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The Nov. 12, 2015 Every Student Every Day virtual summit featured a segment on how Grand Rapids, Michigan, has reduced chronic absence by 25% with a simple actionable challenge. Find the recording and more here.
With more than a third of Grand Rapids Public Schools students missing nearly a month of school every year, educators and community leaders knew they needed to turn around school attendance. Their response was a simple, actionable challenge to reduce absences for all students, combined with increased attention to data and support for students and families with serious barriers to getting to school. Over the past three years, these efforts have helped reduce chronic absence rates by 25 percent and engaged the entire community.
Grand Rapids Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal credits a community-wide approach for attendance improvements. “It does take a village, and I hate to say that because people say that has become such a cliché,” she said. “But really that has been the secret for the Grand Rapids Public Schools. The village answered the call.”
Grand Rapids’ campaign, a partnership between the school district and the Believe 2 Become initiative, builds off the training and professional development provided by Attendance Works. It also complements a broader, regional initiative led by the Kent School Services Network (KSSN) involving community schools in several local school districts.
A key piece of the Grand Rapids attendance improvement strategy is a campaign delivering a consistent message to all students. It’s called Challenge 5, and it urges students to strive to miss fewer than five days of school each year. The message appears in both English and Spanish on posters and stickers at school, on billboards along the roadway and yard signs around town. A giant leaderboard for Challenge 5 sits just inside every school, giving a monthly update on how each grade is doing on the challenge. Faith leaders talk about attendance. So do other community partners.
“It’s critically important that children and family hear a consistent message across the community,” said Chana Edmond-Verley, senior program officer of Believe 2 Become, which partnered with the school district to launch Challenge 5. “Think about it as a child. If my mother is talking about it, and the providers in my summer program and my afterschool program, even in my church and in my school – if we’re all on the same message about what really matters, then I think kids will know, families will know, and they’ll be able to achieve it.”
The community engagement goes beyond the attendance challenge. Grand Rapids worked with Attendance Works to develop a data-driven strategy for monitoring chronic absence and intervening with students who are missing too much school. Attendance teams as each school keep track of who is chronically absent and reach to students and families to turn the trends around. The teams, which meet weekly, include a worker from the local department of social services and a community school coordinator in addition to the school principal, nurse, attendance secretary and district family support specialist.
Challenge 5 provides both attendance incentives, as well as the unifying theme for agencies and community partners. “The parent engagement office knew this attendance challenge could be a game changer for the district,” said Mel Atkins, Executive Director of Community & Student Affairs for the school district. “When looking at the our data, we quickly realized that coming to school has a direct impact on achievement.”