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Grand Rapids Gets Behind Getting Students to School


Antonio Zavala is the kind of student Grand Rapids Public Schools has been cultivating recently: the kind who comes to school every day, on time and ready to learn.

The 11-year-old fifth-grader at Sibley Elementary School on Grand Rapids’ Northwest Side is part of a growing number of students missing fewer school days because of a new emphasis on attendance.

Antonio knows why it’s important.

“I want to have a good education and get into a good college,” he said. “And I guess I just like school.”

Mel Atkins II, the district’s executive director of community and student affairs, said the district has seen a 25.6 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism compared to last school year, largely because of new policies patterned after the work of a national organization called Attendance Works. During the past seven years, the group has conducted research on absenteeism and developed strategies for dealing with it, showing that school attendance is critical from the earliest years.

Attendance Works research shows that kindergartners missing 10 percent or more of their schools days start off academically handicapped because they’re far less likely to read proficiently by the end of third grade. Those students are more likely to have poor attendance in higher grades, and chronic absenteeism during a student’s middle and high school years is a proven early warning sign of dropping out of school.

The research shows these factors are especially true of children living in poverty who need school most and often attend school less.

It’s All Data Driven

“We’ve looked at national data, and it clearly shows a correlation between attendance and student achievement,” Atkins said. “The kids with satisfactory attendance did three times better than the kids who are chronically absent.”

The district is taking a four-pronged approach to addressing its once-disappointing attendance issue. First, recognize improvement immediately without asking for perfection, engage parents through its Parent University and other programs, monitor attendance data on a weekly basis and provide personalized outreach early on for those experiencing problems getting to school.

Family support specialists working through Kent ISD’s School Services Network (KSSN) call parents and visit homes when necessary to discover the root cause of attendance problems. The district uses “heat maps” developed by Grand Valley State University that show concentrations of students who chronically miss school, and asks local pastors to talk from the pulpit about the importance of attendance.

“They don’t single people out, but they deliver a message from the community that ultimately supports students and the schools,” Atkins said. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as providing an alarm clock or getting the sidewalks shoveled in a particular neighborhood. Other times it’s something that’s happening in the home, and that’s where the school social workers come in.”

The Proof Is in What Works

Sergio Cira-Reyes, KSSN’s lead community school coordinator at Sibley, made no bones about asking students who received toys as a reward for their improved attendance to tell others how they earned them. He said the district’s successful effort to increase its attendance rate wouldn’t be possible without community partners like Rockford Construction, which paid for a celebration dinner for students with perfect attendance last year and Spartan-Nash, which has provided $25 gift cards to the parents of students with improved attendance.

“The Other Way Ministries and Boys and Girls Clubs, which are right here on the same block as the school, have been great helps,” Reyes said, “and Keystone Church has been with us every step of the way. And it’s paying off. In November and December, our attendance numbers were second only to Blandford (School). Our parents liked that.”

As for some who might say the district is bribing students to do something they should be doing anyway, Reyes said school programs have long received donations from charitable organizations. He said now such donations are merely being targeted more strategically.

“We did it the old way for how many years, and it didn’t work,” he said. “We’re doing it this way now, and it’s working. If we were a private company, is there any question which way we would be doing things: the way that works, or the way that doesn’t?”

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Attendance Works

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