I have a second-grade music student named Vicente. His class comes to music only once or twice per week. I have marked him absent eleven times so far this year and don’t even really remember what he looks like. This past week his classmates all told me he moved. When I sought to confirm this with the office, they told me, “No, he’s still enrolled.” Which habit is this student building? How will it affect the rest of his life?
Our school is taking concrete steps to impact this situation across our student body. Our principal, Amanda Voorhees, along with a former principal in our district, Stacey Drake, collaborated in creating our FEWER THAN FIVE program. Having attended Harvard Graduate School of Education School Turnaround Leaders, they committed to addressing the problem of chronic absenteeism in our schools. According to Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, “Many communities, school boards, and families are simply not aware of the negative impacts of absences on students’ education.”
Chronic absenteeism is a widespread problem. According to a study by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University:
On average, children missed 5 days in kindergarten, 4.5 days in first grade, and 3.7 days in both third and fifth grades. However, almost 14% of kindergartners, 12% of first graders, 11% of third graders, and 10% of fifth graders were at-risk absentees: they missed an average of 12 to 18 days during the school year. Over 11% of kindergartners, almost 9% of first graders, 6% of third graders, and 5% of fifth graders were chronic absentees: they missed at least 18 days or more of the school year. In total, one-quarter of all kindergarten children were either at-risk or chronic absentees.
Concerns for our youngest students telegraph through the years to high school and beyond. According to the Children’s Advocacy Institute:
Students who miss school at an early age will fall behind their classmates. Students who miss a lot of school in the early years are likely to become disengaged from their studies and struggle academically, develop behavior problems and, in later years, to drop out of school entirely.
In our school’s program, the students are allowed to have fewer than five absences and still remain in the game. This rule follows naturally from Washington State’s Attendance laws, which allow 5 excused absences before consequences begin. For instance, according the the law, if a child:
...has five or more excused absences in a single month during the current school year, or ten or more excused absences in the current school year, the school district shall schedule a conference or conferences with the parent and child at a time reasonably convenient for all persons included for the purpose of identifying the barriers to the child's regular attendance, and the supports and resources that may be made available to the family so that the child is able to regularly attend school.
Students in the game earn monthly awards, such as the next in a rainbow of Fewer Than Five wrist band, or the ultimate reward of a bicycle at the end of the school year for perfect attendance.
An essential part of the program is to honor the commitment of these students. Given that every month we honor academic and Social Emotional Learning success at our “Student of the Month Assembly,” Amanda and Stacey also wanted to honor attendance as its own distinct achievement. Also announced at the assembly are our classroom awards. Individual classrooms with a certain percentage of students still in the game get to keep their Fewer Than Five door poster (pictured above), which proudly proclaims the success of their room. The acceptable percentage required goes down each month, so classes usually have a chance to recommit to the game and win their sign back.
The award structure culminates in a Fewer Than Five Fiesta, a celebratory dinner and party in the gym for students who stayed in the game all year. This fiesta includes the students’ families. After all, a kid’s constant presence in school is an all-family achievement and ought to be celebrated as such.
The program is a work in progress. Last year, we extended the game to teachers, offering monthly treats for those still playing to win. After all, teacher truancy can be a problem, too. We kept the focus more on the kids this year and let that go, but Amanda is looking at how we can improve the game with the teachers and reinstate it. Further, at this point last year, 276 out of 460 students were still in the game. This year, 251 out of 450 are. Negative growth can be discouraging, but according to Amanda,“The whole point is to keep the conversation alive for attendance.” It’s a conversation worth having.
She has many next steps in mind:
· Looking at the cohorts of kids.
Kinders last years did not do great. How are they doing as first graders?
· Tracking the growth of these cohorts.
Is one group of students constantly doing better than another? Why?
· Taking a look at the focus we had for specific cohorts.
Did we meet more with their parents? What might have impacted those specific kids?
When I asked her what advice she had for schools looking to implement a program like this, she said, “there’s no one cookie cutter program. Look at the bits and pieces of your program and then adjust, making it relevant for your school and your kids.”
Unable to clearly picture Vicente, I can, however, clearly picture those students who always attend school. The people in front of you are the ones with whom you have a relationship. Coming to school and putting in the work to build those relationships is fundamental. The safe, predictable space that our schools can offer can be THE positive focus in a struggling student’s life. That said, Vincente, and other students struggling with attendance are never far from our minds. How will they know if school can be their safe space? How will they know if school can be where they find community and success, setting themselves up for career and college readiness? By showing up, greeting their teachers, joining their friends and playing the game.
- Student Engagement