During the past couple of weeks, I have been “absent” from most of the things I love to do in my life. I have a hip injury that has caused me to take a pause; a forced rest and time to reflect. I am that ’empty seat’ on the plane; you know, the one that you secretly hope to happen next to you when someone doesn’t show up for their flight. Just having that extra space on a plane, as anti-social as that sounds, can be a beautiful thing. This is very different for me. I am usually the one coming down the row at a concert or sports event to climb in to that empty seat beside you that you were hoping would stay vacant. So, what I thought I should write about in this fifteenth blog about improving schools is just this… being absent. How absenteeism by students impacts their learning. Let’s take a look at this issue…
I want to take you back to Jan’s high school. As she continued to work with her leadership team and look at who is in danger of failing courses and not graduating, one of the first things that we noticed was attendance. For some of the students, attendance was a non-issue. They are failing and they are attending on a regular basis. These are the students who clearly need more support, remediation and interventions. They are willing to learn and need more time and attention to help them understand. It might be their study skills,their own lack of engagement or our ability to reach them in the classroom, but they are coming everyday so we have to assume that they do want to learn.
The other group of students that Jan’s team finds difficult to plan for are the students who skip classes or full days. Looking at the “current reality”, some of the seniors in danger of not graduating are not coming to school much at all. One student had missed forty days and still was passing some courses, but not all that he needed. Ok, I can hear some of my friends right now saying… don’t we have another problem? How can it be that you can miss forty days and still be passing at all? Yes, this does bring us to a different discussion; about instruction and assessments. Does a student just have to show up to get a grade? All of these concerns have been discussed by Jan’s team as she continues to drill down in to the data in front of her.
What I appreciate here is that they are facing the brutal facts. They are looking at the data student by student and figuring out the “why”. Why is a student struggling? What are the patterns of attendance, failures, etc. in specific courses or with specific teachers? And, all of this work has led to some critical discussions about the overall messaging in this school about attendance. Honestly, as a student or parent, would you understand how important attendance really is? Who owns the responsibility of student attendance? Doesn’t everyone have a part in this?
I love this sign at Fox Elementary, “we can’t teach an empty seat”. For many teachers, this is the current reality. When students do not come to school, they miss valuable instruction. In elementary schools, this means foundational reading, writing and math skills and when they miss these basic lessons, they fall further and further behind as they move along in their studies. Rates for dropping out of school , non-graduating students and incarcerated young adults can usually be predicted by most schools based on attendance and this starts at a very young age.
There is much written about the disadvantages created at a young age when students can not read and it is extremely tough for elementary teachers to work on literacy skills if students are not at school. These same children are often in homes without books or with adults who also struggled with reading. And, in many cases, the parents of these young children did not have the school experience that you and I did; they did not grow up understanding the value of education and being in school. They know what they know and we have a responsibility to help them understand that this has to be different. So, how are schools working on this?
A few things that I notice that positively impact attendance include paying attention to it, making sure that others know how important it is and having conversations with students and families about it. These may seem like simple solutions (and I appreciate all that schools do with many other initiatives) but I could tell you many success stories when attention is given to truly looking at it and dealing with it. It might be tracked in every school but like any data point, it is only informing decisions when something is done with it. In elementary schools, for example, young parents need help in understanding the critical importance of getting their child to school, on time, every day. I have been told by many parents that when they are clearly informed of the importance, they do more to get their children to school.
One of my favorite memories of the past month is the young mom I met in a school hallway… she was in her pajamas and house coat. When she saw me she stopped to explain that she had overslept but was determined to get her first grader to school on time. She brought him in a few minutes late and told the teacher that it was her doing. She owned it but also did what she could to get him there. The most interesting part of our conversation was that she also told me that on these days, she used to roll over and go back to sleep. She didn’t bother to get up and take him to school if she already knew that they were late. She doesn’t like getting up in the morning however, the school has taken great steps to help parents understand the importance of attendance and she has taken her responsibility in this with serious intent.
I remember learning about a “walking school bus” project in another school. The neighborhood felt unsafe to many of the young children who had to walk themselves to school so grandparents of one child created a “walking bus”, stopping at houses along the way so children could come out and walk with them. This was just what was needed for many of these young families.
I know, in many of our high schools, our students are doing all they can to juggle jobs that support families, take care of siblings and get themselves to school. I see amazing teachers deepen their relationships with these young adults and find flexible and individual ways to support their learning. There is much to be gained in a conversation that creates two-way understanding of both needs and expectations… this can go a long way in helping a student find the motivation to keep on when things are tough. Sometimes we learn about bullying, safety issues and other concerns that may be the real reasons that students are not attending when we truly listen.
Wishing everyone a wonderful safe and fun St. Patrick’s Day! With the luck of the Irish behind me I am hoping to “attend” to my life again real soon! See you next Saturday.