Sunday, March 10, 2013

Chronic Absenteeism = A Big Problem

I recently returned from a family vacation to celebrate my Dad's 88th birthday.  It was wonderful, and I am so glad I took the time off from school to be with our family for this very special event.  Of course, between email and texting, I was still tethered to my responsibilities as the principal at Hale Kula.  After all, I didn't want to come back to work and have to catch up with the hundreds of emails I receive daily!

This vacation led me to reflect on something which has been a challenge at our school -- attendance.  We know that students need to be in school in order to maximize their learning opportunities.  Last year, 16% of our students were chronically absent, defined as missing more than 15 days in the school year.  In other words,  16% of our students missed about one whole month of learning.  This is unacceptable, and we are implementing a variety of programs to reverse this trend including incentives for those who have perfect attendance for the quarter, informing parents more regularly, and asking for suggestions from our school community.  However, our data suggests that these incentives and procedures are not having as positive an impact as we had hoped.

Because we are a military-impacted school, our families have different challenges that affect school attendance.  With no extended family here on-island, a parent may not have the support when a child gets sick (and there's no way to get the student to school) or the soldier is deployed or in training.  When the soldier comes back from deployment or for R&R, families want to spend the time together or take a trip back home to spend time with their extended family.  My vacation with my family reinforced that this is valuable time, and even if we would prefer students to be in school, we understand the importance of reunification especially when a parent has been in harm's way.

So what can we do to ensure that students balance school and home needs effectively even if they are not physically in school?  Since our families are transient, we need to make sure that the loss of instructional days does not result in learning gaps which can impact students now and in the future when they enroll in a new school.  Besides implementing incentive programs, we need to send a consistent message to parents about the importance of students coming to school regularly and keeping up with their lessons, and technology can be used effectively for this purpose.

We have encouraged all of our teachers to post their assignments as well as learning resources on their class websites.  Additionally, we have licenses for programs such as Dreambox, KidBiz3000, and Measuring Up Live! which are web-based, and other resources are available on our library webpage which students can access anywhere, anytime from any computer.  We are moving towards cloud-based computing via google apps; students will be able to work on their assignments and keep in touch with their teachers even if they are not physically in school.  Our Blended Learning program is providing us with resources we can use with our fourth and fifth graders, and we should share similar resources for the other grade levels as well.

Our message to our parents is this:  we understand the challenges of being a military family, but we need to work together to ensure that our students -- your children -- will be ready for the next grade level whether they remain at Hale Kula or move to another school in our state, our country, or the world.  As a school, we need to have better procedures so parents understand that we are a team and that keeping up with schoolwork is essential even if a family is on a well-deserved vacation. This also means that parents need to set aside time during vacations so students can complete their assignments to ensure that they don't fall behind.

Our goal  is to decrease chronic absenteeism at our school from 16% to 11%.  It will take a collaborative effort to accomplish our goals, but we are determined to do all we can to reach our target so that all students continue to progress and have the skills and dispositions to be successful.


  1. Laura D'Alfonso has tried to start the year off with students wanting to come to class by having a mini class reward system. She started out with putting 2 small magnets under a random students desk each day. When that student came to class to find the magnet, they received a mini snack. The students were so eager to come to school to see if they had the magnet. It really improved student attendance. However, having snack each day became too much money and too time consuming. Now, it is tracked on a monthly basis. Each students tardiness and/or absences is tracked daily. If they are late or not in school, they will not receive a snack at the end of the month. Their names will be crossed off a checklist. Students are so concerned if they are late or absent and if they still accounted for receiving a snack at the end of the month. Students do enjoy such small rewards. It doesn't have to be a snack but perhaps time with the teacher, lunch in the classroom, etc. However, these small changes work. Our class has received the attendance award for third grade several times. Perhaps these small incentives help!

  2. Thanks for the suggestions, Kerri! It's really nice when students WANT to come to school. Sounds like you have a nice system going, but I do have a question. How do the students feel when they don't get a snack because they were absent? Does it affect their attendance for the rest of the month?

    1. I feel like students should want to come to school because learning is fun. As teachers we have a responsibility of thinking outside the box. This isn't just finding more worksheets, or spending 2 hrs on a subject. Thinking outside the box is going beyond the books and worksheets. It is relating it to real life, how does it pertain to our students? There has to be purpose, and the classroom has to be passion driven.
      Also as teachers we have the responsibility to respect our students, as they respect us. I have heard a lot of feedback from students saying they don't like to be yelled at constantly, why come to school? One thing I learned on a marriage retreat that applies to all relationships: is YELLING doesn't clarify anything. YELLING only makes the students want to shut down.
      I treat my students as I would my own two sons; respectfully, compassionate, enduring, and I expect the same out of my students.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Mrs. Conley. Yes, we need to give students a reason to come to school by giving them work that is interesting and challenging while making sure they have the foundation to be successful.