Missing school quickly adds up to lost learning

ISD-wide campaign launches to draw awareness, reduce absences

Years ago, while teaching automotive service at Kent Transition Center, Mark Larson helped one of his students find employment, and the student loved that job, he recalled.

About a year after he graduated, he visited Larson and told him he lost the job. “They said I missed too much work.”

But it wasn’t that much, the student insisted: “Just like in school: every other Friday.”

It’s that sort of chronic absenteeism, defined as 10 percent of missed school time or 18 missed days per year, that Larson, now Kent ISD’s truancy and attendance coordinator, hopes to target with the recently launched “Strive for Less than 5” campaign.

All Kent ISD school districts have come on board with the campaign which, as the name implies, encourages students not to miss any more than four days of school per year. It was adapted from successful work already done by Grand Rapids Public Schools in conjunction with Attendance Works and the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation.

GRPS and the foundation shared its materials with Larson and Kent ISD colleagues, who then created the ISD-wide campaign. The foundation also contributed funds toward the materials.

Students who helped make the Strive video strike the “less than 5” pose

Absence Makes the… Grades Flounder

Larson said “Somewhere along the line, the perception of school attendance changed from one of primacy — you attend school unless there’s a reason not to — to one of ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter if you miss school, as long as it’s for a good reason.’

“And that’s not true. What we’re learning is any absenteeism, for any reason, is harmful to the learning process.”

Last year, 12.1 percent of students in Kent ISD schools were chronically absent, down from 13.9 percent the previous year. Statewide, 15.6 percent of students in public school districts were chronically absent last year.

The harm from school absences is measurable, said Larson, whose work has become increasingly data-driven. Every 10 days of absence, he said, equates to a drop in one full letter grade. In as little as five absences, Larson said, there can be a drop in standardized test scores. Declines in grades and graduation rates are evident at 10 percent.

“Any time there’s chronic absenteeism from school, it’s typically a symptom of something else. Our approach is, ‘how can we help?’” — Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools

Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, said that a few missed school days here and there may not seem like a big deal to a family, but it can quickly put a student on track for truancy.

Bill Fetterhoff, superintendent of Godwin Heights Public Schools, stressed the need for what he called “bell-to-bell teaching.” It goes beyond absences, he said: “To start late or leave early can be devastating to learning.”

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston says that absences can be indicative of a variety of challenges that students and families face

A Symptom of Something Else

“It’s not new information that kids need to go to school,” Polston said. “Our parents say the same thing.”

But, he said, issues such a transportation and physical and mental health can be barriers to attendance. Whatever the problem is, Polston said, chances are he’s heard it before. That’s why districts are connected with wraparound services such as mental health services or bus passes — whatever meets the need.

“Any time there’s chronic absenteeism from school, it’s typically a symptom of something else. Our approach is, ‘how can we help?’”

Polston said that with a few exceptions, unless a student has a sustained fever of more than 100 degrees or is vomiting, they need to be in school.

A “Strive for Less Than 5” message hangs at the entrance of Kelloggsville Middle School

Spreading the word

Getting the word out about Strive looks different, depending on the district. Kent ISD created communication plans and materials  — stickers, videos, posters, and billboards, for example — to help schools spread the message.

At Godwin Heights, Fetterhoff said, some schools are using those materials and others are using novel tactics to increase attendance. North Godwin Elementary, for example, is targeting families with a history of absenteeism with a rewards program that awards gift cards for attendance. Polston said teachers throughout Godfrey-Lee have offered incentive and recognition programs to students for attendance.

While the coordinated public information campaign is new, absenteeism has long been a focus for the region’s superintendents, Fetterhoff said.

A campaign billboard design: Kent County residents may notice an increased presence of “Strive for Less Than 5” materials now that the effort is area-wide

“I don’t think our philosophy has changed at all,” he said. But when it comes to the regional approach to Strive for Less Than 5, “to have a universal definition, and a universal message with universal support, is very advantageous for everyone.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio.

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