This post originally appeared on our former blog on September 9, 2013. In recognition of Attendance Awareness Month it has been republished here.
By Cynthia Brunelle, AmeriCorps and City Year Boston staff alumna
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit one of Boston Public Schools middle schools, to participate in a report card conferencing event organized by the City Year team serving at the school. This program provides every student in the school with a five-minute, one-on-one conference with an adult to review progress reports, reflect on mid-semester grades and plan for end-of-semester goals. I had the chance to meet Jim*, a broad-shouldered student who flipped his hair out of his eyes while he spoke.
Me: So, looking over your attendance, I want you to look at this box. What does it say?
Me: So, I notice that you have missed 15 days of school so far.
Me: When you look at that number, what do you think about?
Jim: The number is highlighted in red. I had no idea I had missed that many days.
While he started off quiet, I was struck by Jim’s honesty as we continued talking. He told me that he had recently learned that his family would be moving at the end of the year. He said that he liked his teachers and, in particular, learning about the American Revolutionary War, but after hearing the news, he didn’t see the point in engaging in school anymore.
While Jim’s story is unique, he remains in my mind as an example of a child who, regardless of his internal strengths, was overwhelmed by external struggle. Students had a number of reasons why they are tardy or absent. On an external level, some struggles with unstable housing, poor or unsafe travel options, inadequate food or clothing and individual or familial illness. On an internal level, students who were below grade level lost interest in the classwork, fighting with teachers or withdrawing into themselves. Working in tandem, these reasons hinder a student’s ability to be physically and mentally present at school, especially in the deep darkness of cold February mornings.
Absenteeism is a serious issue; students who miss even one day of school miss eight or more hours of instruction and social interaction. Upon returning to school, they struggle to catch up with classwork, to reconnect with peers, and to feel engaged in school culture. Schools across Boston, with the help of City Year and other partners, work with families to navigate internal and external challenges and get students to school on time.
Studies show that students remain and achieve in schools where caring adults look to support them, and we employ a toolbox of tricks to work towards success. Here are 4 “Cs” that guide our work:
Students are naturally competitive, and every year, corps members partner with schools to manage monthly challenges for highest attendance. Students compete individually or by home rooms to win fame, glory, and trophies made out of cardboard. The monetary value of prizes is often less important to students than public recognition, which can be as simple as having a picture of their homeroom displayed in the main office.
Bulletin Boards can be used to display and promote attendance data, combining graphs, goals, and strategies for coming to school on time. Both school partners and families and guardians can be inspired by a display that you build.
You can be the friendly face a student or family member associates with school. Greeting students at 7:00 a.m. was one of the privileges of serving a corps year. I did not realize my own capacity as a cheerleader until I was high-fiving students on their way into the school building every morning. Our principal and other administrators would frequently join us in morning greetings, and students could see that the whole school cared they were here and ready to learn.
Utilize whole-school or one-on-one meetings to recognize students who have shown high engagement and improvement. This will help students (and teachers) feel like they can be a part of school culture and members of a community that is proud of their effort.