Suburban Chicago School District: Attention2Attendance Is “Extremely Promising”

Dr. Harris engages with school staff and students.

For This Suburban Chicago School District,Attention2Attendance Is Relatively New But “Extremely Promising”

By Ed Goldman (Goldman is a daily columnist in Sacramento, California’s capital)

This is my 30th year in education,” says Dr. Brian Harris, Superintendent of Schools at the Barrington 220 School District a northwest suburb of Chicago, Ill. He laughs. “So I guess the word you can use for me is I’m ‘seasoned.’”

Harris, who’s been the superintendent at Barrington for the past three years, has wasted no time “trying to find a way to move the dial instructionally.” Even though his District was and continues to be a high-performing one, he says he felt there could always be improvements. Attendance, he saw, was a concern—and he wanted to address it before it affected academic achievement.

Barrington has consistently ranked among the state's top five percent of school districts academically and, among its numerous honors, Standard & Poor’s gave the District its "Outperformer" award for academic achievement among school districts with similar demographics.

However, Harris notes an almost ironic challenge the District was facing. “This is an affluent community, so attendance issues weren’t based on kids who are slacking off,” he says. “It was more due to parents taking their kids out of school for long weekends or vacations on a regular basis. We’re talking about a range of eight to 12 days. It was an accepted culture here.” When that happens on a fairly consistent basis, Harris says, “the kids have to catch up on what they missed. I mean, when you think about it, a 10-day vacation means two weeks of school being missed.”

Harris says he was drawn to School Innovations & Achievement’s Attention2Attendance (A2A) software-and-services package because of its “really amazing” 100 percent success rate wherever it’s been deployed. But since A2A’s usual target for its automatically generated notices are parents who may or may not be aware of their children’s absences from school, Harris says he wasn’t surprised there were some negative reactions. “After all, we were telling parents, who simply thought they were giving their kids fun outings and time off that there my be consequences for the kids down the line.”

That was in 2014-15. By last year, Harris says, most of these parents—generally of K-5 children—were on board with the importance of attendance. (A2A’s Achievement Initiative points out that life-and career-damaging habits resulting from missed school can start developing as early as kindergarten.)

“Since we’ve only been using the program for two years, we can’t say our results are completely definitive as yet, though they’re extremely promising,” Harris says—but adds that every school in his District “except one” saw an uptick in attendance from the 2014-15 year to 2015-16. “Our high school had the biggest overall improvement. We went from 91 percent to 94 percent attendance. That tells us we’re on the right track.”

Asked to speculate on what special efforts Barrington made to augment A2A, Harris says, “It’s all been about follow-up. Simply put, when we do it, we see results. If we don’t, I don’t think we will.” He also points to an incentive program Barrington has with nearby Harper College’s Promise Scholarship Program. The initiative, begun in 2015, offers public high school students in the Northwest suburbs two years of free tuition at the college—provided they commit to getting solid grades, passing all their classes, successfully completing college prep work, participating in community service and, most notably, maintaining a strong attendance record during their four years in high school.

“I think having attendance as one of the key metrics says a lot about both Harper’s and our values,” says Harris, adding “and about why Attention2Attendance is so important to our schools.”