ATTENDANCE MATTERS (and is our approach to attendance effective?)
Student attendance matters a lot. Regular attendance predicts student success. Schools can have a significant impact on attendance by assessing their practices and working with parents and the community to privilege education. When parents and communities privilege education they engage in and support such research based activities as reading to children at an early age, setting high expectations for education and talking about those expectations and supporting regular attendance.
Students who attend do better in school. They are more engaged in their learning and are more likely to graduate. This is supported by significant research. Zheng, Samuel. Indeed, attendance predicts achievement in grade 3 and 6 EQAO, as well as graduation rates. In a large cohort study examining students’ achievement from grade 6 to graduation, the following results were noted (figure 1, Zheng)
Attendance Matters – Grade 8 attendance linked to graduation
While schools have a response to attendance, our traditional response is that this is really a parent issue, “you send them and we will teach them!” has typified our thinking. Thus, we have systems in place to call home to report absences. We interview parents about their child’s attendance. For chronic absence, we engage attendance counselors. In a small study in York Region, high school students who had left school were interviewed. They reported that they had never gotten up one morning and decided to drop out. Rather they reported that they had missed a few consecutive classes in a subject, had fallen behind and did not see that they could catch up so dropped that class. They then started to miss the class next to the dropped class, etc. They never decided to “drop out” they simply faded away! They told us was that “nobody came up to me and asked where I had been and invited me to return.” If they had been approached and offered help to catch up, the students said that they would have returned. We can see that sentiment in figure 1. Some students who have missed 16% + days return after 5 years of high school. They signal their desire to graduate even though they have been unsuccessful in their first five years of schooling.
“Nobody came up to me and asked where I had been and invited me to return.”
While it is true that parents share a responsibility for student attendance, it is a joint responsibility. Schools also need to signal that student attendance matters to them, that they care that the students attend. It is the school’s responsibility to support parents by helping them understand the research around the impact of absence. We also need to think about some of our messaging. When we talk about “Play Based Kindergarten Programming”, parents might rightly assume that if the child does not want to go to school, they can stay at home and play. Strategies to support regular attendance include:
- Inform parents early and often about the value of good attendance
- Identify barriers to attendance and partner with parents to alleviate them
- Help parents recognize what they can do to foster good school attendance for their children (Attendance Works)
Schools might also engage in a community planning process, which engages the community to privilege education through a focus on regular attendance. (For a possible planning approach see www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/sihande.pdf)
Figure 1 suggests an approach to attendance. Students who attend regularly are engaged students. Many factors impact on student engagement, family organization, education of the parents, income etc. However, working within our sphere of influence seven factors appear to link to student engagement and thus attendance:
- Overall School Environment – feeling accepted by adults, viewing school as friendly and welcoming, feeling extra help if available, school building is attractive and good place to learn.
- Class Participation – comfortable participating in class activities and discussions answering questions
- Relationships with Other Students – getting along with other students and feeling accepted by students in the school
- Relationships with School Adults – perception of teacher expectations, feeling supported and encouraged by teachers, feeling comfortable to discuss problems with teachers and students’ background being respected by school staff.
- School Safety – feeling safe in classrooms, in different locations in the school building and outside on school property
- Inclusive School Experience – school recognizes and addresses different issues in gender, cultural racial and faith backgrounds and sexual orientation. (Zheng)
Schools, which are intent on improving their attendance, might do an engagement audit whereby staff, parents and students would be invited to assess the school against these correlates. A plan could then be created to address areas identified in the audit. While this approach might improve overall attendance, it is unlikely to impact on the chronically absent student. In a small attendance related project, a case management approach was used. In this approach, staff thought about the correlates and then engaged with the student and their parents to understand some of the issues related to absence. Staff then created an individual plan for that student. Our project identified that even though two students had similar numbers of days absent, the reasons for their absence was unique to them and the response was unique to their situation. We also found that small changes made a significant impact attendance patterns of the chronically absent.
Research supports the statement that attendance matters. It is the responsibility of all engaged in supporting student achievement to signal the importance of education and support regular attendance as well as creating, in schools the most enabling environment through our focus on student engagement. It is everyone’s business.
Zheng, Samuel, TDSB, AERA Conference 2012;
Research Today, TDSB, 2009 Attendance Works (Feb, 2014)
Robert Dunn retired as a Superintendent after 8 years in that role at York Region District School Board. Since his retirement, he has divided his focus between his six grandchildren and consulting with some school districts with a focus on early literacy in First Nations communities, building leadership capacity to use data to improve student achievement and implementing a case management approach to support the achievement of at-risk students.
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