In 2015, educators at Waterboro Elementary School in rural Maine rarely talked about attendance with families. Like in many schools, staff members believed the administration or home school coordinator were responsible for contacting families. So, when the district introduced its new chronic absenteeism approach that year, teachers, school staff and even the local teachers union balked.
Today Waterboro Elementary has seen its chronic absence rate drop nearly 50% between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. The chronic absence rate slowly ticked down, starting with 8.9% in the 2015-2016 school year, to 7.7% in 2016-17, 5.9% in 2017-18, and 3.1% in 2018-19.
The significant attendance turnaround in this area, with high levels of poverty and homelessness, took several years. What has developed is a community where educators and families trust each other, and are working together to help students get to school.
But the mindset shift in this school community, from seeing a call home to families as a sign of trouble to an opportunity to check in and build relationships between the school and families, wasn’t easy or quick.
“Five years ago, we never thought we would be in the place we are now because there was so much resistance to it back then,” said Angela Madigan, principal of Waterboro Elementary. “Now it is easy for a teacher to pick up a phone, and say to one of our families, ‘Hi how are things going?’”
Help from a local partner
The effort began in 2015, when Susan Lieberman, director of local partner Count ME In, reached out to school district RSU 57 to address chronic absence. Count ME In is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student attendance.
Attendance Works provided expertise and materials that Count ME In adapted to meet the cultural and geographic needs of Maine schools, including Waterboro Elementary. For example, the survey used to measure staff perception of attendance policies and practices was modified from an Attendance Works survey. "The support from Attendance Works helps make our work effective so more students can access learning opportunities and the supports they need," Lieberman said.
The district elementary schools, in partnership with Count ME In, rolled out the chronic absenteeism protocol with scripts for teachers, who were asked to call families of students who had missed 3 to 5 days of school, whether the absence was excused or unexcused. The teachers were told that the initial calls were designed to establish a connection with the student’s family, and to let the parents and child know that he or she was missed.
Some school staff questioned the protocols, saying it was the role of administrators to connect with families about attendance and suggested the calls be handled by the school counselors and administration staff. Some of the teachers were so opposed to the new practice that several union members, who worked in the school, asked the superintendent to intervene.
A call from the district superintendent clarified for the teachers that building relationships with families in the school community fits best practice for teachers. Still, many teachers were too uncomfortable with this new practice. “They still had the truancy mindset and thought they were being asked to find out from the families why the kiddo was missing school,” said Cecilia Sirianni, outreach services coordinator for district RSU 57.
Teachers made the shift possible
At Waterboro, the big shift for teachers happened when then principal, Christine Bertinet, and the attendance team members explained that teachers were only asked to make a connection with someone in the family, Madigan said. When a threshold of absences was met by a student, teachers could then check the script for what to say during a call home. If the caregivers were not responding, the teacher would talk about what the child was doing well in school.
Teachers were also paired with counselors who made calls to the families about kids who were missing school. The counselors modeled what a phone call home entails for teachers who had been reluctant to reach out.
The teachers were the ones to truly make the difference for families at Waterboro, Madigan said. They prioritized their time to reach out to the families, and they volunteered to participate in the attendance teams. “The teachers encouraged each other by sharing positive stories of connecting with families and talked about the impacts they were seeing in their class as a result of the stronger relationships with families,” Madigan said.
The calls home had an impact on the families too, who were used to only hearing from the school if their child had done something wrong. At Waterboro, “we are at the point now that not only are families calling us to tell us what they need, they are also telling other families that the school is truly supportive of their needs,” Madigan said. “We want them to know that we really just want the students here, and we want them learning.”
Attendance teams and sharing positive results
When launching the district wide chronic absenteeism approach, Sirianni, the district’s outreach services coordinator, partnered with Count ME In to support building attendance teams at the elementary schools. Each team met weekly, or biweekly, depending on the needs of the school. Comprising an administrator, school nurse, social worker or counselor, special ed teacher and several teachers to represent all grade levels, the teams became liaisons between the teachers and school administration.
To boost teachers' confidence in the new approach, Sirianni and district staff created a slide show highlighting individual students who had improved attendance and made academic gains. The slides were shared during attendance team meetings at the schools.
At Waterboro, Madigan, who was then the assistant principal, developed a one page flyer with examples of four students who had moderate or extreme chronic absence yet were attending school regularly one year later. The flyer showed improvements in hours of instruction missed as well as math and reading gains. “This positive information helped our teachers to see the impact we were having with the families by building these relationships. That is what really got the ball rolling on getting the staff to be part of this whole process,” Madigan said.
The Waterboro administration sent weekly newsletters to its teachers with action steps for reaching out to their families.
Slowly the culture at schools and in the community shifted from a punitive approach to using attendance data to offer support and engage with families in the positive problem solving that is the hallmark of addressing chronic absenteeism.
The trust developed between the schools and families has played a central role in Waterboro Elementary’s ability to support the needs of students and families during the coronavirus pandemic, Madigan said.
“The relationships and connection our staff have with our families is really powerful, and we have seen it at work now that we have remote learning from home,” Madigan said. For example, after schools closed, teachers in the district created packets, organized needed materials, and paired these with the district supplied technology to provide students with access to learning materials.
Within two days, the 550 packets of materials were picked up. “The response in this community has been phenomenal,” Madigan said.
Download the phone protocol used by teachers at Waterboro Elementary School to establish a positive relationship with families.