Across Kent County in western Michigan, a network of nonprofits, educators, and state and county agencies has demonstrated that a collaborative, community schools approach can reduce chronic absence. Some of the 30 schools in the Kent School Services Network (KSSN) have cut absenteeism rates in half and seen academic achievement improve along with attendance. A decision to post county DHS case workers at each community school boosted student attendance by a full week.
Launched in 2006, KSSN provides a responsive, effective and integrated delivery of nonprofit, state, and county services to families and students. Its goal is to ensure that all kids are healthy and learning. KSSN is modeled after the best practices of the Children’s Aid Society and other community school initiatives across the country.
KSSN partners with local organizations to provide health and social services to the students and families. That includes working with the Kent County Department of Health and Human Services and with network180, which serves children and families with serious emotional disturbances, substance abuse and developmental disabilities. This unified network delivers an array of services from multiple providers with cultural sensitivity and relevance.
The network began as a collaborative effort involving the Grand Rapids Public Schools, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Comstock Park Public Schools, Kent Intermediate School District, county government representing health, mental health, and social services, Spectrum Health, as well as a number of funders: the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Steelcase Foundation, the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Keller Foundation, Sebastian Foundation, the Student Advancement Fund Grand Rapids, and the Heart of West Michigan United Way. The effort has been so successful that it’s now being used as a model for the revitalizing Detroit schools.
Following a core tenant of school reform, that students must be present in order to learn, one of KSSN’s primary goals has been to reduce chronic absenteeism in its schools. KSSN has based its absenteeism work on the local experience of the Kent County Welfare Reform, as well as Attendance Works’ guidance.
A March 2012 report found that chronic early absenteeism is widespread in Kent County’s urban areas, where the percentage of the population living at or below the poverty line is high, and is especially prevalent among African-American and Hispanic youth. It also showed that students who are chronically absent in the second and third grades record lower scores on standardized tests.
KSSN’s efforts to promote strong attendance includes a partnership housing DHS caseworkers in each KSSN community school. These DHS workers are tasked with decreasing chronic absenteeism by removing barriers to students consistently showing up on time.
Weekly attendance meetings are held at each of the KSSN schools, providing an opportunity for the principal, attendance secretary, community school coordinator, and DHS staff member to monitor attendance data and review all absences from the prior week. Specific student and family interventions are implemented to encourage attendance, and may include anything from purchasing an alarm clock to providing bus passes. KSSN provides support to track, analyze, and intervene with students, schools, and communities showing high absentee rates.
KSSN has seen the positive impact of its attendance efforts over the past eight years (Community Research Institute, 2011). Results from a three-year evaluation of KSSN’s pilot schools found that rates of chronic absenteeism (defined as missing between 10 and 20 percent of all possible school days) declined in half of the KSSN schools.
In some schools, there was a decrease in the number of chronically absent students from over 26 percent to less than 12 percent. Extreme chronic absenteeism (absent more than 20 percent of all school days) decreased in five of the eight KSSN schools over the evaluation period. In 2012, Grand Rapids was one of five communities nationwide to be awarded the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s Pacesetter Award for Attendance.
In January and November of 2013, the Community Research Institute at the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University released two updated evaluation reports on KSSN’s attendance work since 2008. These reports compared KSSN and non-KSSN schools, as well as examined the link between school environment and attendance.