Principal Spotlight: Positive Messaging for Better Attendance

Principal Sarah Harris knows how to deliver the message on school attendance. She starts at the back-to-school breakfast the week before school begins at Vance Village Elementary School in New Britain, Connecticut. She emphasizes the theme again in her weekly robocalls to families and in the school’s monthly newsletter. She asks teachers to stress good attendance in personalized messages they record monthly for their own students. And she asks fifth graders to mention it they when make the daily announcements.

Messaging is just one piece of Harris’s approach to reducing chronic absence, an approach that brought the proportion of chronically absent students down from 24 to 7 percent in a single year. Amid the incentives, the data analysis and the mentoring lies a core principle: “Teachers must have the relationship to children and their families to reinforce why it matters to come to school every day,” she says.

When Harris first analyzed Vance Village’s attendance numbers, she found that about a quarter of the students were missing 10 percent of the school year. She also found a correlation between the students who were chronically absent and those not reading on grade level. “The bottom line is students miss out on instructional time and learning opportunities when they’re not in school,” she says.

Harris and her staff launching a messaging campaign to ensure that students and families know the value of good attendance. One teacher wrote a poem: I Want to Go to School. Another created an attendance song that the school children seem to know by heart. Beyond messaging, Vance Village offers incentives for good attendance. Children receive stars for good attendance and enter the stars into monthly raffles with prizes donated from local pizza shops, retailers and churches.

For students who are missing too much school, the school convenes an attendance team weekly to explore systemic challenges. Harris and her staff also meet with families to dig deeper into the reasons for absenteeism. Every two weeks, Harris meets with the third to fifth grade students who have been chronically absent to check in and offer encouragement. Mentors from the community, including a local state university, meet with at-risk students every week. The mentors come on Fridays, since data shows that absences are most common on Mondays and Fridays.

The payoff for the work comes in the results: The sharp decline in chronic absence rates correlates with increased reading and math scores. The payoff also comes when she has hundreds of young voices singing the attendance song or recite the poem:

I love my school and all my friends,
I learn so much each day.
We read new books and have fun
Please let me go today.