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Attendance Matters: New District 196 initiative aims to keep students in class

A new campaign in District 196 is giving administrators and educators a renewed opportunity to dig deeper into the reasons for unexcused absences in an effort to keep kids in the classroom.

The Attendance Matters initiative uses research and resources from the national Attendance Works program to highlight the seriousness of chronic absenteeism and the effects it has on learning, as well as strategies to improve attendance.

“Students who are absent miss out on valuable learning activities with the teacher and their peers,” said Eastview High School Assistant Principal Jodi Hanson, who is leading the effort. “Even strong students with good grades can fall off course in middle and high school if they miss too many classes. And while students may be able to make up assignments from days they were gone, they cannot make up for the missed instruction, discussion and classroom experiences.”

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more days of class. In District 196, 13.6 percent of students were identified as chronically absent last school year, just slightly lower than the state average of 14 percent. But across the country, school districts are seeing a rise in chronic absenteeism at all levels. Consistent attendance is one of five indicators that school districts will be rated on in the state’s accountability requirements under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law.

“Schools have always tracked and examined school attendance data,” Hanson said. “And our interventions were mostly focused on students who were absent without an excuse, or truant. But now we’re also looking at the potential loss of learning resulting from a combination of all absences.”

In District 196, a student is referred to Dakota County Social Services when they reach seven or more unexcused absences, in accordance with the state truancy statute. Teachers and administrators work with these students and their families to provide resources to help them be successful.

“While we’re obligated to report the unexcused absences, it’s less about the punitive response and more about recognizing and remedying the negative behavior,” said Lauren Trainer, principal of the School of Environmental Studies. “We also want families to know that they aren’t alone in this. We understand there will be absences, but we are also a resource if they need help.”

‘Proactive’ approach

The intent of the Attendance Matters campaign is to spread awareness and help students build positive school habits. Trainer said teaching students early about the importance of being in class is a core philosophy. Students in formative grades are learning key concepts that create their foundation for future learning, and even missing one or two days every few weeks can be detrimental to their learning.

The campaign will complement what the district already does to encourage consistent attendance. Beginning in early childhood classes through ninth grade, students start the school year with a dedicated literacy unit focused on the idea of community. Trainor said it teaches students responsibility and accountability, and the importance of being a constructive member of a group. Elementary and middle school students are immersed in the CHARACTER COUNTS! framework in which they learn about positive behavior strategies and how to foster an inclusive classroom climate. And at all levels, educators rely on the conscious discipline model, which takes an innovative approach to addressing behavior issues by using misbehavior as opportunities for growth instead of punishment. Most recently, while in her role as special education director, interim Superintendent Mary Kreger advocated and received funding for teachers at all schools to participate in professional development related to the diverse social-emotional learning needs of students.

“We firmly believe that students who feel like a valued member of a positive school community are more likely to be engaged and attend,” Trainer said. “This translates into successful students, not just academically, but socially as well.”

The Attendance Matters campaign kicks off this month as part of national Attendance Awareness Month. The campaign will initially focus on awareness messaging through social media and will eventually include posters, flyers and school-specific incentives for good attendance. Hanson said once the initiative is off the ground, she hopes to partner with other community organizations. Click for more information about the Attendance Matters campaign.

What you can do to help prevent chronic absenteeism

  1. Talk with your child about the importance of showing up to school every day.
  2. Help your child maintain daily routines, such as finishing homework and getting a good night’s sleep.
  3. Avoid medical appointments and extended trips when school is in session.
  4. Don’t let your child stay home unless her or she is truly sick.
  5. Know your school’s attendance policy and stay on top of attendance records.
  6. Ask for help if you cannot get your child to attend class.