Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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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January 20th, 2015

Winter Weather Messaging


Every winter, snow and slushy weather keep parents from getting their children to school. So do the colds, fevers and earaches that often come with the winter months.

These absences, even if they are excused, can add up to academic trouble. Attendance Works has developed a toolkit with talking points, handouts, sample letters and robocalls that schools can use to combat winter weather absences.

A study of in Massachusetts, Flaking Out: Student Absences and Snow Days as Disruptions of Instructional Time, found that each missed day affected a student’s test scores and grades. Interestingly, the researcher did not find the same impact when the entire school was shut down for heavy snow. Rather, it was on days with moderate snow, when school stayed open but some students missed class, that the effects were seen.

The impact of weather-related absences was twice as large for students from low-income families as it was for their more affluent peers, the study found. Black and Hispanic students were also disproportionately affected.Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 2.57.40 PM

Researchers at the Center for New York City Schools at the New School tracked absenteeism rates on a fever chart and found significant dips on snowy days when school was in session, shown in pale blue on the chart to the right. The steepest drop came in a school in a low-income neighborhood, the dark red line on the chart, part of the new study A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About NYC’s Lowest-Income Elementary Schools

These trends underscore two factors that often influence attendance: transportation and health. Low-income students are more likely to depend on public transit or walking to get to school, both of which can be easily disrupted in a snowstorm. These same students are less likely to have access to good health care, making them more susceptible to colds and other ailments.

So what can parents do?

First, they can develop back up plans for getting children to school in winter weather. That could mean checking with other parents who have a car that can manage in the snow or forming a “walking school bus” to walk children to school with other parents. The school’s front office can help, too.

Parents can also do their best to keep children healthy by dressing them warmly for the cold weather and encouraging them to wash their hands regularly. A study showed that regular use of hand sanitizer can help reduce absences. If children do get sick, parents should talk to a doctor or the school nurse about whether they should come to school. This handout offers some tips about when children are too sick for school.

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January 19th, 2015

Family Vacation vs. School Time: Is it ever ok to miss school?

The New York Time’s Motherlode blog kicked off a lively debate (159 comments so far) with a blog post titled Skipping School for Vacation: Good for Families, or Bad for Students.

It begins with a parent concerned that her child’s absence was deemed “illegal” and explores whether schools should allow such absences.

The way we see it, that’s the wrong question: Parents shouldn’t be worried about what the school will allow but what their children can handle.  They should pay attention to attendance not because of the rules, but because it matters for academic success, from prek through 12th grade. In the early grades, missing too much school can contribute to trouble reading. In middle and high school, absenteeism can predict dropout rates.Parents need to weigh these consequences as they plot their family vacations.

How many absences are too many? The tipping point seems to be 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days–excused or unexcused. That may sound like a lot, but it can be as little as two days a month, and that can add up pretty quickly.

The debate on the Motherlode blog reveals that some parents wouldn’t dream of taking their children out of school for any reason beyond illness or true emergencies. Others argue that there is value in a family vacation, both the enrichment that children experience in new places and the the time spent with parents. Still others differentiate between a once-in-a-lifetime trip and an off-season visit to Disney.

Many teachers weighed in, too, saying that the time off is disruptive to the students–not just those missing school but the students left behind who have to wait for others to catch up when they return. Some teacher bristle at having to prepare homework packets, only to see few student actually doing the work.

The blog offers a rubric for determining whether to take a child out of school:

For parents wrestling with the decision of whether to take their children out of school during term time, Sara Dimerman, an Ontario psychologist, suggests a simple acronym, FLAG, to test whether an “illegal” absence is advisable. Here is her advice (paraphrased, with her permission):

Frequency. Is this absence a rare treat, or a regular event? If you take your children out of school frequently, teachers may interpret your actions as lack of investment in school.

Length. How long will your child be out of school? A few days may be reasonable for some children, but for others, the loss of those same days could set them up for long-term struggle.

Ability. Will your child be overwhelmed by the missed instruction or collaboration with classmates? Does your child tend to get anxious or upset by situations like this? Take her temperament and ability into account.

Grade. Missing three days during first grade are not the same thing as missing three days during junior year of high school. Additionally, if your child is on a block schedule, those three days could easily equal an entire week or more of a semester schedule.

We would argue with the contention that early absences aren’t as important as those that come later. After all, research spells out the consequences of chronic absenteeism for early reading and math skills. But it’s true that the effects are often felt more immediately in high school, when absences can pull down a semester grade and affect a student’s GPA.

Join the conversation and let us know what you think!

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