When the state began holding schools accountable for whether or not students show up for school, Bradley Griffin chose to roll up his sleeves.

Griffin, principal of Jones Elementary in Tulsa, already recognized the connection between students’ academic struggles and poor attendance.

So he and his team made some changes aimed at encouraging kids to come to school.

They added rewards and positive reinforcement for the students, who are in grades pre-K to sixth, like brag tags and an attend-“dance,” where students with good attendance earn a dance party.

They started acknowledging students’ perfect attendance each week instead of every nine weeks. That way, there are more fresh starts and opportunities to get back on track.

Bradley Griffin.

They recognized the district’s school bus routes were insufficient and started driving to pick up students themselves.

And the biggest change – the secret sauce if you will – was building positive relationships with the students. Mentors were assigned to students at risk for poor attendance to make sure they especially felt needed and wanted at school.

“All it takes is going and telling the child, ‘Hey, it’s so good to see you here today. How are you doing? How was your night?’” said Griffin, who’s in his sixth year as principal of the school.

Fact: Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, or about 18 days in most districts. That’s an average of two days each month.

Griffin’s efforts are part of a state and national push to reduce chronic absenteeism. Oklahoma is one of 36 states plus the District of Columbia that are measuring chronic absenteeism as part of school accountability under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The emphasis is not without its critics, however.

Measuring chronic absenteeism marks a paradigm shift in how schools look at and think about attendance. Previously, most schools used an attendance rate, an average number of students present within a certain timeframe, like a year or semester.

Jones Elementary third grader Mailyn Veleta-Santibanes smiles at reading specialist Lindsay Wilson after being dropped off at school. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

But schools could have 95% attendance and still have many students missing 18 or more days a year. In Oklahoma, 12% of all pre-K through 12th grade students were chronically absent in 2015-16, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

It also marks a shift from more punitive actions, like truancy, to a problem-solving approach.

Supporters of the measure point to absenteeism’s correlation to academic achievement. That’s evident in Oklahoma: Of the 138 schools that were graded an “F” in chronic absenteeism on the 2018 school report cards, all but 8 received a C or lower in academic achievement.

Which makes sense: When students are absent, they aren’t learning. Two days a month, which is all it takes to qualify as chronically absent, can add up to a lot of lost learning time.

Fact: Chronically absent 9th graders are 10 times more likely to not graduate on time.

Critics of assessing schools based on chronic absenteeism say it penalizes schools for something out of their control, and that it’s another measure of poverty.

“Schools do so much – more now than they ever have – to reach out and engage in ways that used to be beyond the schoolhouse,” said Tyler Bridges, director of school and community partnerships for the K20 Center, an education research center based at the University of Oklahoma. “But, there’s a pretty significant silo of chronic absenteeism factors that are virtually untouchable by schools.”

Students and parents walk toward the entrance to Jones Elementary School in Tulsa. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

There are unstable households, family health issues, migrant students and students with trauma, he said. Schools can work to improve their culture and boost student engagement, but schools should be doing that anyway, he said.

Bridges said chronic absenteeism tracks very closely along poverty lines. And likewise, critics of A-F school report cards have argued they basically measure poverty with occasional outliers.

“I also see the frustration of some schools that just have so many barriers in their student population that they just have no control over,” Bridges said.

Why Kids Are Absent

Kids are missing school for a multitude of reasons, and the new chronic absenteeism measure doesn’t differentiate between excused and unexcused.

Fact: Absenteeism starts early. One in 10 kindergarten and first grade students are chronically absent.

The number one issue is illness. One district addressing those barriers is Norman Public Schools, which partnered with the Norman Regional Health System to pilot a telehealth program in several schools. With a parent’s permission, school nurses can conduct a virtual visit with a doctor, the student and sometimes the parents via a video conference.

The idea is to get the child seen and treated without leaving school, if possible.

In Central Texas, an immunization campaign brought flu shots to schools; schools with the highest vaccination rates also had the biggest drops in absenteeism during peak flu weeks, according to Attendance Works, an organization that provides resources to schools to reduce absenteeism.  

Another major barrier to school attendance is transportation, and districts have addressed it in various ways, including giving kids city bus passes and, like the Safe Passage project in Chicago, hiring adults to keep students safe on the walk to school.

Second grader Elaine Jiang gets out of a minivan during morning drop-off at Jones Elementary School in Tulsa. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Beyond Money

Of course, many of those programs require a financial investment, and schools have often partnered with nonprofit organizations to make that happen.

But there are free or inexpensive initiatives that can make a big difference, too, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.

Fact: By sixth grade, chronic absence become a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

One is nudges for parents, which can be as simple as a text message or postcard informing them how many days their child has missed. Parents are often unaware of how many absences have accumulated when they occur sporadically.

Some schools have used gimmicky strategies like a raffle, food trucks at school or an impromptu concert, but Chang says those aren’t proven strategies. Regularly incentivizing good and improved attendance, and building relationships with students, are. And, she said, it helps to have stable leadership within a school to bring about change.

“What’s good about accountability is it brings this issue up as a priority,” Chang said. “This is a solvable problem as long as people keep in mind … the solutions take time to unpack and address what’s keeping kids from coming to school.”

At Jones Elementary, their efforts resulted in a nearly 10% drop in students who were chronically absent last year — a big victory for an urban elementary school where 92% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Even with the improvement, one in five students was chronically absent last year. Griffin knows they have more work to do, but he’s celebrating their success.

“With just putting forth some effort, we’ve defied those odds,” he said.

For more information, visit www.attendanceworks.org.

Reach reporter Jennifer Palmer at jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org.

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