Attendance is down in the St. Joseph School District



The article below was originally shared on the St. Joseph News-Press.

(January 6, 2020) -- While official numbers from December 2019 have not yet been gathered, from August to November, attendance dropped by about 2 percent across the district.

“(That’s) a bad metric that we're not happy with,” Kendra Lau, director of school improvement with the St. Joseph School District, said.

The district aims for 90 percent attendance or above, and while it was able to hit the mark last year with 91.3 percent, it currently stands around 89.4 percent.

Such numbers are putting the Strive for 5 campaign to the test, as the initiative seeks to raise awareness, engage the community, businesses, families and students about the benefits of regular attendance. Celebrations and rewards for classes with stellar attendance have been more frequent throughout the district, yet attendance still seems to be on the decline.

“One of the things that we're doing this year is we're really looking at moving into a phase where we focus on using chronic absenteeism data as one of the metrics to help understand what good conditions are for learning,” Lau said. “And so that has to do with parents, educators, administrators and policymakers.”

And while 2 percent may seem like a small number, Pershing Elementary Principal Tabitha Blevins disagrees to some extent.

“I think we do notice it because that 2 percent represent students,” she said. “Those are the people that we look forward to seeing every day, and when they're not there, we notice it.”

Various factors affect attendance, from illness to poverty, trauma and transportation issues. Yet, when students don’t attend school, their academic future can be thrown into disarray.

A few years ago, kindergartners seemed to be the district’s lowest attenders, but this past year, first- and second-graders seem to be falling behind in this metric. And when it comes to literacy especially, Lau said, that’s definitely a cause for concern.

“We've kind of engaged in that level where we need to create sustain improved attendance, and we can't do that by campaigning our way into good attendance or being punitive,” Lau said. “And so it really does need to be about engagement, and while our approach is still raising awareness and celebrating our wins, it is also about moving into a different phase of how do we create a sustained approach to regular attendance in the St. Joseph School District.”

Research from Allhere.com, an organization that attempts to develop solutions to plan, track and evaluate chronic absenteeism campaigns, states that celebrations, fundraisers and potlucks to encourage children to attend class seem to be having a lower impact as of late. However, goal-setting talks, positive phone calls home and even home visits are having the opposite affect.

“We have a multifaceted approach to those extrinsic motivators,” Blevins said. “In November and December, we had a friendly competition and the winners were able to eat lunch with me, so that was a relationship-building piece (...) But extrinsic motivators run out, so getting them intrinsically motivated to meet the goals that they set regarding attendance and academics is where we will likely find sustainable increases in attendance.”

She went on to say that Pershing is utilizing mentors outside of the classroom for students struggling with attendance, though there are still those underlying factors related to their absence. Blevins said that attendance is just one piece of the puzzle.

“Of our 10 schools that we use as a comparison set that are similar to us as the St. Joseph School District … of that comparison set last year in the statewide and Annual Performance Report, we were the only district that actually was showing progress,” Lau said. “But if the trend continues where we are right now, I might not be able to say that next year.”