Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Be There or Be Square

This morning I read an article from a small New Mexico town about increasing its school attendance.  Here are my thoughts (the article is pasted below my comments):
One of my beliefs about improving low-performing schools is that it requires students to spend more time learning... longer school day, longer school year, more time on homework.  Yes, I think there are improvements that can be made given the time that students have in school - but I don't think those improvements will really close the achievement gap by much.  Part of what enhances students' performance in high-income areas is their access to things like vacations to new places; trips to museums, plays, etc.; music lessons and so on - learning experiences that happen outside of school walls.  Low-income students have an equal number of learning experiences - just not the kind that are usually valued by school systems.  If what I'm saying is true, then high-income students spend more time learning the skills valued by public schools.  In order to even things out, low income students need to spend more time in school - not necessarily sitting behind a desk, but doing things like participating in clubs, going on field trips, and using technology.  That many low income students miss so many days out of the minimum 180 is, in my mind, a huge barrier to school success - one that needs to be addressed if low-performing schools are to succeed.
I guess it begs the question, why should the kids be in school more if nothing useful happens there... and then... why do anything useful in school if many of the kids will just be absent and have a hard time making it up.....The old chicken or egg scenario....   It sounds terrible, but I've definitely considered not doing science experiments or multi-day projects because of the difficulties in creating groups when so many kids are absent.  And then what to do when a kid misses?  Not to mention having kids give presentations.  Even though it may not be the kid's fault, it's hard to schedule class presentations when group members are missing.  Or to do things on a computer, where one student has the password and then isn't there so the rest of the group can't do any work for that whole class period.  OK.  Now I'm just ranting.  But, really, attendance is a HUGE problem in low performing schools - at least the ones I've worked in.  One that cannot be ignored if a school hopes to improve outcomes for its students.

Socorro/ Tackling School Success One Absence at a Time

By Suzanne Barteau 

El Defensor Chieftain
August 20, 2011

When school leaders were asked in July what parents could do to help their children succeed academically, almost all of them answered the same way: make sure your children get to school every day, on time, and stay until the very end of the last class period.

"We can't teach them if they're not in class," said Midway Elementary Head Teacher, Cari Scholl.

Reducing absences, tardiness and early pick-ups were top priorities from Zimmerly Elementary School all the way up to Socorro High School.

How important is it that children don't miss school?

"It's huge," said Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Wilson. "It has an impact on both the child who is absent and on all the children in the class as a whole."

When teachers have to take time to help a child who missed classes catch up, Wilson said, it has the effect of taking teaching time away from the other students in the class and slows down everyone's progress.

"Obviously, that's been a part of the profession forever," Wilson said, "But the more lightly we take the importance of attendance, the more disruptive it is to the entire classroom and to the individual child's progress."

If children who frequently miss school are at risk of falling behind, children who are poor are at even greater risk. 

  • According to reports published by the National Center for Children in Poverty in 2008 and 2010, low-income children are not only more likely to have chronic absences, they are also less likely to recover when they fall behind. 
  • Other studies, compiled and promoted by an advocacy group called Attendance Works as part of a nationwide effort called the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, suggest that students who fall behind are more likely to drop out of school.

The Socorro Consolidated School District calculates local poverty statistics from Free and Reduced Lunch forms given to families at the start of every year. A family whose income is 130 percent or less than the Federal Poverty Level — $22,350 for a family of four — qualifies automatically for free lunch. A family whose income is 185 percent or less than the FPL qualifies for reduced price lunches.

"Data we compiled at the end of last school year for the year ahead showed 1,321 students out of 1,928 were eligible for free or reduced lunch," said Associate Superintendent Anton Salome. "That means 600 either were not eligible or didn't fill out the form."

Overall, close to 70 percent of the district's children can be classed as low-income, although the rate is different at each school. Cottonwood Valley Charter School had the lowest rate, at about 45 percent, and San Antonio Elementary School was next lowest, with about 62 percent.

Attendance rates also vary from school to school. Two years ago at Zimmerly Elementary, for example, 34 children out of 202 had more than 20 absences and a couple were absent 40 days or more, Wilson said.

Poverty is not something the schools can address directly, but each of the schools is trying in their own way to improve attendance.

"They all have some pretty unique approaches and campaigns that all have elements of encouragement and consequences," Wilson said. "At Midway, for example, every Friday they have an assembly where they recognize the students, and at Parkview they've had drawings."

All the schools, Wilson said, routinely make phone calls to the parents to notify them when their children are absent.

"We've switched over to an automatic dialer, so we can make those calls immediately, every day," Wilson said. "And then there are the legal requirements in state statute, with letters home and eventually with referrals to the district attorney."

Attendance isn't just a school problem, Wilson said. It effects the community as a whole.

"Attendance leads to graduation," she said. "If kids don't graduate, the economic impacts to the community are huge."

For one thing, Wilson pointed out, the lack of an educated workforce can make Socorro appear less desirable when recruiting new businesses for economic development.

If attendance increases the odds of school success, then school success also increases the odds of lifting children out of poverty. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010 indicated that people without a high school diploma earned, on average, almost 60 percent less per year than people with a bachelor's degree, and 30 percent less than people who had managed to at least graduate from high school. On the flip side, the unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma was three times that of people who had a bachelor's degree.

According to Attendance Works, communities across the country are recognizing that helping parents and schools work on improving attendance is in their own best interest, and are coming up with creative ways to help. In New York, for example, a campaign called WakeUp NYC was launched last year that places automated wake-up calls from celebrity athletes such as Magic Johnson and Jose Reyes to chronically absent students in 25 schools.

In Socorro, parents and business owners are doing their part as well, by donating small prizes to schools that can be used to reward good attendance.

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