Bright Spots showcase the work that Grade-Level Reading communities are doing to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download the file.
Students form habits — including good school attendance — at an early age. So it was disconcerting for the central Connecticut town of Vernon to discover that 16 percent of its kindergartners were chronically absent. “We knew attendance had an incredible effect on learning,” says Dr. Mary Conway, superintendent of the Vernon Public Schools, which began monitoring this through its Campaign for Grade-Level Reading involvement.
Also troubling were data showing that many chronically absent students “were living in poverty, minorities — especially our Latino population — and children of parents who didn’t find success in school themselves. So we were continuing that cycle.”
In response, the school district developed a plan to improve attendance at all seven of its schools, serving 3,500 students. “We have to be a system,” explains Conway. “Children graduate not only from our high school but from the public schools. So our principals work together and they know that their student achievement is influenced heavily by their student attendance.”
The results of this “comprehensive systemic” plan, to date, are encouraging. During the three school years between 2010 and 2013, chronic absence — missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason — kindergarten through fifth grade dipped from 9 to 5 percent. For kindergarten, it fell from 16 to 13 percent. While the rate for middle school students dropped from 11 to 6 percent, the high school rate remained at 15 percent — a disappointment, says Conway, showing that “old habits die very hard.”
Vernon’s work has been aided by strategies and support from Attendance Works, a national initiative that addresses chronic absence and a GLR Campaign partner. This was made possible through funding from the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. The plan’s elements include:
- Shrewd data collection, analysis and use. The district generates a monthly average daily attendance (ADA) report by school and grade level. The goal is 95 percent ADA and the superintendent celebrates when schools achieve it. Knowing that ADA alone can paint unwarranted rosy picture and mask individual students who repeatedly miss school, school-based teams also monitor chronic absence reports weekly to identify individual students.
- Hands-on intervention. Vernon uses a case management approach developed by the district to comply with a new state attendance law. After three absences, excused or unexcused, a letter is sent to a student’s home. After six absences, a phone call conference is scheduled with a youth counselor. After nine absences, parents are asked to attend a meeting at school. For each student, a spread sheet is used to chart actions taken.
- Coordination with community partners. Vernon’s Youth Services Bureau, run by the town, provides one staff member to work with students who have attendance issues at the elementary schools. A district employee works with the other schools. As needed, these counselors individualize the intervention, such as making home visits or referrals to other services.
- Fresh tools. An “Intervention Pyramid” outlines a four-tiered response to attendance issues (see below). A monthly “heat map” highlights in bright yellow each grade in each school that has achieved average daily attendance of 95 percent.
- Heightened awareness throughout the school district. The call and work to improve attendance comes from many quarters — from the superintendent, school board, school governance teams and each school’s improvement plan.
- Raised public awareness and support. “Everybody in School Every Day”’ signs adorn the lawns of the superintendent, school board members and others. At a community gathering, the school district sponsored a booth dedicated to attendance, distributing calendars. The “heat map” and other attendance data are shared with the public.
What has proved key, emphasizes Conway, is a community-wide response. “It’s important to get everyone on the same page,” she says. This means schools developing an attendance plan as a team; teachers following up to let absent students know they were missed; counselors providing free school breakfasts when needed; and engaged parents.
While there is more work ahead, Conway is cheered by results to date, especially at the elementary school level. “It really is making a difference and this is where those habits start,” she says.
Photos: Vernon Public Schools
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