Needed: Village Support for Student Attendance

Needed: Village Support for Student Attendance

Overview

Michael Walker, bottom left, director of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement for Minneapolis Public Schools, gathers students for a moment of mutual support before they explore the Minnesota National College Fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center October 21, 2015. --Courtney Perry for Education Week

By Jerome Underwood

There is a strong correlation between student attendance and academic achievement.  It has been well documented that the overall level of achievement in the Rochester City School District is unacceptably low.  No single action will reverse this unfortunate truth.  However, the District is taking a number of steps to improve student achievement. Our schools are implementing a more rigorous and more relevant curriculum. We are working to increase both the quantity and quality of instruction students receive. The District is expanding the availability of art, music, sports, and extra-curricular activities that help to engage students in school.

Student attendance is a major challenge that I would like to draw the village’s attention to.  It is a challenge that we can all do something about.  Addressing it will unequivocally have a positive impact, not only on student achievement, but on the community as a whole. Chronic absence can serve as an early warning signal that a child or a school is headed off track. It can also reflect unhealthy economic, social and emotional conditions.

Attendance Works (www.attendanceworks.org) defines chronic absence as missing 10% or more of school.  With a 180 day school year, this means missing 18 or more days of school.  For the 2012-13 school year, there were over 7,200 students who missed 20 or more days of school in the Rochester City School District.  Chronic absence in kindergarten is associated with lower academic performance in 1st grade. For poor children, most of whom are unable to make up for time on task, poor performance extends through 5th grade. By 6th grade, chronic absence is a clear predictor of likelihood to drop out. By 9th grade, missing 20% of the school year is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores.  Chronic absence in the early grades and beyond affects all students, because teachers must spend time reviewing concepts for children who missed the lesson in the first place.

In addition to tracking chronic absenteeism, the District monitors average daily attendance (ADA) – the percentage of students that are in school each day. For the 2012-13 school year, ADA was 89.4%; up from 87.7% the previous year – certainly a step in the right direction. But with an enrollment of approximately 30,000 students, 89.4% attendance means that over 3,000 students missed school every day! So far, in this school year, ADA has improved slightly to 90.4%.

Student success is virtually guaranteed when three factors are present: good behavior; 95% attendance; plus involved parents and community members who support students and encourage them to make an effort.  It is clear to see how these ingredients are interrelated and interdependent.  If a student is surrounded by positive individuals in a nurturing environment, he or she will more than likely be very motivated towards high achievement, and thus have improved attendance.  Addressing this challenge requires all of us to play a part.

So what can we, the villagers, do?  The District needs the entire community’s help to deal with this issue.  The first step is to expand the awareness.  Some readers may already be aware of the statistics mentioned above.  We now need to take some action so that this school year is not a repeat of the last.  Everyone can do something about this.  Raise the issue with your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, and other adults you know.  Ask them about their children’s attendance.  As District staff members and volunteers have been knocking on doors, we have discovered a variety of reasons why students don’t come to school.  In many instances, the reasons are adult-related – housing, unemployment, stress, depression, mental illness, substance and physical abuse, and others.  We have been establishing and strengthening relationships with organizations that help families to deal with these issues.  They are critical challenges that must be addressed.  However, educating a child should not be set aside in lieu of finding solutions to these adult issues.  Both can, and must, be done at the same time.

There a number of community organizations that, on a monthly basis, send volunteers to participate in the District’s Attendance Blitzes.  During the blitzes, District staff and volunteers spread out across the City to knock on doors of chronically and severely absent students.  This opportunity is open to everyone, and more volunteers will help boost attendance. Put simply, we need more volunteers.  If you’d like to participate, please contact me using the information below.  We typically do this monthly on the fourth Thursday—the next two events are Nov 21st and Dec 19th.  The process takes two hours from start to finish.

The District also is speaking to churches about having an attendance discussion with their congregations.  These conversations have evolved into what we’re calling Education Sunday.  With documented parental consent, the District is able to share aggregate student data (attendance and achievement) with participating churches.  At the end of a marking period, churches would be able to report on their respective average daily attendance (ADA) and academic achievement (GPA and other measures).  Our hope is that this leads to friendly competition between the village churches for improving attendance and academic achievement.

Having the village deal with the attendance challenge is not a program.  It is a way to get all of us involved in improving the District’s academic achievement.  In doing so, we will encounter fellow adults who may need a caring ear.  There are families that we all know who are dealing with some tough situations.  They need us to listen, and to help if we can–perhaps by referring them to someone or some place that can assist.  We all need to be present.  The attendance challenge is one that can be solved. If the villagers start pushing in the same direction, at the same time, we will surely produce results that will impact much more than the classroom.  Join us.

Jerome Underwood
Senior Director Youth Development & Family Service | Email: jerome.underwood@rcsdk12.org