By Teachnet Contributor, Michelle Miller, LSCSW, School Social Worker, Wichita Public Schools, Wichita, KS
Poor attendance by students is a difficult problem to tackle. However, it is increasingly important to deal with it due to the simple fact that if students aren’t in school, they are not learning what is being taught. It is also problematic in the sense that chronic poor attenders often drag down attendance and performance data for schools. In an era of increasing accountability, this is exactly the opposite of what most districts need.
In my experience, attendance is often a symptom of some other problem within the family. It is not our job to fix the problem. It is our job to help families stretch and make changes so that attendance improves.
Here are some basic things teachers can do to tackle attendance:
- The starting point is to be familiar with state attendance guidelines. How many days must be missed before the child is legally truant? Are these days consecutive or cumulative?
- The second item one needs to be aware of is the school district’s policies on attendance. Does the principal of the school define excused versus unexcused? Can doctor’s notes be required? Is there a school Social Worker or other support staff to refer to? What resources does the city or county have for truancy?
- Look through the student’s cumulative folder. This is an important piece that is often missed. What is the attendance history? Is there a history of attendance concerns or have they just begun? If they’ve just begun, visit with the parent about the fact that this is new. If it is a new concern, there may be family problems or the child may be skipping school without the parents knowledge. (Kids can be very sneaky!)
I have noticed that in Elementary Schools, attendance is less of a problem in classes where the teacher begins the year demanding good attendance. Make it clear that it is a priority. These teachers will typically contact the parents at the first sign of poor attendance through conferences, phone calls, or a letter. I suggest sending a letter through the U.S. mail versus sending it home with a student in this type of situation. Bottom line, these teachers set up an expectation of good attendance with parents from day 1. I spoke with a teacher yesterday who took homework to a missing student on her way home due to concern about attendance. Yes, she shared missing work, but she also found out the cause of the attendance and gave a good message to the family that she was not going to ignore poor attendance. I would suggest that contacting the parent at the first sign of trouble is a great starting point for teachers for intervention.
Teachers could save time by having a form letter expressing concern about attendance. It’s convenient to have this letter on the computer. A copy of this letter in the cumulative file is also great documentation of things you have tried. This is an example:
To the Parents of _____________ :
I am concerned that ______ has missed _____ days of school. Please call me at __________ or come by the school to let me know what has caused the missed days.
Let ______ know that we miss him/her and we look forward to [ his/her ] return to school.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
There are many things that one can do to strengthen this letter if needed. Lines such as “it is impossible to ensure educational success for a child when he or she is not in attendance consistently” or “if poor attendance continues, I will need to turn this case over to_____________” may be included. (I don’t see this as a threat; it
is simply letting the parents know what you will do in case of no improvement.)
In cases where parents can’t get their kids to school due to no working vehicle and/or cold weather, teachers may ask how they get to the grocery store or church? Would that person be willing to help? What neighbors are around? Could they pay a small amount to that neighbor for taking and picking up until the car gets fixed and/or weather warms up? If parents don’t know this neighbor, they could ride with the
neighbor and kids to and from school. Of course, the most obvious solution in this scenario is, are there any other kids who come to this school in the family’s vicinity? Could they ride with them? I urge parents to have a back-up plan for cold weather and cars not starting.
These are just some ideas for handling attendance at a classroom level. Yes, they take time, but if a teacher can get expectations established about attendance early on, there will be much less trouble down the road. Make sure to document any calls, conferences, or letters regarding attendance. Copies of letters should be put in the cumulative folder if district policy allows. Remember, if it’s not documented, it didn’t
happen. Let Teachnet know if you’d like more information on attendance or an article on teaming for attendance through teachers, school social workers, and school nurses. We’ve done some effective teaming here in Wichita. Good luck! Wishing you “many happy attenders.”