Saturday, September 28, 2013

Daily Attendance and Chronic Absenteeism

This is an update of a post I wrote last year titled, "Chronic Absenteeism."  The State has made increasing attendance at schools a priority, and all elementary schools' attendance data is a part of our annual Strive HI evaluation. First quarter ends this coming week, and we will be analyzing attendance data, in compliance with our goal to decrease chronic absenteeism from 16% to 11%.  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 almost one whole month of learning whether excused or not.

This year, our counselors are taking the time each month to send letters to parents when students have five or more absences.  Some parents who received such a letter have expressed concern,  especially when they notified the teacher and the absences were excused.   We know that students need to be in school in order to maximize their learning opportunities.  The State policy and our school procedures are clear; after 5 or more absences, parents must be notified.  An absence is an absence, whether excused or not.

As a school, 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.

As a state, we are implementing the Common Core State Standards which has been adopted by 45 states. These standards are more rigorous and expectations are more challenging regarding what students should know and be able to do. Hopefully, this will make it easier for families when they leave Hawaii for another duty station, but missing too many school days may be detrimental to students.

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.We realize 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.Additionally, 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.  This is why we are being diligent about sending letters to inform parents that we are concerned.

We can also use technology effectively for the purpose of ensuring that students do not fall too far behind.  For example, we have encouraged all of our teachers to post their assignments as well as learning resources on their class websites.  We have licenses for programs such as KidBiz3000, SOAR,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. This also means that parents need to set aside time during vacations or emergency leaves 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.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Safety First!

Ensuring the safety of our students and staff is our most important responsibility.  We know that accidents do happen, but whenever an unsafe situation occurs such as a tree branch ready to fall, or wet hallways due to the rain, or a wobbly desk, we make sure we report it right away so our custodians or District maintenance team can take care of the problem.  Likewise, we are required to have safety drills on a monthly basis so we can practice and work out any kinks in our procedures.

This year is particularly challenging due to the construction project and the closure of one area of our campus.  Prior to the beginning of school, our Safety Team made adjustments to procedures, and we even had input from the Fire Department to ensure that our exit plans were acceptable.

Despite our best efforts, however,  unexpected events do occur.  Last school year, we had an incident of a possible shooter walking around our base, and students were locked down in their classrooms for a large part of the day.  Fortunately, everything turned out okay, but we did work closely with the military to revise procedures and to be better-prepared should a similar situation occur again.

I bring this up because there is no such thing as being too safe.  Recent events remind us that we need to be proactive and to update or revise our emergency plans  if necessary.

Next week Thursday, September 26, our school will be having an evacuation drill.  We will walk in an orderly manner to the Teen Center which is within walking distance but far enough away from our school to ensure the safety of our students and staff.  The walk is off-campus, and we want to be sure that all parents understand the importance of practicing for these kinds of drills.

For the past few years, the military has been our partner during these evacuation drills.  They assist us by observing our drill from the moment we sound the alarm, throughout our evacuation to the Teen Center, and back to the school.  They take notes, talk with students and adults along the way to ensure that they know the procedures, and make recommendations on how we might improve our evacuation plans.

Parents, it is important to make sure your child is in school on the day of the drill so he/she can practice along with the rest of the class.  We are not just practicing our evacuation plan; we are also ensuring that our communication plan is efficient and that parents and the community are informed in a timely manner.  We want you to trust that our school is prepared to do the best we can to ensure the safety of every child.  To that end, we ask for your cooperation as well.  If you've changed your phone number recently or the emergency contacts you listed at the beginning of the year have moved away, please send a note to the school so we can change your records on our database.  It is important to have correct information on file because our mass messaging system uses the parent's primary phone number to alert parents.

Safety first!  That is our most important rule at Hale Kula!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Changing Mindsets

We had parent-teacher conferences this past week.  We have two weeks of conferences at Hale Kula. The first is held during the first quarter between parents and teachers, and the second one is student-led, and all students select projects or assignments to share with their parents.  Often, these projects are included in individual e-portfolios.  P/T Conferences are well-attended, and usually, we have about 95% participation.

This year, we decided to try an on-line system for parents to sign up for dates and times.  In the past, we had a system which we called an "auction." We sent out notices to parents, and they returned it with their prioritized choices.  On the day of the auction, we all gathered in the cafeteria, we called family names, and teachers met to decide on a date/time for the conference for each child.  This system worked, but we were looking for something more efficient.

We signed up for a free account.  Every classroom had an account and parents were able to go on-line to sign up.  Teachers received emails to indicate which parents had registered so they could follow up.  Teachers were able to manually register any parent who had not signed up, and most parents did attend their child's conference.

I adhere to the philosophy that if we use technology, it should make our work more efficient.  Several teachers shared that they want to go back to the old system because they felt parents were used to the old system.  However, that is certainly not an option I'd like to consider.  We will make adjustments such as sending the notices out earlier or having computers available if parents want to sign up after dropping up or picking up their children. We will ask for feedback and suggestions, but I strongly believe that once we make signing up on-line the norm, it will definitely make the process easier for everyone.

Looking back, I realize how much our staff has grown as far as technology is concerned.  A few years ago, when I asked teachers to send me documents via email, some of them had never done it and had to be taught.  Today, universal screening is done on-line and teachers have instant access to their student data; attendance and report cards are submitted on-line; grade levels have discussions and share ideas via edmodo; classroom teachers regularly update their websites so parents are regularly informed about what is going on in their classrooms; teachers and students are sharing or participating in global projects; and we use Google Apps for Education to share files, collaborate on projects, and communicate with others.

This wouldn't have happened without trust and positive relationship-building.  It is easy to say that things are going satisfactorily so "why change?"  However, as school leaders, we need to be open to change which can make our work more efficient.  This may take encouragement and support for some teachers, but we cannot give up.  There are many more expectations on schools today, and having systems in place which saves time makes sense.

As a school leader, I depend on my staff to keep me updated, and I encourage them to try out new tools or resources and to show how they can be used in the classroom.  This year, our librarian is hosting "Tech Tip Thursday" where teachers are sharing how they use different tech tools.  This never would have happened a few years ago, but today, teachers are eager to share new ideas or new tech tools, and it is so refreshing to see them leading and learning from each other!

Friday, September 13, 2013

SAVMP - A Terrific Opportunity for Professional Growth

I read a Tweet about SAVMP - School Administrators Virtual Mentor Program and clicked on the link to find out what it was all about.  I learned what was required to be a mentor, and I was intrigued.  I met the qualifications:  I am a principal with more than three years of experience; I have a professional blog and a Twitter account; and I was willing to mentor new principals.  However, I hesitated.  Would I be an effective mentor?  Do I have the time? What if I have nothing to offer my mentees?  I did not jump at the opportunity, but I did mention my dilemma to our librarian/media resource teacher, and she encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone.  I decided to take a leap of faith and sign up to be a mentor.  There was no guarantee, after all, that I would be selected.

Well, I am now a virtual mentor to Natalie, Scott, and Jeff who live in Montana, Washington, and British Columbia. We are learning together . . . and I am certainly enjoying the experience.  I felt my mentees' excitement when they shared about their first days of school, and it was coincidental that two of them showed the same video to their staff!  (I viewed it and applauded their choice.)

What I'm learning from this experience is that there are so many opportunities for educators to grow professionally.  The SAVMP community has outstanding members, and I enjoy reading other blogs and realizing that many of us share similar challenges as we seek to positively impact education, not just at our school, but globally as well.  I hope to share my experiences with my principal friends, and maybe I'll be able to convince others to join me as mentors or mentees in this virtual community.