When literacy coach Liz Easley first came to work at Marvell-Elaine Elementary School in Phillips County, many of the students couldnﾒt read. Today, 75% of the students recently scored as proficient in reading on statewide exams, and the Arkansas Department of Education considers it an achieving school.
With strong leadership from the principal and committed teachers and staff, Marvell-Elaine has created a positive school climate focused on supporting each child so they can attend school every day. The school was able to bring down its chronic absence rate among students from 18% in the 2012-2013 school year to 7% in the 2014-2015 school year.
Marvell-Elaine Elementary is home to 169 students in grades kindergarten to 6th grade. The surrounding rural community has a high poverty rate, and almost 100% of the children are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Students are drawn from localities throughout the district, and some children travel as far as 60 miles round trip every day to attend school.
The school began its focus on attendance in August 2014 with universal approaches to reach all students. Educators hung a banner in the school cafeteria promoting attendance and a poster is displayed in the office. In 2015, a billboard that emphasized attendance was put up near the town limits.
The school has made attendance a key element of the push to improve achievement. Teachers give out incentives and students who achieve good attendance are rewarded with field trips away from the school. ﾓThe kids put pressure on their parents to make sure they have good attendance,ﾔ said Sylvia Moore, Marvell-Elaineﾒs principal. The school held make-up days on Saturdays following closures because of snow, and parents cooperated by bringing their kids to school for those makeup days. A key to attendance improvement, Ms. Moore said, is that the teachers now understand the value of tracking attendance, and on their own, regularly analyze the attendance data.
Marvell-Elaine also sponsors a summer camp, in partnership with Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center. The program runs for six-weeks and includes enrichment and literacy lessons. Transportation is provided to get the kids to the program that takes place at the school. They added a month-long, pre-K component in 2014, and last summer 100 students attended, including 20 children headed for kindergarten in the fall.
The staff has created a school climate of encouragement, support and excitement over the kids coming to school. To get each day off to a good start, students are greeted each morning by the principal, and sometimes a team of three educators is on hand to say good morning. ﾓThe teachers are excited about learning and are starting to engage in research and other professional development activities for themselves,ﾔ Ms. Moore said.
An essential piece of the attendance push at Marvell-Elaine is strong outreach to families. The school has a fulltime nurse who calls the families of absent students to see if the children are sick and how many days the child might be out of school. Teachers also call the homes of absent children and talk about how too many absences can affect a childﾒs grades during parent meetings. If the principal is out in the community and sees the parents of absent children, she takes a few minutes to help them understand what the kids are missing when they are not in their seats.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program is involved at Marvell-Elaine, and sends out volunteers to locate families that have moved. The volunteers provide indirect services to enrich each studentﾒs learning experience. For example, volunteers handed out books and nutritional snacks during last yearﾒs Christmas party. During the Spring Break, VISTA volunteers hosted an Easter egg hunt and handed out new books to the kids once more. VISTA volunteers also provide free childcare services when parents visit the school for meetings.
Families have a variety of challenges, including students who have witnessed trauma, or are relied on as caregivers for sick family members. A behavior counselor can intervene when a child acts out in class, or can refer the family to mental health services. The schoolﾒs literacy specialist begins working with Tier 2 students, who need more support to avoid chronic absence, as early as kindergarten, and tries to assess what is going on with children academically.
The afterschool program is also a place for educators to reach out to students. One child who was struggling joined the afterschool program and improved, but a parent pulled him out to do other things as a reward for his achievement. The teachers and others in the school reached out to the parent formally and informally, to encourage the parent to reengage the boy with the afterschool program.