Attendance Works News

April 8th, 2014

Attendance Awareness Month Launch: New Toolkit, New Website

Attendance Awareness Month doesn’t arrive until September, but we’re launching preparations today with the release of a revised Count Us In! toolkit and a new website exclusively for materials and information. Last year, we had more than 1,500 people sign up for our regular updates and more than 250 schools and communities post activities on our Attendance Action Map. We’re hoping to expand on that success and bring more communities into our movement.

Once again, we’ve got more than 40 national partners working together this year. Some, such as the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, consider reducing chronic absence a central tenet of their mission to improve third-grade reading rates among low-income children. Others, like Points of Light, are building attendance into their new Corps18 program, which will provide VISTA Corps members to schools and community organizations working to reduce absenteeism.

This year, we’re asking more of schools and communities. We want you not only to spread the message that attendance matters, but also to take concrete tests to reduce chronic absence.

What constitutes a concrete step? Here are a few ideas, but we’d like to hear others.

1. Calculating chronic absence data: Until schools and districts know the trend lines on chronic absence, they don’t know exactly who is affected or how to help them. Starting May 1, schools and communities can pin on the map to show that they are crunching their numbers. Click here for data tools.

2. Creating attendance teams: Schools can pull together teams within the school and/or include key government or community agencies to monitor chronically absent students and develop interventions. Read more about attendance teams here.

3. Developing a mentoring program: Many chronically absent students improve their attendance when they’re assigned to a mentor who pays attention to their absences and keeps them on track academically. Click here some resources for mentoring students.

4. Addressing barriers to attendance: Sometimes students face real barriers, such as poor health, unreliable transportation or unstable housing that make it hard to get to school. Community partners can help develop programs to overcome these challenges. Click here for some of the common barriers.

 

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April 8th, 2014

Apply Now: Points of Light Offers VISTA Corps Members to Assist with Attendance

Points of Light is seeking schools and other organizations to host VISTA Corps members focused on reducing chronic absence, as part of its Corps18 program. Schools and organizations should submit letter of intent by this Friday, April 11 and complete applications by April 25 (extended a week).

Starting in August, the VISTA*AmeriCorps members will spend 12 month at the host site building the capacity and infrastructures to engage, parents, community and corporate volunteers in service while also improving academic outcomes for students. The goal of the program is to address not only the issue of chronic absenteeism, but also to build a platform for programming that helps to address the barriers that keep students from attending school in low-to-moderate income communities.

As incentives to good attendance Corps18 VISTA members will create thoughtful and deliberate out-of-school time programming in four main areas:

  • Cultural and Academic Literacy (CAL) programs that engage parents and community volunteers in offering academic support (math, reading or homework tutoring), and introductions to early financial and digital literacy. The goal for the literacy-based initiatives will be to help students recover school work after missed days due to chronic absence preventing students from falling behind academically.
  • Health & Wellness programs will promote healthy living choices, healthy and stimulating learning environments and engage volunteers in creating safer paths to and from schools.
  • STEM programs that introduce and deepen the awareness of students, their families and communities of the incredible opportunities for exploration in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
  • P.L.A.Y. programs that engage students in initiatives that help youth gain leadership and teambuilding training through active play and exercise while helping youth understand the positive benefits of exercise.

If you’re interested in applying, review these:

If you’re interested in applying, you can find more information here.

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April 7th, 2014

What Works: Driving with Data Reduces Chronic Absence in Vernon, Conn.

Students form habits – including good school attendance – at an early age. So it was particularly disconcerting for the central Connecticut town of Vernon to discover that 16 percent of its kindergartners were chronically absent.

The real killer was kindergarten attendance,” says Dr. Mary Conway, superintendent of the Vernon Public Schools, which began monitoring chronic absence through its involvement with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “Parents just didn’t see it as an important thing in their child’s life. But we knew it had an incredible effect on learning.”

Also troubling were data showing that many chronically absent students “were living in poverty, minorities, especially our Latino population, and children of parents who didn’t find success in school themselves. So we were continuing that cycle.”

In response, the school district developed a plan not only to improve kindergarten or elementary school attendance but attendance at all seven of its schools, serving 3,500 students.

“We have to be a system,” explains Conway.  “Children graduate not only from our high school but from the public schools. So our principals work together and they know that their student achievement is influenced very heavily by their student attendance.”

The results of this “comprehensive systemic” plan, to date, are encouraging. During the three school years between 2010 and 2013, chronic absence – defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason – for elementary school students (grades K-5)  dipped from 9 to 5 percent.

For kindergarten, it fell from a high of 18 percent in 2010-11 to 13 percent in 2011-12. This improvement also may have been influenced by a switch from half-day to full-day program, heightening kindergarten’s importance for some parents.

While the rate for middle school students dropped from 11 to 6 percent, the high school rate remained at 15 percent – a disappointment, says Conway, showing not only that “old habits die very hard” but confirming the importance of engraining good attendance habits in the youngest students.

Vernon’s work has been aided by strategies and support from Attendance Works which was made available through capacity building funding from the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. Funding was boosted by grants from Connecticut’s Consortium on School Attendance and Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.

The plan’s key elements include:

  • Shrewd data collection, analysis and use. Vernon Public Schools looks at both average daily attendance, as well as chronic absence. Every month, the district generates an ADA report by school and breaks out the ADA by grade level. The goal is 95% ADA for every school and every grade and the superintendent celebrates when schools achieve that goal. In addition, knowing that ADA alone  can paint an unwarranted rosy picture and mask individual students who repeatedly miss school, school-based teams also monitor chronic absence reports every week to identify individual students who are chronically absent and follow up with them.
  • Hands-on intervention. Vernon uses a case management approach developed by the district to comply with a new state attendance law. After three absences, excused or unexcused, a letter is sent to a student’s home. After six absences, a phone call conference is scheduled with a youth counselor. After nine absences, parents are asked to attend a meeting at school. For each student, a spread sheet is used to chart actions taken.
  • Coordination with other community partners.  Vernon’s Youth Services Bureau, run by the town, provides one staff member to work with students who have attendance issues at the elementary schools. A district employee works with the other schools.  As needed, these counselors individualize the intervention, such as making home visits or referrals to other services.   Another Youth Services Bureau counselor works with high school students on attendance and other issues, and is a member of the school-based attendance team monitoring data weekly.
  • Fresh tools and documentation efforts. An “Intervention Pyramid” outlines a four-tiered response to attendance issues. A monthly “heat map” highlights in bright yellow each grade in each school that has achieved average daily attendance goal of 95 percent.
  • Heightened awareness throughout the school district. The call and work to improve attendance comes from many quarters – from the superintendent, school board, school governance teams and each school’s improvement plan.
  • Raised public awareness and support. “Everybody in School Every Day”’ signs adorn the lawn of the Superintendent, school board members and other residents. At a community gathering, the school district sponsored a booth dedicated to attendance, distributing calendars to all and alarm clocks to students identified with attendance issues. The “heat map” and other attendance data are shared with the public.

Along the way there have been challenges, such as getting the necessary data. “Our student management system – which is now being replaced – was not exceptionally comprehensive and it was difficult to extract data from it, but we were insistent,” says Conway, adding that the process of generating reports improved with time.

Vernon’s effort to use data to track results for reducing unexcused absences was complicated by a 2012 state law that required the district to change its definition of an unexcused absence.  As a result, some absences Vernon previously considered “excused” were now deemed “unexcused.”  This explains why total unexcused absences for the district’s middle school dropped from 1,554 during the 2009/2010 school year to 154 during the 2011/2012 school year but shot up to 492 the next year.

With older students in particular, truancy – meaning students who land in truancy court due to many unexcused absences – also remains a challenge because “sometimes parents don’t even know that their child is absent so the work there is more with the individual student” rather than with the parents, says Conway. Generally younger students with unexcused absences stay home with their parent’s knowledge, so involving parents is a key part of the solution.

What has proved most important, emphasizes Conway, is a community-wide response. “It’s important to get everyone on the same page, to call together people from each school and have that discussion, to do things in the same manner, to have the same language and procedures at each level so parents know that,” says Conway.

This also means schools developing an attendance plan as a team – doing it “with them” rather than “to them,” says Conway. It means teachers following up to let absent students know they were missed. It means counselors personally connecting with families with free school breakfasts when needed. It means active, engaged parents.

While there is more work ahead, Conway is cheered by results to date, especially at the elementary school level. “It really is making a difference and this is where those habits start,” she says.

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