District and school leaders responded quickly and effectively when Hickman Mills C-1 School District (HMC-1) abruptly closed their doors and moved to distance learning in spring 2020. Early on, teachers reached out to families, and school attendance teams provided additional support when teacher outreach was insufficient or existing attendance data suggested a more intensive approach was needed.
By April, the school district was in touch with 97% of its students and their families, or had only lost touch with just 3% of students, which is half of what teachers reported nationally. This high level of family engagement reflects strong relationships and practices put in place over the last year through the launch of a year-long initiative to reduce chronic absence. The effort also resulted in attendance improvements for two-thirds of the students who had been moderately chronically absent during the prior year.
Located ten miles southeast from downtown Kansas City, HMC-1 serves approximately 5,400 students. While 71.5% of the students identify as Black, the remainder are Latino (13%), white (9%), and other ethnicities. All of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 14% qualify for special education services. In 2018-2019, 27.9% of students were moderate or severely chronically absent (missing more than 10% of school).
How did the district strengthen its capacity to engage and connect with families? In August 2019, the district launched a year-long initiative to reduce chronic absence. The effort was supported by United Way of Greater Kansas City, Turn the Page KC, Local Investment Commission (LINC), Attendance Works and locally-based education consultant Dr. Kia Turner.
“Hickman Mills’ readiness and ability to adapt to distance learning when schools closed for Covid-19 reflects the mindset, capacity and skills emphasized and reinforced by our year-long initiative to reduce chronic absence. This work promoted taking a positive, problem-solving approach to working with families rather than assuming absences are an indication that families don’t care about their children’s education,” says Dr. Carl Skinner, Deputy Superintendent of Hickman Mills C-1 School District.
This story describes the key elements of this initiative which took place over the 2019-2020 school year and shares the results of an internal evaluation.
A Strategic Partnership
Working with the district, the partners in this effort helped build the capacity of school teams focused on improving the attendance of moderately chronically absent students (those missing between 10-19% of school days). The needs of these students are often overlooked when schools spend most of their energy addressing the challenges facing students with the most absences (20-30% of days).
Partners provided help based on their area of expertise: United Way offered funding and helped expand access to local resources for families, Attendance Works designed and facilitated professional development sessions and Kia Turner provided coaching support to school teams and ensured activities took into account local realities. LINC ensured their afterschool staff joined school teams and secured local attendance data to evaluate results. In the meantime, Turn The Page KC helped facilitate conversations about how to build capacity in the Kansas City region to support the work.
The HMC-1 district leadership allotted four attendance-focused professional development sessions for school administrators and staff participating in their attendance teams. The sessions emphasized the importance of moving beyond offering incentives for perfect attendance to using data to offer support before a student had missed substantial amounts of school. After the first session, schools evaluated their team composition and added additional, key staff members to their teams. School teams then were asked to apply information learned at the sessions to their own school, with regular ongoing coaching support from Kia Turner.
The time schools spent building capacity between August 2019 through March 2020 made all the difference during the transition to distance learning. Administrators utilized teachers’ skills and relationships to connect with families and make sure they were aware of available supports. Teachers solicited the help of their attendance teams when they couldn’t locate a family so they could engage in further outreach. To make the load manageable, attendance teams divided responsibilities among their members. Community partners also joined in to help disseminate resources (e.g. books, technology, etc.) and deliver food to families in need.
Actionable Data and Shared Accountability
Drawing upon data from the district, LINC helped the district compile attendance data from the 2018-2019 school year in a way that aligned with Attendance Works’ tiered approach to attendance prevention and support. Schools used this data to identify groups of 10-15 Tier 2 students (those who missed 10-19% of school) who would receive specific support and interventions throughout the year. The hope was that the experience of working with these moderately chronically absent students would help the staff develop mindsets and skills that could be more broadly applied. The district also adopted a new platform using All Here to record staff notes about any contact with families.
As school buildings closed, the district continued to document interactions with families. These interactions, tracked by teachers, were shared with the attendance team which also kept notes on the resources provided to each family.
Soon after the initiative launched, the Hickman Mills C-1 School District prepared for family-teacher conferences. The district chose to focus on positive engagement with families by implementing Attendance Works’ recommendations and a framework for conferences. Teachers adopted an approach that centered family hopes and dreams for their students rather than using a typical academic exchange based on the teacher’s academic concerns.
In addition, United Way of Greater Kansas City funded a mini grant application for each school to devise and implement a plan to support the Tier 2 student group. Many of the mini grants awarded focused on the positive engagement of students and families in need of attendance support. The strategies and incentives implemented using the mini grants were developed using the information teachers learned about students and families during the parent conferences.
As the district shifted to distance learning, it continued to encourage schools to focus on positive engagement and interaction with students and families. When interacting with families, teachers and school staff led with questions or concerns related to a family’s basic needs.
Evaluating the Impact
Prior to the shift to distance learning in mid-March, three-quarters of the moderately chronically absent students had improved their attendance from the same time during the prior year including 61% who were no longer considered chronically absent. Elementary-aged students benefited the most. Read LINC’s data analysis to learn more.
The significant attendance improvements throughout the district came about with a multi-pronged approach, HMC-1 leaders say. Efforts included an increased knowledge of and capacity building for attendance practices; stable, strategic district leadership; intentional positive relationships with families and students; intentional use of data to support a core group of students; and, a cohesive, dedicated group of collaborative partners working together to achieve positive results.