The first time that administrators looked at chronic absence data for Monitor Elementary School in Springdale, the response was simple: “This can’t be right,” school counselor Sierra Engelmann remembers.
But as leaders at the northwest Arkansas school dug deeper into the data, they began to see the patterns that contributed to 19 percent of their students missing 18 or more days in excused and unexcused absences in 2012-2013. The data showed rates were highest among kindergarten students and among certain populations, including immigrants from the Marshall Islands.
Monitor Elementary developed a series of positive, culturally sensitive interactions that reduced the chronic absence rate to 6 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Monitor is home to more than 860 students from pre-K to fifth grade. It’s a diverse school where two-fifths of the students are Latino and about one-fifth are Marshallese. More than nine in ten students qualify for federal meal subsidies, and about a third are new to school every year. None of the children live close enough to walk to school.
The school started its attendance push in September 2013 with universal approaches that appealed to all students. Educators hung banners in the school hallways and sent home handouts in several languages explaining the importance of attendance. The handout resonated with parents, particularly its stoplight showing how many absences constitute chronic absence, Engelmann said. After realizing that some parents were reluctant to come inside and deal with the front-office staff, the school trained office workers to create a more welcoming environment. Engaging afterschool programs and clubs helped bring students to school every day.
The school already had strategies in place for recognizing students with good attendance, including an AttenDance for those with perfect attendance for nine weeks. Engelmann started hyping it more to create more excitement. When a class has perfect attendance, it received one of the school’s “duck bills.” When the class reaches 25 duck bills, the students are invited to a duck party.
Beyond these universal approaches, Monitor began focusing more intently on the students missing too much school. When the school’s leadership team meets every month, it reviews absenteeism patterns and assesses the challenges students face to getting to school every day.
Increased outreach to families is essential. Teachers were given the responsibility of calling the family after a student has missed three days of school in the year. If phone numbers change, Engelmann herself would conduct a home visit to talk to parents and share materials. The idea was to express concern and discover possible challenges, rather than to chide the parents. The school nurse coordinated on cases involving illness.
The outreach depends on recognizing cultural differences among families. The school hosts family nights for immigrants from the Marshall Islands and for the Latino community to help build connections to the school. The populations are distinctly different. The Latino population is Central American and mostly literate in their own language. Many of them have been here for more than one generation and are familiar with the education system.
Many of the Marshallese parents are not literate in their own language and are not comfortable connecting with schools and teachers in Arkansas. A community liaison helps school officials connect. “It is a culture that holds personal connection primary,” Engelmann said. “Lecturing is very offensive; but celebrations are very welcomed.” So the school hosts Islander nights, where parents bring food and good attendance is recognized. As many as 200 people have turned up for some of these events.
Because none of the school’s students live close enough to walk to school, transportation is a particular problem at Monitor. If students miss the school bus and one parent had taken the only car to work, they often have no way to get to school. Engelmann talks with families about who else can bring the child to school—a sibling, another parent or a neighbor. At times, she will head out to pick up children who missed the bus.
Some teachers and staff members have agreed to mentor students who are missing too much school. Engelmann hosts attendance circles, where she meets with students to ask what they like about school and what might help them arrive on time every day.
She also schedules conferences with families to talk about turning around absenteeism. In rare cases, she refers a family to court. In many cases, she finds that chronic absence alerts her to a family in crisis, whether it’s homelessness, drug addiction or poverty. The school taps social-service agencies and community nonprofits to help students and families with deeper needs.