Campaign to boost attendance sees some success

The Caldwell School District dedicated the 2022-23 school year the “Every Day Matters” year — “Cada Dia Cuenta,” for its many Spanish speakers — in an effort to boost attendance.

This title was the visible crest of a wave that had been building since summer 2017 when school officials began a collaborative effort to make sure that their students were attending school every day, especially at the primary school level.

From January 2023 to this May, Sacajawea Elementary School saw the number of chronically absent students drop by 13% (from 123 to 88 students). Out of their 390 total Sacajawea students, 302 attended more than 90% of school days in May.

While this is still much higher than school staff would like to see, this 22% chronic absentee rate is a significant improvement during the course of a semester. This rate is also lower than Caldwell’s 2021-2022 39% district chronic absentee rate reported last October by EdNews.

“That’s because a lot, a lot of work has happened,” Caldwell School District Community School coordinator Hortensia Hernandez told EdNews.

Idaho’s State Department of Education defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% or more days of school. Attendance is a critical factor in improving student achievement, according to data from Attendance Works, a national nonprofit coalition.

In the 2022-2023 school year, Sacajawea educators addressed absences from day one. When the first absence occurred, officials sent an alert letter to parents. Repeated absences were met with interventions like phone calls from staff and weekly attendance meetings.

“Getting on the front edge of that curve makes all the difference in the world,” Sacajawea Elementary School principal Paul Webster said.

The goal for students is 95% attendance. Sacajawea, however, set the bar higher — 98% attendance (just one student absence or less). To incentivize classes accomplishing this goal, the school presented students with hard hats to show off their hard work, in addition to other incentives that instituted pride in a team accomplishment. As the program has gained momentum in the past five years, Hernandez has noticed the difference at Sacajawea, especially in the amount of kindergarten classrooms that hit 98%.

Teachers at Wilson Elementary rocking their cool hats because their students rocked their attendance.
Teachers at Wilson Elementary rocking their cool hats because their students rocked their attendance.

“Prior years, it was rare we’d ever see a kindergarten classroom meet that threshold. This (rise) is attributed to relationships not just with the kids, but with families,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez began as the Caldwell Community Schools coordinator in the summer of 2017, just after the district adopted the U.S. Department of Education campaign. National Community Schools grants fund student success drives by connecting to hyperlocal needs.

“Community Schools and attendance merge really well together. Attendance is a symptom of everything that we deal with through our community schoolwork,” Hernandez said.

Obstacles to success and attendance in Caldwell schools include access to basic necessities like clothes, housing, food, medical care, mental health counseling, physical fitness, transportation and childcare. Instability and poverty can lead to scattered school attendance and chronic absenteeism.

“It’s really a way of doing things that looks at the main barriers between our kids and their future success,” Webster said. “We look at the resources in our community in and around our school, and outside our school that can help the family and the kids overcome those barriers to be successful.”

Community Schools is a way to connect kids and working families to resources. Reducing burdens makes school attendance easier, establishes school as a place of shelter, helps create a safe space for parents and helps to alleviate chronic absences and poor attendance. At Sacajawea, these issues affect a large student segment.

“From a principal and from a teacher lens, you carry around like this list of kids that are gone too much,” Webster said. “You know that they’re probably not passing their classes, they’re probably struggling on their tests. And you wish they were there more.”

Webster figured there were around 30 Sacajawea students that were chronically absent. When the team pulled the data, however, that number was close to 100 — about a quarter of the school’s population at risk of falling behind critical foundational learning.

Beginning with chunks of 20 to 30 students at a time, staff reached out to families via email, phone calls and home visits. Sacajawea gathered together attendance clerks, counselors and teachers to not only address absences, but to offer support for families.

For Sacajawea leaders, empowering families is a process that involves all staff including classified employees. Bus drivers, for example, are encouraged to encourage kids scared to get on the bus, in part by doling out tokens that can be exchanged for treats and prizes for the ride.

“The best bus drivers interact with their kids,” Webster said.

For the upcoming school year, Hernandez is moving on to work as a Community Schools coordinator on a national level while Webster will move into her old role as Caldwell’s Community Schools coordinator to continue the districtwide push.

Also, this will be the first year that Sacajawea will track student mobility rates in real time — something that Idaho does not require, but Community Schools does. Mobility rates measure the number and percentage of students that enter or leave a school between the first and last of day school. Looking back, officials found that Sacajawea’s mobility rate was between 37% and 43%.

“It’s hard to afford housing in the Valley,” Webster said. “People are working two or three jobs, they’re going from place to place, staying with somebody temporarily, couch surfing, and end up going to somebody else.”

When families are in such flux, they can qualify as homeless, which allows the district to modify bussing routes to get them to school from Caldwell or Nampa. This is not a practical solution, however, when families are forced to moved as far out as Boise or Fruitland.

In an effort to at least keep track of these families, Caldwell connects parents with a community school liaison as soon as they register for school. And the school system will now be able to track mobility after adopting PowerSchool, a new content management system.

This may mean more hours required for school employees, but Webster believes that they are up for the task.

“We work hard to understand the factors or challenges underneath the attendance and to help families connect with resources or make a plan to overcome those barriers or challenges,” Webster said. “Attendance work is hard work, requires quite a few people and requires courage.”

Matt Denis

Matt Denis

Reporter Matt Denis is based in the Treasure Valley and has served as an educator and a journalist. Prior to national digital reporting and founding an arts and culture section in Eugene, Oregon, Matt worked as an English and history teacher in Detroit, San Diego, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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