This case study was originally published in Attending School Every Day: Taking Action, Making Progress in Oakland Schools in September 2014.

West Oakland Middle School (WOMS) has recently changed leadership, welcoming Clara Roberts as the new principal. Former principal Ron Smith spent three years at WOMS and was an example of how to boost attendance for youth in this older age range. During his tenure, chronic absence at WOMS dropped from 33% to 18%.

How did Smith and his team make this happen? “It comes down to having systems in place that really focus on the kids,” he says. “You create an environment where the kids want to be, where it’s clean and safe. We call it our ‘new shoes theory’: [You have] something new, you feel good, and you walk a little taller and feel better about yourself.”

Beyond the basics

The key to building that environment, Smith says, is offering engaging electives that appeal to the entire student body. “The biggest thing we’ve done is to offer various programs that diversify from the traditional classes,” he says. “We’ve built in programs from art to dance to music to STEM – things they can get excited about.” In the case of the popular Boys Group, staff intentionally scheduled it for 7th period, when absence rates tend to be higher.

“These things give kids something to think about that’s not just English or math class,” says Smith. “When we do those things, kids become more engaged. You have to get out of the trap of believing that traditional education is the only way. Culture and climate, basic academic foundation, and extracurricular activities: when we do all things at a high level, you start seeing the outcomes with kids coming to school every day.”

Let’s get rid of every excuse.”

When trying to turn around chronic absence, the WOMS staff aims to meet students and families where they are, with a personalized approach that gets at the root causes. “It’s usually not as simple as a kid just missing a bus,” explains Smith. “There are family issues, issues of custody, health issues. When we understand these things, we can figure out the best way to address the situation.”

The next step, Smith says, is finding on-site solutions to kids’ attendance obstacles. “A student with asthma? Let’s refer him to our health professional on campus. If they need counseling support, let’s loop into that cycle so [one of our counselors] can help them here on site. It’s the full-service community schools model, but, even bigger than that, it’s just reading into what the kids need. We’re able to reach past them not coming to school and look at other things that are affected. Let’s get rid of every excuse. If we can do that, then 95% of kids will be at school every day. We’re trying to build a culture where a kid says, ‘I can go to school to be safe. I want to be there.’”

Smith credits his in-house team for much of this deep work. WOMS’s assistant principal, office assistant, health professionals, counselors, and Coordination of Services Team (COST) are in frequent contact with families. “Families are used to talking to us,” says Smith, “[which helps us] move forward in terms of getting kids to school.”

Leveraging partnerships and data

Smith stresses that WOMS would not be able to do this attendance work without a dynamic range of partners, with students’ families atop that list. A core group of parents helps staff with outreach to families about the importance of attendance. “Parents here are focused on supporting us,” he says, “and they allow us to make decisions that support their kids. Parents in our Family Resource Center are actively engaged in how to make the school better.”

Smith also cites the YMCA, which leads the after-school program, and Safe Passages, which helps run the school’s Coordination of Services Team. He says the District has been instrumental in connecting WOMS with partners like Safe Passages and Alameda County Health, which provides on-site counseling. He also appreciates the attendance data from the district. “I need to have a number,” he explains. “Then I can say to a parent, your child came to school more last month than this month.”

When asked about the overall impact of attendance on student success, Smith puts it this way: “The simple answer is you gotta be here to learn. But I think if a kid sees the value of being in school, what happens next is you can start working on other things besides the basic foundation of learning. We’re at a place in education where it’s more than just the basic academic stuff. We have to have them think about how this effort they’re putting in applies to them 10 years from now, in their job, in their life.”