualify for free and reduced meals. Swan began by setting up an attendance team. The team looks at trends among students as well as patterns for individual students. He makes sure that everyone at the school paid attention to every absence.

With one absence, a teacher calls the family. When the child returns to school, Smith himself welcomes him or her back to school. After three days of absences, the principal calls the family.

Swan says he makes a point to keep the message positive and to offer help when needed. “We know parents get ill, we know siblings get ill… We tell them ‘We really don’t care what the reason is, if you’ve missed your ride, call the school and we will come get you.’”

If a student struggled with absenteeism the previous year, Swan calls the parents before school starts to talk about approaches to improving attendance. Those students are connected to an adult mentor when they start school.

When students are in school, they hear the positive message about attendance, too. The principal talks about it at assemblies. Teachers talk about it in class. Students can win recognition for good and improved attendance at regular intervals throughout the year.

Attendance Works is developing a toolkit for principals and looking for examples of school leaders who have improved attendance. If you’d like to nominate a principal, contact us at

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January 29th, 2015

DC Pre-K Increases Interventions, Improves Attendance

Washington, D.C., reduced its chronic absences rate in pre-kindergarten by 13 percent and increased by 15 percent the proportion of students with satisfactory attendance using a set of interventions anchored by more contact with families, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.

The report reviews three years of attendance data in the city’s universal pre-K program, which serves about 5,000  3- and 4-year-old students. The report shows that D.C., like many large cities, has an attendance problem in Snip20150128_2the early years: 20 percent of students missed 10 percent or more of the 2013-14 school year and another 7 percent missed 20 percent or more sf school days; that’s a total chronic absence rate of 27 percent. That compares to 31 percent two years earlier. At the same time, the percentage of students missing less than 5 percent of the school year rose from 38 to 44 percent.

So what did D.C. do?

The first step was to change its policy for calling pre-K families about absences.  Rather than wait until a student had missed three days in a row, family service teams now call parents after the student misses three days any time during the school year. The interventions can also take the form of home visits or meetings with the teacher or principal.

The change in policy triggered taking supportive action with 30 percent of the students, compared to 7 percent two years earlier. In about 6 percent of cases, the school teams called in case management specialists to deal with more complex problems. That’s up from 2 percent two years earlier. According to the report:

This additional investment in family engagement has likely contributed to the increase in attendance. Identifying the unique role that this policy change has had on attendance is challenging, however, because other attendance initiatives across schools and within specific schools were occurring simultaneously.

In some ways, D.C. is unique. The city  offers universal pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds through its schools. It has a hybrid model that braids federal Head Start dollars with local school funding, meaning that all students have access to family support services. In other ways, though, the challenges D.C. encounters in improving PreK are universal.

Preschool is a time when many students are first exposed to germs and spend many sick days at home. It’s also a time when parents don’t worry as much about taking a child out of class for a vacation or simply for family convenience. In most places, attendance in not mandatory in preschool.

At the same time, we know that preschool has enormous potential for helping children, especially those from low-income families,  develop the academic and social skills they need to succeed. And recent research from Baltimore and Chicago shows that absenteeism in this earliest grade correlates with weaker skills development and worse attendance in later grades. DC’s approach, contacting and working with parents rather than penalizing them, seems a promising model.

“We are trying to get the message out that pre-K is not child care,” Deborah Paratore, director of Head Start program operations for D.C. Public Schools, told The Washington Post.  “It’s a place where habits are formed, where children are going to school.”

The Urban Institute researchers also examined some trends in pre-K attendance:

  • Snip20150127_1 Students are mostly likely to miss school on Mondays and Fridays. Absenteeism is also high on the days before holidays, half days and the days before or after snowfall.
  • Chronic absence rates were highest among African-American students pre-K students, students whose parents speak English at home, students who were enrolled in TANF, and students who were homeless had much worse attendance than other students.
  • Students are more likely to be absent in January and June.

A companion report explores the research and causes for absenteeism in the early years.

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January 28th, 2015

Principal Spotlight: Positive Messaging for Better Attendance

Principal Sarah Harris knows how to deliver the message on school attendance. She starts at the back-to-school breakfast the week before school begins at Vance Village Elementary School in New Britain, Connecticut. She emphasizes the theme again in her weekly robocalls to families and in the school’s monthly newsletter. She asks teachers to stress good attendance in personalized messages they record monthly for their own students. And she asks fifth graders to mention it they when make the daily announcements.

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Messaging is just one piece of Harris’s approach to reducing chronic absence, an approach that brought the proportion of chronically absent students down from 24 to 7 percent in a single year. Amid the incentives, the data analysis and the mentoring lies a core principle: “Teachers must have the relationship to children and their families to reinforce why it matters to come to school every day,” she says.

When Harris first analyzed Vance Village’s attendance numbers, she found that about a quarter of the students were missing 10 percent of the school year. She also found a correlation between the students who were chronically absent and those not reading on grade level. “The bottom line is students miss out on instructional time and learning opportunities when they’re not in school,” she says.

Harris and her staff launching a messaging campaign to ensure that students and families know the value of good attendance. One teacher wrote a poem: I Want to Go to School. Another created an attendance song that the school children seem to know by heart. Beyond messaging, Vance Village offers incentives for good attendance. Children receive stars for good attendance and enter the stars into monthly raffles with prizes donated from local pizza shops, retailers and churches.

For students who are missing too much school, the school convenes an attendance team weekly to explore systemic challenges. Harris and her staff also meet with families to dig deeper into the reasons for absenteeism. Every two weeks, Harris meets with the third to fifth grade students who have been chronically absent to check in and offer encouragement. Mentors from the community, including a local state university, meet with at-risk students every week. The mentors come on Fridays, since data shows that absences are most common on Mondays and Fridays.

The payoff for the work comes in the results: The sharp decline in chronic absence rates correlates with increased reading and math scores. The payoff also comes when she has hundreds of young voices singing the attendance song or recite the poem:

I love my school and all my friends,
I learn so much each day.
We read new books and have fun
Please let me go today.

Attendance Works is developing a toolkit for principals and looking for examples of school leaders who have improved attendance. If you’d like to nominate a principal contact us at


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