Shortly after Principal Brian R. Johnson arrived at John Bartram High School in fall 2019, he had an aha! moment. After looking into the school’s data provided by the district, Johnson saw that no one in this southwest Philadelphia school – located in a high poverty community and with sky-high absenteeism – was paying attention to attendance.
Over the next two years, Johnson developed a school attendance team, identified and trained an attendance designee, hired key support staff, and used data to educate, motivate and lead a school-wide effort that improved the attendance rate by 8 percentage points, from 72% to 80%. The first step was improving the school climate and addressing the high number of suspensions. “Our attendance is better this year than last year, and I think that is because of the work that we are doing and how focused we are,” Johnson said.
Begin with a team
Johnson already knew the importance of attendance to student academic achievement. In 2016, he was part of the Philadelphia team of educators who participated in the National Success Mentors initiative, an effort to connect over one million students who are, or at-risk of becoming chronically absent with trained, caring adults and near-peers at school.
Once he ran Bartram’s attendance data, he realized that any effort in this school of 400 students to increase academic achievement would be unsuccessful if students were not attending. The school’s student population is predominantly African/African American – with a large number of African immigrant families – and a small group of Central American immigrant families.
Johnson reviewed the data every day for his first two weeks, then quickly called in the school staff to review the numbers twice weekly for about one month.
The staff didn’t initially understand why they had to look at the data, Principal Johnson said. “It took some time to galvanize momentum, because this was a foreign concept in this space,” he said. “No one had ever talked about it before.” The only attendance issue that was dealt with then was students who weren’t in a class. This was handled not from an attendance perspective, but rather as a discipline issue, because the kids were in the hallways.
In late October, the principal saw that school Climate Liaison Simone Knight was interested and was beginning to understand the issue, and asked her to be the school’s attendance designee who could help co-lead the work with him. Knight now plays a huge coordinating role implementing systems for monitoring group and individual student data and a multi-tiered support system.
Improve the school climate
Simone began working closely with Shirley Carroll*, the District of Philadelphia attendance coach, who had been examining the data looking for trends, such as whether specific groups of students had similar attendance patterns, and bringing her observations to the principal’s attendance team. The team realized that the school’s climate wasn’t welcoming, and didn’t focus on relationship building or connection. They launched incentives and positive acknowledgement, including using social media, to help create a positive school climate and support students with satisfactory attendance (missing less than 5% of school).
Students with at-risk attendance (missing 5-10% of school) received a more personalized approach with staff check-ins. For kids who were chronically absent (missing 10% or more of school), Knight organized traditional student attendance improvement conferences. She invites families and guardians to the conferences, as well as school counselors and school climate coaches, and she keeps teachers informed about what gets decided and put in place.
Johnson and the school team trained the school climate support staff who work on an hourly basis, and they reviewed the attendance numbers every day. The climate managers were trained to provide outreach to students and families and to connect them back to school. School staff also participated in professional development to encourage relationship building and greetings at the door.
In the meantime, school Climate Manager Julian Graham, started in on improving the school climate and reducing suspensions. “The first thing I did was assess the environment and understand the element that I was in,” Graham said. He began building relationships with students and looked at the offenses for which they were being suspended. In some cases, he visited student homes.
The school eliminated suspending students for minor offenses and took a restorative approach that allowed the students to own their behavior and, in many cases, the consequence for this behavior. Graham also saw that he was able to gain parent involvement with the restorative approach.
The school designated one room as the Student Success Center for students with minor suspension offenses, creating a space for learning during an in-school suspension. Graham says Bartram now focuses on major offenses that carry a suspension, and the school team is working diligently to curb these types of actions through community partner engagement.
Another special focus is on each year’s incoming ninth grade students, who often struggle with a new environment and academic load, leading to low attendance, research shows. At Bartram, ninth graders had the second lowest attendance in the school. The new Ninth Grade Academy helped to set the school’s expectation for strong attendance, and Johnson has designated a climate manager to focus on this grade. This past school year the freshman class had the best attendance in the building, with a greater than 95% attendance rate, an increase of 6.8% from the pre-covid 2019-20 school year and by 19.2% from the 2018-19 school year. Additionally, last year freshmen had 87.2% average daily attendance (which is 2% above the district average), Johnson said. These improvements increase the number of students on track to be college and career ready, he added.
A successful tier 2 strategy at Bartram is known as the Front Door, where a teacher who has a relationship with a student schedules time to have a conversation. Assuming the student is open to talking, the teacher slowly brings in other people to support the student and help overcome barriers to attendance and achievement. Originally, the Front Door was created for incoming ninth graders, but the school expanded this to other grades. The Front Door is now part of the ongoing advisory infrastructure already in place for every Bartram student.
Lessons from Covid-19
When Covid-19 arrived last spring, staff focused on maintaining engagement and attendance while classes were fully remote. They called families, again and again, until they connected. “We continually reached out to students and families in many different ways, and we met them wherever they were, so that families felt comfortable with our support,” Johnson said.
The school made sure that each enrolled student had a working computer, which was provided by the district. Still, the school is located in an underserved community, so internet access wasn’t always available. Bartram staff created a “tech team” and got to work. They developed a partnership with Comcast, then helped families to settle outstanding internet bills, overcome language barriers and whatever else it required to establish connectivity for school families. The school arranged a personal hotspot for one student who was experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. She was able to keep up with her school assignments and was named valedictorian at the end of the year, Johnson said.
A new strategy implemented during the pandemic significantly improved the climate. Known as Critical Conversations, the approach helped to build relationships, especially with kids who are having attendance challenges. Facilitated by Brian L. Johnson, Climate Manager, (who has the same name as the school principal), Graham and other climate team members, the discussions began with a written format, and students were encouraged to speak openly and to ask questions. The talks eventually moved into hard conversations for the students, including about gang issues happening at school and in the community and the deaths of George Floyd and Briana Taylor. “We are unusual in that we have many Black men working at the school as staff,” he said. “Both boys and girls said they were asking questions they felt they couldn’t ask other people, because they don’t see people who looked like them, or like us.”
Principal Johnson continued to make use of student level data during the pandemic to motivate teachers and help engage students in learning. Staff began identifying students who were at risk of being chronically absent, and developed an attendance plan for them. One goal of these plans is to build students’ understanding and accountability around their own attendance and connect that with short-term and long-term success in school, said Jennifer Reed, Assistant Principal. This approach was especially helpful for the students who transferred into Bartram. “We had really frank and honest discussions with them about what we can do to support them to make sure that regular attendance is part of what happens,” Principal Johnson said. Of the approximately 32 students who transferred this past school year, only one was referred for truancy services, he said.
Back to school this fall
This fall, whether students are virtual or in person, the school will continue to build an attendance culture that connects students and families with the school, and shares the message that regular attendance keeps students on track academically. The upcoming school year will kick off with an orientation for every student, and plans are underway to build capacity with student leaders, so those who have been at the school help with new students. Bartram will use a new Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework in the fall, with an eye towards keeping students at the center.
The Front Door will continue for all students, and staff will keep up Critical Conversations. These Critical Conversations opened the school door to students in a way that encouraged trust and bridged the gap between the kids and the school staff, Climate Manager Johnson said. “I think this also helped attendance, because the kids began to understand that we really do care about them,” he added.
* Shortly after this blog post was published, we learned that Shirley Carroll had passed away. We dedicate this post to Shirley in honor of her compassion, caring and commitment to all of the students that she had the opportunity to serve.