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It’s still 90 degrees here in North Carolina and Halloween seems far off, but the 2019-20 school year is well underway — and some North Carolina children have already missed multiple days of school. The definition for chronic absence in North Carolina is missing 10% of enrolled school days in any given year. That means children who have already missed about two days of school this year may be at risk of chronic absence.

Today kicks off a series of monthly blog posts that dig into some of the information in a recent report published by the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) in partnership with EdNC.org – AttendaNCe Counts: How Schools and Local Communities are Reducing Chronic Absence in North Carolina. This blog series aims to support local schools and community organizations in identifying where they need support and developing the interventions that are most appropriate to their student populations and community needs.

Attendance Works, a national organization focused on decreasing chronic absence, lists five categories of best practices to help schools and communities develop targeted strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism:

  1. Engage students and parents.
  2. Recognize good and improved attendance.
  3. Monitor attendance data and practice.
  4. Provide personalized early outreach.
  5. Develop programmatic response to barriers.

Each post will delve into one of the five categories, analyzing:

  • Survey data from the report that shares current policies and practices in NC elementary schools, preschools and local communities.
  • Related recommendations from the recent report.
  • Local and national examples of schools and community organizations employing best practices.

This first blog of the series focuses on engaging students and parents.

School and community perspectives

The report surveyed 1,500 North Carolina parents, preschool staff, elementary school staff, and community providers, who shared their impressions of their local attendance policies and practices. Respondents rated their schools’ policies and practices (strength, OK for now, could be better, or urgent gap) on two statements related to how schools engage students and parents:

  1. School Environment: Our school is welcoming and engaging. It promotes safety, great teaching and learning, and good relationships among students, families, and staff.
  2. Communication about Attendance Policies: Our school ensures the school district attendance policy is communicated to families through materials sent home, posted on our website, and shared at school events.

School Environment

Overall, respondents felt that their schools are highly welcoming and engaging. It is one of the areas that respondents agree on the most.

  • Strength or OK for now: 85% of respondents.
  • Could be better or urgent gap: 14% of respondents.

Disaggregated results are shared below. Where percentages do not add to 100%, a small percentage of respondents answered “I don’t know.”

By role

Elementary school principals and Head Start, NC Pre-K, and preschool teachers and administrators were slightly more likely to feel that their schools offer a welcoming environment than were parents, elementary school teachers, and other school-based staff. Those working in community-based organizations were the most concerned about the school environment.

 

Parent

 

Head Start, NC PreK, preschool teacher or administrator

Elem. school principal/vice-principal

Elem. school teacher

Attendance staff at elem. school

Community organization involved in elem. school

Strength/OK for now

87%

89%

89%

84%

82%

69%

Could be better/Urgent gap

12%

9%

12%

15%

18%

22%

 

By urban vs. rural

Respondents from urban school districts were less positive about how welcoming they view their schools’ environments than were respondents from suburban and rural districts.

 

Urban

Suburban

Rural

Strength/OK for now

79%

88%

87%

Could be better/Urgent gap

21%

11%

13%

By race

Black respondents were more likely to report that schools need more work in this area than were white respondents. There were not sufficient sample sizes for respondents of other races to make any further analyses by race.

 

Black

White

Strength/OK for now

77%

88%

Could be better/Urgent gap

21%

12%

Communication about Attendance Policies

Overall, respondents were slightly less confident in their schools’ policies and practices around communicating about attendance policies.

  • Strength or OK for now: 82% of respondents.
  • Could be better or Urgent gap: 16% of respondents.
  • I don’t know: 2% of respondents.

Disaggregated results are shared below. Where percentages do not add to 100%, a small percentage of respondents answered “I don’t know.”

By role

Preschool teachers and administrators, “other” elementary school-based staff, and parents had more confidence on this item than do elementary school principals, teachers and staff who work directly on attendance. Community-based organization staff who work in schools were the least confident (and many of them reported that they did not know enough to rate this item).

 

Parent

 

Head Start, NC PreK, preschool teacher or administrator

Elem. school principal/vice-principal

Elem. school teacher

Attendance staff at elem. school

Community organization involved in elem. school*

Strength/OK for now

88%

90%

81%

77%

81%

55%

Could be better/Urgent gap

11%

9%

19%

21%

19%

24%

*21% of community organization staff responded “I don’t know.”

By urban vs. rural

Respondents from urban, suburban and rural school districts all responded about the same for this item.

 

Urban

Suburban

Rural

Strength/OK for now

82%

80%

83%

Could be better/Urgent gap

17%

16%

16%

By race

Black and white respondents answered about the same for this item. There were not sufficient sample sizes for respondents of other races to make any further analyses by race.

 

Black

White

Strength/OK for now

83%

82%

Could be better/Urgent gap

14%

16%

Based on these survey results, the report recommends that elementary and preschools build on their success at being warm, welcoming and engaging to communicate more clearly and in a positive way about attendance policies.

National bright spots

Across the country, organizations are working to engage students and families in a positive, proactive way to foster regular school attendance. Here are some examples:

  • Success Mentors are community partners, school staff, older peers, or transition coaches who are trained to support students who are homeless or in foster care. Success Mentors maintain relationships with school administrators and community-based organizations to support students through multiple channels. As part of an approach to combat chronic absenteeism in New York City, Success Mentors were matched with 10 to 15 students whom they met with at least three times each week. The program reached nearly 9,000 students in New York City schools who were at-risk of being chronically absent. During the 2011-2012 school year, 49% of elementary school students with full-year mentors were no longer chronically absent.
  • AmeriCorps City Year Corps Members mentor students in teams of eight to 12 per school. They partner with teachers and school administrators to provide classroom support for students who are at-risk of chronic absenteeism or course failure. City Year members also connect with families when students are absent to remind families of the importance of regular attendance. In Chicago, during the 2016-2017 school year, students who had a mentor through the City Year program gained an additional 3.5 days in school on average and attended school 5.6 days more on average than their peers without a City Year mentor.
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters Volunteers of the Mississippi Valley has served children for more than 30 years by pairing adult volunteers with children aged 7 to 18. The national organization’s mission is to “build and support one-to-one relationships to ignite the biggest possible futures for youth.” After 18 months of engaging with their mentors, elementary school students were 52% less likely to miss school than their non-participating peers.

North Carolina bright spot

Selma Elementary School, a Title I school in Johnston County, serves 784 students, more than 90% of whom are economically disadvantaged. In order to improve the school’s student support services, the principal made the decision to allocate Title I funds to the salary of a full-time, in-school social worker. Johnston County Schools also provides another social worker for part of each week to help meet the needs of Selma’s students and families.

The social workers help Selma Elementary increase community and family involvement. The team advocates for innovative ways to support families and students, such as Backpack Buddies, classroom contracts inspired by “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” that focus on peer support and accountability to build classroom success, and a county-developed attendance contract for families of students at risk of chronic absence. The staff also meets with families to better understand attendance barriers, outline reasons for absence and get family commitment to improving attendance. Thus far, all families contacted have attended in-person meetings, and on weekly reports, Selma Elementary is seeing improvements to student attendance.


Next month’s blog will delve into current North Carolina school-level policies and practices around recognizing good and improved attendance and share some bright spots from around the country and right here in NC where that work is being done well. Check out NCECF’s AttendaNCe Counts series of reports to learn more about current North Carolina state, district, and school and community-level policies and practices around regular school attendance.

Mandy Ableidinger

Mandy Ableidinger is the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Deputy Director.