The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading recently featured a Las Vegas pilot program to reduce chronic absence as a Bright Spot in efforts to increase the number of low-income children reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
Las Vegas elementary schools in Nevada’s Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth largest, are being recruited to launch campaigns to reduce the number of students who are chronically absent — missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason — that build on the progress of one local school’s campaign.
“We want to make sure that children are coming to school. By doing that, we can increase their learning outcomes,” says Dr. Lisa Morris Hibbler, a City of Las Vegas official and community lead for the local grade-level reading campaign. Las Vegas is among 30 communities honored by the GLR Campaign as a 2014 Pacesetter for early reading work.
Aided by a University of Nevada-Las Vegas research team and using strategies from GLR Campaign partner Attendance Works, McWilliams Elementary launched a three-month pilot project in 2013-2014 to reduce chronic absence among three student populations with a disproportionately high number of chronically absent students.
The end result: While the percentage of all students who are chronically absent dropped slightly to 12 percent, the makeup shifted. The percentage of chronically absent students who are special needs dropped from 23 to 14; white, from 19 to almost 17; and African-American, from 12 to 10. Latino students — the school’s largest population — went from 65 to 61 percent. Perfect attendance increased by 14 percent.
“It was a huge success that we want to replicate,” says Brian Knudsen, a consultant, who is a former city official and GLR community lead. Knudsen and Hibbler had been visiting 11 other high-needs elementary schools to offer support if they start an attendance campaign. Two schools, to date, have signed on.
Contributing to McWilliams’ success is a new focus on tracking and highlighting data that identify students who are chronically absent, rather than relying, as in the past, on average daily attendance data, which can paint a deceptively rosy picture and conceal the individual students who repeatedly miss school.
It’s a new way of looking at absenteeism in our district,” says Hibbler. “Looking at the data through a different lens made a big difference. The research team helped McWilliams understand its data better so it can use better approaches and target the right students.”
Interventions begun in 2013 include low-cost measures directed at all students from the first tier of Attendance Works’ approach — monitoring attendance, clarifying attendance expectations/goals, engaging students and families, and recognizing good/improved attendance.
Las Vegas’s ability to make progress on attendance and other GLR work has been strengthened by the new governance structure of Las Vegas Downtown Achieves (LVDA), a collective impact effort involving more than 60 community partners working to improve academic outcomes — including grade-level reading — for 12,500 children attending 11 downtown schools.
Using technical assistance provided in 2014 by the GLR Campaign to improve collaboration, LVDA shifted from being largely led by a City of Las Vegas official (first Knudsen and then Hibbler) with many other responsibilities to hiring its first executive director, Michelle Layton, who is focused on LVDA’s mission and helping partners share responsibility for the work.
“One challenge they were facing was, ‘What kind of structure do we need so this effort is sustainable over the long term and doesn’t rest on one person carrying all the weight?’” says Idalia Fernandez of Community Wealth Partners, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that provided the technical assistance. “They recognized that they needed to shift to a different governance structure that is more community owned.”
Poised to become a stand-alone nonprofit, LVDA now has “more structure and viability,” says Knudsen. “With the work we’re doing, there are a lot of factors. Community Wealth Partners helped pull us out of the weeds and make strategic decisions for the initiative’s betterment.”
That initiative includes aiding underperforming schools in several ways, says Hibbler, including “taking the Attendance Works information and helping school officials look at chronic absence.”