|Roll call part II
Author: Jennifer Van Buren
Respect me for who I am, require me to do my best and give me the help I need to achieve it.” In a series of interviews, high school students, regardless of background or environment, all responded with this same general sentiment (Brush & Jones 2002).
The October “Learning Curve” column focused on the impact of average daily attendance (ADA) on school funding, which concluded simply that when a student misses a day of school, the district will lose between $40-$45. This month we will focus on ways a community can help improve attendance.
Although funding is always a driving force for change, academic achievement is the most important reason for getting kids to school. Children with chronically unexcused absences are also at risk for having more serious behavioral issues such as substance abuse, involvement in criminal activity and incarceration.
In order to improve attendance, schools are tasked with finding out why their students are not showing up. This seems obvious, but oftentimes policies are punishment-based and do not address the underlying causes that keep students away from school. While individual students and schools may have specific issues concerning missing school, there are several common variables that are general predictors of absenteeism.
Beyond “the dog ate my homework”
Chronic absentees are more likely to be in the midst of family conflict; they perceive their parents’ discipline as lax or inconsistent while believing their parents are attempting to exert control over them. They are less likely to have a positive perception of school and more likely to feel academically inferior and socially incompetent.
Other commonly cited reasons students with chronic absences have given for not attending school:
Feel unsafe in school
View classes as boring or irrelevant
Do not have positive relationships with teachers or other students
Cannot keep up with work or were failing (without adequate opportunity for help)
Find classes not challenging enough, with too many worksheets and busywork
Cannot work and go to school at the same time
Imagine coming into work greeted by a coworker who bumps you with his shoulder, sending you careening into a wall, then pelts you with a series of insults. Then your boss berates you for not finishing an impossible series of tasks. You ask for guidance and assistance but are given none. Your chair is unstable, the light above your desk flickers and since the air conditioner is not working, the room temperature rises to 90°. The entire day passes and not a single person seems happy to see you. Your elderly grandmother moved into your home and you worry she is not safe home alone, and on top of that, you fear divorce is inevitable. You hate this job. It is unchallenging, yet no matter how hard you try, you can never gain the approval of your superiors.
What are your options here? Look for a new job? Call in sick whenever possible? Go numb and muddle through? Put on a happy face? What could a child do in similar academic situation? Something to think about!
Making progress and being progressive
Students and their parents are ultimately responsible for the child’s attendance, however, it is the school’s responsibility to make school a place where children feel safe, supported, appreciated and challenged. Simply punishing the child and family for absenteeism is not adequate, is often ineffective and can even backfire.
Support and structure are important.
Are students with chronic absenteeism counseled? Are phone calls to their homes made? Is good attendance valued and rewarded in the school and classroom? Is there instructional value during the school day? Are classes challenging and interesting enough for students to be motivated to attend?
One might ask how schools afford these measures to improve attendance such as counseling children? The question should be, how can schools not afford to counsel children? At a daily loss of $45, having a supportive adult sit down for 15 minutes would be well worth the time, because this simple act could make all the difference. Home visits may also be helpful in encouraging parents to be more involved and in reinforcing responsibility. During home visits, parents may be more likely to share with the school instances of bullying, difficulties with transportation or a need for social services.
Clear and consistent communication with families concerning the importance of children attending school is also critical. Most local school districts have online attendance systems in which parents can easily monitor their student’s attendance in each class. It is a parent’s responsibility to know and adhere to school attendance policy.
Get the message and get out the door
The Austin Independent School District’s attendance campaign “Every Day Counts” includes an online attendance tool kit found on its website. The district offers the following advice for parents:
• Get your child to school on time every day and make sure homework assignments are completed on time
• Absences due to car trouble, a late bus and bad weather are considered unexcused and will go on your child’s permanent record
• Extended vacations, long weekends and frequent doctor appointments scheduled during school hours will cause your child to fall behind in class
• Follow the proper school guidelines for reporting excused absences in a timely manner
• Allow your child to stay home only when he/she has a contagious illness or is too sick to be comfortable
• Make sure your child exercises, eats a balanced diet and gets plenty of sleep. This will help him/her to be mentally and physically ready to learn and strengthen the immune system
• Give your child enough time to get ready for school in the morning. Prepare lunches, pack school bags and lay out clothing the night before
Community members can also help. Businesses close to schools can forbid students to congregate at their business during school hours. Faith communities can provide mentoring and tutoring and can work with families to address solutions. Health care providers can offer more appointments after school hours. Employers can be sure their school-aged employees are not forced to choose between job and school responsibilities.
Woody Allen is quoted as saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” As adults, we show up for students when we provide the means to get them out the door on time every day and instill in them the value of being present. It is our responsibility to provide a learning environment in which students feel safe, valued and challenged and to offer appropriate help whenever help is needed.
Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown mother of three school-aged children.