Focus on attendance pays off in ADA and class time Featured Photo

Focus on attendance pays off in ADA and class time

Tom Chorneau, Managing Editor
SI&A K-12 Daily

Facing the same challenge over student absenteeism but for distinctly different reasons, two Southern California districts added thousands of hours of classroom time back into this school year using a similar management and incentive strategy.

Ocean View Elementary School District, nestled in the affluent coastal community of Huntington Beach, could traditionally boast an average daily attendance nearly 96.5 percent. But making inroads on that last two or three percent has proved frustrating, at least in part because of parents taking their kids out of school for family events and activities.

One third grader, for instance, had missed 142 days over a three year period.

At the Perris Union High School District in Riverside County, school officials faced more traditional attendance problems. Already designated for corrective action under the No Child Left Behind Act, the district is challenged by a student population that is 20 percent English learners and almost 80 percent who qualify for subsidized meals.

Two Perris sites had average attendance in 2009-10 of less than 80 percent, while the district’s overall ADA was 92.8 percent that same year.

There were also 160 dropouts recorded from district’s largest high school just between April and December, 2010.

One year later, there’s a different story at both districts.

At Perris average daily attendance grew by nearly one-half percent; at Ocean View, ADA improved by three-tenths of a percent.

State officials say such increases are dramatic in the context where success if typically measured by the hundredths of a percent.

Officials at both districts said the key to their success was a more aggressive approach in monitoring first-time offenders. They also said being more active in outreach to parents was critical, both in expressing the negative impacts of absenteeism on student performance as well as the drag it creates on the fiscal health of the district itself.

“This was an effort that everyone contributed to,” said Liz Williams, director of Student Support Services at Ocean View. “From the district administration and the teachers and principals, to the parents and the students themselves – we’re very proud of that.”

To help with the turnaround, both districts also hired an outside consulting firm (School Innovations & Advocacy, corporate host of the Cabinet Report) whose web-based management system , Attention2Attendance®, provided near real-time daily data while streamlining clerical duties related to parental notices and conference scheduling.

At year’s end, administrators at Ocean View found their ADA revenue increased by nearly $140,000 and the recovered learning time totaled 3,778 days.

Perris saw an ADA revenue increase of $282,000 and an increase in learning time of 51,290 hours.

“Making more money is one thing, but if the kids are in school more, they’ll be more successful in class,” said Grant Bennett, director of pupil services at Perris. “That’s really what matters most.”

Truancy and absenteeism are issues as old as the public school system itself and yet, still today attendance problems are often overlooked by busy educators.

But the links between attendance and greater social ills cannot be overstated.

According to researchers for the California Legislature, 75 percent of all high school truants will eventually drop out of school; meanwhile, three-fourths of all inmates of the state prison system are also high school dropouts.

That’s why officials at both Perris and Ocean View have made attendance improvements a priority.

Central to their success, district officials said, is the focus on first time offenders.

Under state law, students are considered truant after being absent or tardy three times without an excuse, prompting a notice home to parents.

But because of budget cuts to support staff as well as the burden of other duties, most districts have difficulty keeping up with the truancy mandate.

Research shows that close to 60 percent of the enrollment in a high school will at some point during the school year violate the rule; at an elementary school the number is close to 20 percent.

Only a fraction of those violations are ever identified and processed into the system so that notices are actually sent to parents.

Officials at Perris said last year the parent notice program was inconsistent. This year, after installation of the vendor’s automated letter program – the district issued letters to 55 percent of the students.

At Ocean View, Williams said some schools did a better job than others in issuing the parent notices – the middle school, for instance, was more consistent than the elementary schools.

Once the new program was underway, however, the results were dramatic: at Ocean View total absences after the first letter went out dropped 66 percent.

“We used to rely on each school site to send the letters,” said Bennett from Perris. “But it didn’t get done. Now the system is much more consistent – letters go out every two weeks.”

A similar pattern was followed when it came to parent conferences. In the past, efforts to reach out, schedule and execute the critical face-to-face contact with parents were problematic. Now, with staff freed up from the clerical chores to focus on intervention, the meetings have become more routine.

Both districts also said that incentives for the students have become an important part of the attendance story.

At Perris High School, administrators also created a program that included pizza parties, popcorn socials and drawings for a Plasma TV, an iPod Nano and an iPad. Similar big-ticket items were also raffled off in special drawings for kids with the highest attendance in the Ocean View district, said Williams.

Monthly meetings among administrators where sites shared their techniques and considered feedback are also being employed at both districts.

Williams noted that the A2A program is “simple, requires very little administrator or teacher time, and ensures consistency across a school-district so that students are treated with equity.”

She also said that because the program was adopted district-wide, it brought the entire community together to help address the attendance issue.

“The requirement that every school follow the process (in this case A2A) for tracking and verifying student absences plus the student incentives, plus the focus on attendance by teachers, administrators, and PTA/PTO groups all contributed to the improved attendance,” she said in an e-mail.

She noted that schools that improved attendance were awarded a share of the additional revenue. There were also recognition events before the school board.

In the end, said Perris’ Bennett, the program is getting results in the classroom. “I believe we’re getting the kids at school more often, more consistently, and it has made a big impact on student achievement,” he said.

Editor’s note: “District Success Stories” is a new feature at Cabinet Report which will focus on issues or developments that may relate to services or products provided by SI&A.