At Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista, Calif., where attendance is king, Principal Bobby Bleisch has taken a school that just two years ago recorded the lowest attendance rate in the school district to a school that now has the highest attendance rate in the district’s history.

With a 99 percent attendance rate, Castle Park’s teachers and students are building a record of academic excellence, dramatically increasing math and science proficiency scores and reducing behavior issues.

For instance, Castle Park’s students experienced double-digit gains in Algebra I proficiency – going from 35 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced for the 2010-2011 school year to 58 percent scoring proficient or advanced for the 2012-2013 school year – and English Language Arts 7, rising from 48 percent of 7th graders scoring proficient or advanced to 62 percent during the same time period, according to results from the California Standards Tests (CST).

Their CST gains in science are equally impressive, with an 11-percentage-point gain – 77 percent of students scored proficient or advanced during the 2012-2013 school year compared with 66 percent during the 2010-2011 year.

“You can’t be successful in school when you’re absent,” he says. “And you are not going to fail on our watch.”

Children who are living in poverty are especially vulnerable when they miss school, Bleisch says, because they lack the resources outside of school to make up for lost learning.

“By fixing attendance issues right away, we are neutralizing the impact of poverty,” he says. “We’re evening the playing field so our teachers can do their jobs.”

The secret to Castle Park’s success is one Bleisch is more than willing to share.

Under his leadership, Castle Park – where 88 percent of the students are Latino and 86 percent receive Free and Reduced-Price Meals – has used the Granger Turnaround Model (GTM). The approach stresses three key components, or “systems of excellence,” which are: attendance, behavior and an academic support system.

“Regular attendance is essential for the success of all students, but especially for students who are one, two or three years behind in school and students who live in poverty,” Bleisch says. “As such, student attendance is monitored closely by the GTM Attendance Intervention Specialist and immediate action is taken with each absence.”

Using a data-driven system that collects attendance and achievement data, Bleisch and his team – which includes boots-on-the-ground support from South Bay Community Services – intervene immediately to keep students on track throughout the school day.

When students are absent, they make up the learning by attending school on Saturday. If a student fails a quiz, he or she is retaught after school and is retested the following week. Before the final bell rings at the end of the school day, students who have been identified as needing additional help are instructed to stay after school for tutoring. Bleisch provides bus transportation for all students so that no one can say they can’t stay. The school has reduced its suspension rates – “we don’t want to suspend students because that just causes them to miss more school,” Bleisch adds.

The GTM attendance plan is based on a six-step system:

  • Step 1: Daily phone call when absent.
  • Step 2: All absences are encouraged to be made up at Saturday School.
  • Step 3: Students with three absences – excused or unexcused – are placed on a Dr. Note Contract (only a doctor can excuse an absence).
  • Step 4: Students with five absences are placed on an attendance/behavior contract and assigned recurring Saturday School to clear absences. Failure to attend Saturday School results in mandatory afterschool classes.
  • Step 5: Students who break the agreement of the attendance/behavior contract are sent to the district Student Attendance Review Board (SARB) that is held at the local police department and thereafter placed on a SARB contract.
  • Step 6: Students who break the SARB contract are referred to court.

“We reward those who come to school, and we make it uncomfortable for those who miss,” Bleisch says. “No one wants to come to school on Saturday.”

Bleisch said he believes in giving students – and teachers – opportunities to succeed. The GTM provides the system and structure for teachers to be successful and for students to thrive.

“When you’re behind in school, you think you’re dumb and you stop trying, you start acting up,” he says. “So we have to give them the experience of doing well in school. We build them up by showing them they can be successful in school.”