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For the students at Union Elementary, the promise of a dance party is seriously motivating.

Part of Principal Dondi Hobbs’ strategy for improving regular attendance at Union is to make sure that parents get information about the risks of chronic absence coming home in backpacks, and that students are encouraged to attend regularly and rewarded when they do.

Communicating with families about attendance and encouraging and celebrating students’ good and improved attendance is one way that schools across the country — and in North Carolina — are improving their chronic absence rates. Recognizing good and improved attendance is one of five Attendance Works best practices to help schools and communities develop targeted strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism.

This is the third in a series of monthly perspectives to highlight connections between those five best practices and 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. The 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.

Check out last month’s post on monitoring data to boost attendance here.

School and community perspectives

The report surveyed 1,500 North Carolina parents, preschool staff, elementary school staff, volunteers, 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 a question related to recognizing good and improved attendance:

  • Encouraging Attendance: Our school encourages all students to attend school every day, using year-round communication to families and students (back to school events, letters, flyers, personal phone calls, etc.) and regularly recognizes good and improved attendance.

A little more than half of the respondents feel that encouraging attendance is a strength for their schools, and another 26% report that it is OK for now. Only a handful (1%) report that it is an urgent gap, and 18% report it could be better.

  • Strength or OK for now: 80% of respondents
  • Could be better or urgent gap: 19% of respondents
  • I don’t know: 1% 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 staff (including Head Start, NC Pre-K, and other preschool teachers and administrators) are the most confident in their schools’ approach to encouraging attendance, with 65% of these respondents reporting that this is a strength and another 27% responding that this is OK for now, for a total of 92% who are fairly pleased with their schools’ approaches.

Overall, parents also feel their schools are doing a good job encouraging attendance — 85% report that this is a strength or OK for now. Parents score their schools higher on this item than do elementary school-based staff. And principals and assistant principals rate their schools higher on this item than do other staff, particularly teachers. Respondents least likely to feel that their schools are doing a great job of encouraging attendance are staff from community-based organizations that work in schools (40% report this is a strength) and staff who work directly on attendance in elementary schools (32% report this is a strength).

 

Head Start, NC PreK, preschool teacher or admin.

Parent

Elem. school principal/vice-principal

Elem. school teacher

Attendance staff at elem. school

Other staff at elem. school

Community organization involved in elementary school*

Strength/OK for now

92%

85%

81%

71%

78%

83%

60%

Could be better/Urgent gap

7%

12%

19%

28%

21%

15%

26%

* 14% of community organization staff responded “I don’t know.”

By urban vs. rural

Respondents from urban and suburban districts are more concerned about their schools’ practices around encouraging attendance than are their rural counterparts. While 76% of urban and 75% of suburban district respondents consider encouraging attendance a strength for their schools or OK for now, 84% of rural respondents feel the same.

 

Urban

Suburban

Rural

Strength/OK for now

76%

75%

84%

Could be better/Urgent gap

23%

22%

16%

By race

Black and white respondents rate their schools about equally on this item, with 81% and 79%, respectively, reporting that this is a strength or OK for now. Hispanic respondents score their schools higher on this item than do non-Hispanic respondents — 89% of Hispanic and 79% of non-Hispanic respondents consider encouraging attendance a strength of their schools or OK for now.

Note: this analysis is drawn from a sample size of 37 Hispanic respondents. There were not sufficient sample sizes for respondents of other races to make any further analyses by race.

 

Black

White

Hispanic

Non-Hispanic

Strength/OK for now

81%

79%

89%

79%

Could be better/Urgent gap

18%

19%

11%

19%

Recommendation

Based on these survey results, the report recommends that school leaders build on their success to encourage attendance. As we reported in a previous perspective on engaging students and parents, nearly all survey respondents agree that their schools are doing a great job of being warm and welcoming.

But the data considered in today’s perspective suggests that there is room for improvement on recognizing good and improved attendance. Schools can build off their success in welcoming students and families and making them feel they belong by including supportive, proactive attendance messaging as part of their positive school climates.

National bright spots

Across the country, organizations are working to encourage good and improved attendance. Here are a couple examples:

  • Los Angeles School District Attendance Improvement Program. In 2015, the Los Angeles school district introduced an attendance improvement program that placed trained social workers in 10% of the district’s schools. Fifty-two of those schools were elementary schools, and the social workers focused on kindergarten classes where chronic absence rates were highest. The program incorporated school-based incentives such as candy giveaways, dress-up days, and “move to the head of the lunch line” passes every 25 school days. After a year of the program, attendance for kindergartners in participating schools increased from 37% to 62%.
  • Wolfe Street Academy’s Every Day, On Time, Ready to Learn Campaign. Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, Maryland is a neighborhood public charter school with nearly 230 students, 80% of whom are Latinx. In 2005, about 10% of students at Wolfe Street Academy were chronically absent. The principal started a strategy to encourage regular attendance called “Every Day, On Time, Ready to Learn.” Through this school-wide strategy, students’ attendance growth is recognized through posters, ice cream sandwiches, pizza parties, and Uno cards. Nearly 10 years after implementing the school-wide strategy — which also includes tracking data, partnering with the community, and offering early intervention for students at risk of being chronically absent — Wolfe Street Academy’s chronic absence rate has dropped to 3%.

North Carolina bright spot

At Union Elementary, a Title I school in Sampson County, 70% of students are economically disadvantaged. Principal Hobbs says that sharing chronic absence data with her staff and parents and implementing activities with students to encourage good attendance throughout the year has helped Union improve attendance.

To start, Union Elementary staff completed free, online modules (see above) developed by Attendance Works and the Virginia Department of Education to better understand the implications of chronic absenteeism and how to address it. The school then shared with parents the importance of regular attendance and the school’s current attendance data, which raised average attendance from 85% before winter break to 93% after.

Staff and administrators keep attendance on families’ minds by talking about it at award days and sending home information about the risks of chronic absenteeism. Wall signs encourage and track attendance levels by class, and students can earn rewards including dance parties and gift certificates when they reach certain attendance thresholds.

Hobbs notes that efforts like these can only be successful if they are sustained, so she is careful to only institute programs that she knows can be carried out throughout the school year. Consistent implementation of the programs sends the message to students, teachers and families that the school is serious about regular attendance and ready to support them to make it happen.


Next month’s perspective will delve into current North Carolina school-level policies and practices around providing personalized early outreach to students at risk of being chronically absent and share some bright spots from around the country and right here in North Carolina where that work is being done well. Check out NCECF’s AttendaNCe Counts series of reports to learn more about current state, district, and school and community-level policies and practices around regular school attendance in North Carolina.

Mandy Ableidinger

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