Located just outside Hartford, Conn., the Consolidated School District of New Britain is one of the poorest school districts in the state. More than half its 10,500 students in pre-K through 12th-grade are Latino, with a substantial number of white and black students filling out the linguistically and socioeconomically diverse district.
Two years ago when local school officials crunched the numbers on their chronic absenteeism data with the help of Attendance Works, they discovered some startling truths:
Such troubling attendance data at the early grades was a fact that caught many local educators by surprise and prompted them to reconsider their singular focus on truancy in the older grades. Joe Vaverchak, the district’s attendance director, like many other educators and parents, tended to consider absenteeism a problem at the higher grades.
But with studies showing that many children who miss too many days in kindergarten and first grade can struggle academically in later years – and often have trouble mastering reading by the end of third grade – Vaverchak and his colleagues knew they needed to jump into action to reverse this troubling trend of chronic absenteeism in the early grades in New Britain’s 10 elementary schools. Educators were already well aware that New Britain schools had the lowest third-grade reading scores in the state, which is why the district partnered with numerous community organizations, including the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative as part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
The thinking was that if they could change the attendance habits of the district’s youngest children they could build a culture of attendance that will keep those children attending school regularly through high school and beyond – and improve academic outcomes for students.
“Some parents think attendance in kindergarten isn’t important, but our children in kindergarten – and even in preschool – are covering a lot academically and socially,” Vaverchak says. “Now everyone is aware, and everyone is working together.”
Putting Actionable Data in the Hands of Staff
In spring 2012, the Attendance Works team, which was brought in by the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, conducted a half-day workshop about chronic absence for New Britain’s elementary and middle school principals, as well as selected school staff. Each school site reviewed its chronic absence data, learned about promising practices to reduce chronic absence (with specific examples from two local schools, Vance and Jefferson elementary schools) and identified action steps to reduce chronic absence. At Vance, for instance, school staff – including teachers, social workers and guidance counselors – monitor who misses school on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and students are rewarded with attendance stars and monthly raffles for coming to school regularly.
Armed with data gleaned from the district’s attendance tracking tools and from Attendance Works, Vaverchak and his school-based attendance teams held weekly meetings to examine attendance – and absenteeism – rates by grade-level to help identify areas that needed immediate support.
For example, when the team saw attendance issues cropping up last year with eighth graders at one particular school, they assembled a delegation to visit each class at the school to talk directly to students about the importance of attending school regularly. Students in those classes showed significant improvement – specifically, those who were at the point of about 15 absences maintained regular attendance and avoided reaching 20 absences (the school system’s goal was to keep the absences under 20 days).
Additionally, to keep the issue in front of educators and school staff, every 10 days Vaverchak provides chronic absenteeism reports to school-based attendance teams as a guide to which students need immediate support.
“We are looking at every student on that list,” he says.
Vaverchak and his attendance teams also look at schools and grade levels that have especially strong attendance rates to determine what they are doing right. Overwhelmingly, good attendance happens when teachers are more involved, calling parents and looking for ways to support them.
“These teachers are reaching out to parents and asking what is going on and then taking that information to our social workers to work with families on those issues that are interfering with regular attendance,” Vaverchak says. “The whole team comes together.”
Engaging community partners – ranging from the Department of Children and Families to the local Boys and Girls Club – in the district’s attendance initiative has paid extraordinary dividends.
The effort goes back 16 years, when Vaverchak refocused the “attendance review committee” to divert students from juvenile probation court. He decided it was more important to try to fix the problems that were causing the absences. So he enlisted community partners from more than a dozen local agencies and organizations – such as those addressing sexual abuse, domestic violence, health and mental wellness – to meet with individual parents about their children’s excessive absences.
The “attendance review committee” meetings are held twice a month. Vaverchak convenes the parents and the committee in a board room at school headquarters. Vaverchak says he introduces himself and then the group dives right into what they can do as a group of community agencies to help the family right away.
“We often uncover things that the school has no idea is going on, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence, health issues,” Vaverchak says. “And then we can really help them with what’s going on out there, all these issues that are causing the absenteeism. We stress that all of this can be done THAT day. We put supports in place that same day.”
Vaverchak says the effort has dramatically reduced the number of court referrals – in a typical school year, the committee reviews about 30-40 cases and generally no more than two are being referred to court. In about 95 percent of those cases, attendance improves, Vaverchak says.
More recently, the school district, in collaboration with the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative, has turned its attention to the very youngest students—those attending preschool. Spurred by the growing body of research showing the impact of poor attendance in preschool on school readiness and achievement, the district analyzed attendance patterns of its pre-kindergarten students and found that 26.5 percent of pre-kindergarten students attending district-run preschool programs were missing 10 percent or more of the school year. To educate parents of preschoolers about the importance of good attendance in preschool, the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative produced the video “Every Day Counts!” featuring local parents and educators sharing about the positive impact of preschool. In 2012-13, the district plans to add staff to reach out to preschool parents as well as parents of older students.
Getting messages out to parents
Vaverchak and the school-based attendance teams engage parents in a number of ways to help stress the value of regular attendance and the pitfalls of chronic absence – and stress a “no blame” culture.
Principals send out newsletters, in which they encourage regular attendance. The attendance teams now include representatives from the Court Support Services Juvenile Probation Division and the Department of Children and Families to provide added support to students with attendance challenges and to help schools develop school-wide solutions. Vaverchak and his attendance teams conduct home visits to check on families of children who are missing too much school. Schools reward students with prizes for good attendance, and parents become more interested when they see the positive reinforcement coming home.
At Vance Elementary – which has been recognized as having good student attendance and staff attendance in the district – educators and school staff take a team approach with parents and students to send the message that it’s everyone’s job to get kids to school every day. In some cases, school staff members have picked up kids who have missed their bus.
Vance Principal Sarah Harris says the message to parents is simple: when children aren’t in school, they are missing out on learning opportunity. She says they tell parents:
“We want students here every day. All of us as a team care that much. We’re in this together – we want the best for your child.”
“It’s not about put the hammer down, but instead explaining the value of being in school and letting us help make that happen,” he says he stresses to parents.
Results to date
In just two years, New Britain has strengthened its approach to reducing chronic absenteeism and has experienced remarkable improvement in attendance rates for its youngest students.
With the help of the State of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management and the nonprofit Community Foundation of Great New Britain, the district was able to hire two outreach workers who coordinate with families, social workers, teachers and community agencies to engage and support the parents of kindergartners to get more of these children attending school regularly.
Their efforts have yielded powerful and convincing results. During the 2011-12 school year – the district’s baseline year – kindergartners had a 30 percent chronic absenteeism rate. For first-graders, it was 24 percent, and for second-graders it was 19 percent. This past school year, 2012-2013, the district had double-digit declines in chronic absenteeism rates at those grades. Kindergarten chronic absenteeism fell to 17.59 percent (a 41 percent decline), first-grade dropped to 13.45 percent (a 44 percent decline) and second-grade landed at 13.78 percent (a 27 percent drop).
In the coming year, New Britain’s attendance teams will work on both ends of the grade spectrum. They are taking the same data-driven approach to improving attendance in the district’s pre-kindergarten programs as well as renewing their focus on high school, where chronic absence continues to be a problem. Vaverchak says it can be challenging to move the needle with teens on attendance, but the district has many tools in its bag and expects to see improvements.