As part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, leaders in Council Bluffs, Iowa, recognize the importance of school attendance in ensuring that children read proficiently by the end of third grade. So when the school year opened in August 2012, school, city and county officials gathered for a news conference to rally support for reducing absenteeism.

Schools Superintendent Martha Bruckner set a goal for the district to increase the number of students who attend school 95 percent of the time. And she asked the entire community to help. The Council Bluffs mayor signed a proclamation declaring a sharper focus on attendance. The police chief and the county attorney also attended.

“We expect students to attend school on time every day,” Bruckner said later. “We strive to have students attend school at least 95% of the time. Parents, grandparents, neighbors and ministers are among our community members who can positively influence student success by making sure school-age children do not miss school. Even employers of teenage students can play a role by not expecting them to work during school hours or late in the evening.”

Within a year, Council Bluffs Community School District  met its goal of having 80% of preschool children with less than 5% absenteeism rate, up from 76.5% in 2012-13. For kindergarten students, the percentage increased from 66.57% to 72.91%. Every elementary and middle school had an average daily attendance rate greater than 96 percent in 2013-14.

Traveling Trophies

The success comes amid a variety of approaches to improving attendance. Like many communities, Council Bluff has a vigorous awareness campaign and has used Attendance Awareness Month to amplify its messaging at the start of the school year.

But the messaging doesn’t end then. School buildings offer attendance incentives, including parties and raffle tickets for bicycles for children with good or improved attendance. A local foundation has provided $4,500 a year for schools to use for incentives. In the 2013-14 school year, the district had traveling trophies that went to the elementary and secondary schools with the best monthly attendance rates.

Outreach to Parents and Students

Beyond this universal approach, Council Bluffs offers a second tier of support for students struggling with attendance. Each elementary school has a team that meets twice a month to talk about students and families who may need extra support. School officials begin reaching out to parents after three absences, excused or unexcused. They also evaluate tardies to see how many students have accrued and how late they’re arriving.

Iowa law requires that schools offer an attendance cooperation agreement, which the Council Bluffs district has tweaked to focus more on overcoming barriers and helping families, rather than punishing students and families. “When we use the agreement, we hardly ever get to the next step,” said Kathy Hanafan, the district’s school attendance manager. “Before they get to the official attendance meeting there are calls home; we’re regularly talking to parents.”

Community Support

 Many of the students benefit from the Teammates Mentoring program, which matches 150 students with community volunteers. The mentoring doesn’t focus specifically on attendance, but the addition of a caring adult makes a difference for students. In addition, some school staff members, such as custodians and lunchroom workers, have begun checking in with students and stressing the importance of attendance.

Council Bluffs also works with the local medical community to ensure doctors and nurses are talking to families about school attendance and addressing the health conditions that keep many young children from attending school regularly. The police department and county attorney’s offices also support efforts by accompanying educators on home visits.

Bruckner says the community is planning on another big push for Attendance Awareness Month in September 2015. “It’s good to concentrate on one thing and hear other people’s good ideas,” she says. “It’s important to discuss what works and what would be even better.”