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Triumph Over Truancy:
Tips for Improving Student Attendance

principal's desk


Greater learning, a brighter future, less delinquency, and more funds for schools -- there are countless benefits to increased student attendance. So schools from Washington to California to Hawaii are taking a fresh look at an old problem and coming up with novel approaches to resolve their truancy woes. How are they doing it, and will it work for your school? Included: Three steps you can take today to improve student attendance.

This year, one lucky Temecula Valley (California) high schooler will win a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt. Others will receive iPods, digital cameras, computers with printers, mountain bikes, or a trip for four to Disneyland -- hotel included! Still more students will be given tens of thousands of gift certificates to local establishments. What will they do to earn these generous prizes? Come to school!

"In April 2005, we were looking at the budget for 2006-2007," recalls Danielle Clark, coordinator of communications and community relations for the Temecula Valley Unified School District. "It was another year of budget cuts, and we have cut more than $20 million in the last five years. The idea of increasing revenue came up. As California school funding is based on attendance, one source of potential new revenue is to increase attendance."

Clark was tasked with creating and implementing a campaign to increase attendance called Count Me In! The district has a high attendance rate of 96%, with the majority of students who are absent being out for excused illness. However, the state of California does not award funding for students who are not in school, even due to illness, so about $40,000 per day is lost through absences.

High Attendance Is Win-Win Situations

"Count Me In! is an incentive-based program," Clark explained. "There are varying levels of perfect attendance at each level -- elementary, middle and high school. The criteria are set up, and students are rewarded district-wide at the trimester in the elementary level and at semester end in high school and middle school, as well as a year-end drawing for larger prizes."

One challenge facing Temecula Valley is encouraging students who are well to attend school while at the same time advising those who are truly ill to stay home. Because it is rewards-based, Count Me In! does not distinguish between absences; every absence is counted, regardless of the reason. In every communication about the program, the district emphasizes that the best place for ill students is home. The primary goal is to discourage non-emergency absences, such as leaving early for vacation, going on vacation during off-peak time, family reunions, and orthodontic appointments during the middle of the day.

"The idea of the program is that students will learn more if they attend school regularly, and the extra funding is a bonus," said Clark. "The absences at the middle and high school levels are on a tiered format, so a student can miss a couple of days for illness and still be in the drawing for the grand prize at the end of the year."

Many of the district's schools are also offering monthly prizes, so a student who is out a day or more due to illness during one month can start fresh the next month. To date, Temecula Valley has increased attendance 55 percent, which will equal about $700,000 in additional revenue if the progress is sustained throughout the year. Most parents and students are very supportive of Count Me In!

"This type of program is a worthwhile endeavor because we are changing the way our parents and students view attendance," reports Clark. "We have been able to make many realize that attendance is a key factor in student success, and more students will achieve because they are coming to school more often. But this is an uphill battle that no amount of prizes is going to conquer."

Power Through Partnerships

Raising Attendance:
What Works

Judith Martinez of the NCSE has noted several common themes or characteristics among successful programs that target improving student attendance, such as:

Parent/guardian involvement, or whole family involvement. According to Martinez, over 30 years of research documents that when parents are involved in their child's education that child is more likely to succeed in school.

A continuum of supports, including meaningful incentives for good attendance and consequences for poor attendance.

Collaboration among community actors such as law enforcement, mental health workers, mentors, and social service providers, in addition to educators.

Concrete and measurable goals for program performance and student performance, as well as good record keeping and on-going evaluation of progress toward those goals.

For more information, Martinez refers administrators to Best Practices and the Truancy Fact Sheet, two documents from the NCSE Web site.

Judith A. Martinez of the National Center for School Engagement (NCSE) at the Colorado Foundation for Families and Children in Denver, Colorado, says that attendance programs that are more focused on incentives and supports, such as Count Me In!, tend to be more successful in engaging students and their families in school.

In general, Martinez recommends administering sanctions in a consistent manner and as a last resort. The NCSE instead highlights the need for schools to form a partnership with local businesses and law enforcement to limit the areas where students can congregate while they are away from school during the day and have truant youth returned to school.

"Truancy is not just a school issue," Martinez stated. "I hear that repeatedly from juvenile court judges and school administrators. Truancy is a community issue. Truancy has been clearly identified as one of the early warning signs of a student headed for potential delinquent activity, social isolation, or educational failure."

The community has a vested interest in reducing truancy, Martinez suggests. It is directly impacted with increase in daytime crime and a lack of a skilled workforce. When the community is part of the solution in addressing truancy, there are more opportunities and resources available to students and schools.

Martinez recommends three steps for administrators who want to take action today to increase student attendance:

  • Assess school policies that address truancy to determine if they encourage attendance or indirectly push out students. For example, adopt "no more suspensions for truancy" policy.
  • Set up Student Attendance Review Boards. Those boards ensure a community-based approach to identify and address root causes of truancy. California has taken a lead nationally in instituting this approach to attendance problems. (For more information on those boards, visit the California Department of Education Web site.)

Improve tracking of attendance data. This should be done on a school-wide and district-level basis. Many schools have difficulty assessing the extent of their truancy problems because they do not track excused and unexcused absences and/or tardies in a consistent manner. Without knowing the scope of the problem and/or contributing factors, it is very difficult to design an intervention. School personnel and parents/families need to be involved in the tracking of attendance data and informed about how important it is to get accurate data.

Personal Attention Works for the "A-Team"

"We worked really hard at implementing strong curriculum and research-based teaching strategies at Lake Stickney Elementary," principal Cheryl Boze told Education World. "Instruction was aligned with standards, and as a school we made significant gains in student achievement."

Nevertheless, the school had many students who were struggling. On any given day, about 10 percent of its students were absent. Boze summed up the situation: "You can have really great things going on the classroom, but if kids aren't here to benefit, it doesn't do much good."

So staff members at Lake Stickney searched for a means to help its at-risk students feel more connected to the school through a positive relationship with a supportive adult. It drafted the dean of students to serve as a mentor for the entire group, and the "A-Team" was deployed!

"Kids need to know that someone at school cares about them, is interested in them as individuals, and would miss them if they were gone," said Boze. "Our original idea was to recruit community volunteers to serve as mentors for kids with significant attendance concerns. Our school was fairly distant from local businesses, and we had difficulty recruiting consistent volunteers."

Although Lake Stickney has been closed, today Boze leads its new replacement, Odyssey Elementary School. The A-Team is still going strong at the Everett, Washington, school. Based upon teacher referral and review of attendance records, Boze and her staff identify students with chronic attendance concerns, including excessive tardies, 12 or more days absent in a year, and multiple absences in a month (not related to legitimate illness).

On average, there are 30 students in A-Team. Some children remain in the program for the entire year, and others graduate when attendance concerns are resolved. The dean of students sends a letter to parents to explain the A-Team goals and why their child has been selected for the program and then meets with the kids.

"Students have lunch with the dean once a week," says Boze. "She meets with students in grade-level groups. Students with perfect attendance during the week (no absences, tardies, or early dismissals) receive a treat along with lots of praise. At the end of each month, students with perfect attendance earn a pizza lunch."

At the weekly meetings, the dean and students also talk about the importance of school. The participants with perfect attendance share how their week went and the benefits of being in school each day. The kids receive support, caring, and encouragement from the dean, but also from one another.

The dean has daily contact with the A-Team members who have the greatest attendance concerns. This may include a morning check-in, visit to the classroom, or a call to the home if the child is absent. If the child isn't legitimately ill, parents are asked to bring the child to school or to allow the school to pick him up.

"Kids love being in the program and feel they are a part of something special," Boze reports. "We've even had kids without attendance concerns ask if they can be in the program. They love the special attention during lunch and are very proud when they reach their attendance goals. Several kids have shown improvement in self-esteem and a more positive attitude as well."

Teachers at Odyssey appreciate the extra attention for their at-risk learners. Parents don't always see absences as a problem, but when they are asked most are willing to allow their children to participate in the A-Team.

"A first grader in the program recently said that he doesn't want to be late to school," shared Boze. "Now when his mom is slow in the morning, he gets her going so that he won't be late. He says he feels a lot better about his day because now that he's here for opening activities he knows what's going on in his class."

In another role-reversal, a second grade boy who was called to the office recently for an early dismissal told his mother that he couldn't go with her because he needed to be in school. His mother agreed and changed their appointment.

"From the first year of the program, we have data that demonstrates significant improvement in attendance for the majority of students who participated in A-Team," Boze said. "It doesn't work for every kid, and when it's not working, we explore other solutions, including making up time missed, parent involvement, or court action."

According to Boze, the particulars of an attendance program are not what matter. What matters most is a making a positive connection with the child.

"Kids need to own the problem and believe they have the power to turn things around," she added. "They need to understand that it's their job to be in school and when they're not here, they miss out on really important things."

Early Intervention Is Key In Waianae

"Regarding truancy reduction, our philosophy is the earlier, the better, and we try to take a proactive, preventive approach," explains Patrick Nakamura, project director of PACT (Partnering to Assess and Counteract Truancy) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

PACT is funded (1999-2006) by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It is a collaborative effort to address truancy in the Hawaii Department of Education's Waianae Complex, and it is administered by the College of Education at the University of Hawaii.

In Waianae, the average daily attendance rate over the past three years for the five elementary schools was about 90 percent, nearly 87 percent at the intermediate school, and 88 percent in the high school. The state standard is 95 percent.

"Students and their families are identified by number or pattern of absences," Nakamura told Education World. "Complex-wide school attendance procedure has letters going home at specific numbers of unexcused absences. The letters' messages range from concern and importance of education to information about the compulsory school attendance law and consequences for violating it."

In the time leading up to and after the second letter is sent to parents, a school team -- typically made up of a counselor, teacher, and social worker -- does a needs-assessment of the student and family. One aspect unique to PACT is that it provides an individual at each elementary school whose function revolves around attendance. That person often establishes the connection with a caring adult that so many of the students need. The team determines if intervention is required, and specifically, if a program such as ESAP (Elementary School Attendance Program) is appropriate.

"ESAP is a voluntary program that is most effective with parents who need help with parenting and management skills," Nakamura stated. "If a parent agrees to attend, he or she goes to several group sessions called 'parent support sessions' conducted by partnering agencies which include the Honolulu Police Department, family court, and the Hawaii National Guard. The latter spends the most time with the parents using their parenting curriculum."

After ESAP or other school-referred intervention, if absences continue, the schools can file a petition to the court, although it's considered a last resort. The program has been successful for those who have chosen to participate. In about 80 percent of the families that took part, the children showed significantly improved attendance and maintained it. In fact, attendance also improved among the kids whose parents did not join ESAP, perhaps because the families realized that court intervention could be the next step.

It may not be directly attributed to the PACT project, but equally important has been the improved academic performance among the students involved. For those who were tracked, 73.1 percent improved academically, and 19.5 percent remained the same. The students who have taken part in PACT enter intermediate school next year, so it is not yet clear if the strides they have made will continue into the upper levels. Nakamura and his associates hope to follow the kids through high school.

"I think the big disease of our society at the local and national level is the habit of misplaced blame coupled with decaying and eroding personal responsibility, and this spills over into the schools," observed Nakamura. "And so, the more we do to send good messages and change some attitudes and cure the disease, the better chance we'll all have to make sure that -- dare I say it -- no child is left behind."


Join the "A-Team"

"A program like the A-Team needs to be a part of the solution, and not the whole solution," says principal Cheryl Boze. She has found that to be successful with really tough attendance concerns many things have to be in place, including

  • connections with community service agencies to meet health and welfare needs;
  • transportation for homeless students; and
  • safe classrooms with meaningful learning activities

"The list could go on and on," Boze added. "The key is finding out what is preventing the child from being in school, and working with the child and family to solve the problem."



Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 03/06/2006
Last updated 07/20/2017