Persistence, sensitivity, connection improve attendance, district finds

Lee Middle School attendance team, from left: Rendel Todd, Marie Geiken, Deanna Mockerman, Libbie Drake and Anna Rivera

Every Thursday this school year, Anna Rivera, Libbie Drake, Marie Geiken, Deanna Mockerman and Rendel Todd met to discuss one thing: getting students in their seats, on time, every school day. The five staffers comprise the attendance team at Lee Middle School, and while their work is always a work in progress, their strategies have yielded big results in a short period of time.

Mark Larson, Kent ISD’s truancy and attendance coordinator, said that when it comes to reducing chronic absenteeism, defined as 10 percent of missed school time or 18 missed days per year, “They’re the poster child.”

For the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years, truancy rates at the school were between 18 and 19 percent. The attendance team convened in the 2017-2018 school year, and the rate dropped to 12.9 percent. That year, said Todd, assistant principal of Lee Middle and High School, the team was, “kind of fumbling through, trying to figure out our processes.”

This school year, the team hit the ground running and the truancy rate was 10.5 percent for the 2018-2019 school year.

Follow Steps, Document

The promising numbers come in the wake of an area-wide campaign known as “Strive for Less than 5,” which kicked off in the fall. The campaign encourages students not to miss more than four days of school per year. It was adapted from successful work done by Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Between the Strive campaign and various strategies employed by the team to reduce absenteeism, it’s clear that there’s no magic to reducing absences. Rather, improving attendance relies on a constant combination of awareness, documentation, outreach and collaboration between staff, students and families. (Oh, and maybe an alarm clock.)

Mockerman, success coach at Lee Middle School, said the Strive campaign was really helpful when school kicked off last fall. “At the beginning, we had a big push for ‘Strive for Five.’ We had the posters up, we were talking with the students, we had the signs up.”

She also monitors attendance and, once a few weeks had elapsed, uses that information to catch absence patterns early and begin the interpersonal work, reminding students, “Let’s make sure we’re here all day, every day,” she said.

Drake, the middle school counselor, owed much of the team’s success in reducing absences to a simple spreadsheet.

“The ISD has very specific steps that you follow (for the truancy process), so we put it on a spreadsheet and made sure before we had our first truancy that we had everything we needed. We documented the date, who did what, and it was a lot easier to keep us organized.”

Having everything in one place — student attendance, who has communicated with the student and family and other relevant information — made it much easier to manage absences and spot patterns of absence for quicker intervention, Drake said.

Mockerman added that leaning on Kent ISD’s human resources — Larson and Truancy Administrative Assistant Tori Stafford, who came to the district to answer questions about the processes — has also been valuable in the effort to boost attendance.

Poor Attendance not the Problem, it’s a Symptom

Geiken, the KSSN community school coordinator, said that meeting consistently every week, even if not all of the team members could make it, was key to addressing absences before they got out of hand.

“Most of the first attendance meetings and the parent meetings that we have (are to) uncover barriers, so it’s not just about attendance,” said Geiken. “It’s many other barriers that the families are facing.”

Those barriers range from transportation, to homelessness, to self-reliant students who need to get themselves to school on time when the adults in their homes start work before they leave. Sometimes, middle school students are responsible for getting younger siblings to a school that has a later start time than the middle school, creating logistical issues.

“That’s really hard when you’re in middle school,” Geiken said.

That’s when the attendance team looks at busing options for younger siblings, or asks, “Can we provide you with an alarm clock?’ or ‘is there a grandpa or grandma who can help?”

Communication is Key

Drake said so many middle-schoolers still depend heavily on parents, so communication with parents is key to improving attendance, as is ensuring that the conversation is less an admonition and more an invitation to collaborate.

“We’ve seen a lot of good improvement, and it really has come from parent communication,” Todd said. “We have not seen much change from a student without having that parent meeting.”

“A lot of times, parents do want their kids in school,” said Drake, who added that students refusing to go to school, perhaps due to mental health challenges, is a real thing. “If a kid refuses and cries every morning, you cannot physically pick up a seventh-grader and drop them off at school.”

In such instances, working with students and parents through Kent School Services Network to provide support is key: “Maybe they need counseling, maybe something else.”

Drake said sometimes “outside-the-box” thinking is crucial to making school more palpable — desirable, even — to students who don’t want to be there.

Todd said that once attendance team members get a chance to sit down with a parent and understand the family’s barriers, they can usually find a solution. Also, helping families understand the link between attendance and academic success improves attendance in most cases.

Rivera, KSSN intern at the middle school, says making a personal connection can be a big motivator for some students to come to school in time.

“There are a lot of students that, once you connect with them, that’s when they understand ‘they care for me.’ They start putting effort into the check-ins or they’ll come in and say, ‘hey, I made it here on time!’”

Finally, Drake said that being sensitive to economic and cultural differences is crucial to working with families in the district, where the vast majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the percentage of English language learners is more than 50 percent, and many families travel to see family in other states around Christmas.

Both Geiken and Rivera speak Spanish, which Rivera said can go a long way to forging relationships and building trust when meeting with Spanish-speaking families. In addition, all communications that go home are in English and Spanish.

The ‘Flywheel Effect’

If there is a lesson from Lee Middle School’s work to reduce chronic absenteeism, it’s that persistence pays.

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort to make the phone calls, have the meetings with the parents, discuss the academics,” Todd said. “Sometimes you call a home 10 times and haven’t gotten ahold of anyone. It may be the eleventh or twelfth call that does the trick.”

To make the kind of turnaround that Lee Middle School has seen, “You’ve got to have a very good team that’s dedicated to what you’re doing,” said Todd.

Larson said the Strive campaign is not a one and done effort: “I don’t think you internalize something like this in one year,” he said. “We’ve had students who’ve gone years with horrendous attendance. That may not change in one year.”

He said he saw a lot of enthusiasm for the campaign, and has seen districts embrace the concept to varying degrees and with varying results. It’s not easy, but it is simple, he said: districts that are getting out the word about attendance, adhering to the truancy process, and working to systematically reduce chronic absenteeism are seeing positive results.

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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 or email Bridie.

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