Parson Hills Elementary School in Springdale has always embraced a “whole child” approach to educating its students. Recognizing the need to help students and families address basic needs and emotional issues, the school offers community resources ranging from free dental care to a food pantry and a clothes closet.
In the past two years, the school’s staff members have come to realize that reducing absenteeism is key to their mission of serving the whole child. Chronic absence – defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year – is not only a warning sign that a student might fall behind in schoolwork, but also a tip-off to possible problems at home. “I find that with some of the more chronic cases, a lot of our parents live in survival mode,” said Eduardo Nava Jr., counselor at Parson Hills.
The increased focus on attendance has led to a drop in the school’s chronic absence rate from 14.9 percent of students in 2012-13 to 5 percent in 2014-15.
Parson Hills’ approach begins with an emphasis on rewarding good attendance. A bulletin board near the office shows attendance rates by class. Every class with perfect attendance for the day receives a “Panther paw.” The class with the most Panther paws at the end of the month is rewarded with ice cream and/or kids-meal certificates, and other prizes. The class with the best attendance for the school quarter wins a party of their choice. Pizza, ice cream and movies parties are among the most popular choices.
Regular character assemblies emphasize attendance and other school themes. Parent events and festivities also include attendance components. The students of Parson Hills come from diverse backgrounds: Fifty four percent Latino, and 26 percent come from the Marshall Islands. Seventy nine percent of students are considered English language learners—and, unfortunately, the effects of chronic absence fall especially hard on these students. With this in mind, Parson Hills identifies attendance issues within ethnic groups and works to addresses them in a sensitive way.
Marshallese families, for instance, often take children out of school for a week-long religious retreat or a two-week funeral celebration, according to Nava. He said the school is working with churches to schedule some events when school is not in session.
Nava also tries to understand issues on a family-by-family basis. The cause of absenteeism, he said, can be as simple as a mother who works the graveyard shift and falls asleep before taking her children to school. Or it can reflect a complex web of problems driven by a parent’s depression or substance abuse.
Biweekly, Nava pulls a list of students with too many absences and shares it with teachers. Attendance also comes up at meetings of the Response to Intervention (RTI) team, which meets twice a month to talk about academic concerns and other issues affecting the whole child.
Teachers make the initial calls to parents, because the school has found that parents are more likely to listen to teachers’ advice and feel less intimidated by the call. If attendance doesn’t improve, Nava and then the principal make calls, which become increasingly serious. A community liaison reaches out to Marshallese families. If the school can’t reach families, Nava and others will visit the homes.
“Parents will say, ‘Well I called in,’" Nava said. “There is still a misunderstanding about the importance of attendance for kindergartners.”
Parson Hills has also launched a mentoring program that connects teachers with about 30 students who have poor attendance records. AmeriCorps workers, who tutor the children and help with home visits, support these efforts. The school nurse has access to social-service funding, which she can use for any student who needs help. This can include glasses, prescription medicine and dental care. Parson Hills offers some school-based mental-health services, too, through outside organizations such as Ozark Guidance and YouthBridge.
In the most severe cases, the school will file a Families in Need of Services petition and take the family to court, making a case for educational neglect. Nava says he hopes to avoid court action, but has found that many families actually make progress after the court intervenes.
“I tell them, ‘You realize we (the school) will have to report you. We can't have all these attendance issues. The principal will make the final decision as to when we will have to report you, but I will go with you. However, if we do go to court, I will be there too as a witness.’” The judge in court is a good ally to Nava, often helping to get families into counseling rather than charging them.