As schools report enrollment data this fall, it’s understandable why some school leaders might be a little nervous.
Enrollments are down across the country. A recent U.S. Department of Education report found that one in eight students missed 15 days or more of school. That’s astonishing. It’s also troubling, especially considering that states like Michigan and others have moved to make state funding contingent on attendance.
Absenteeism is a national problem, but it affects every local community differently.
When Tuscaloosa City Schools (TCS) in Alabama examined attendance numbers a few years ago, the challenge was obvious.
In the 2013-2014 school year alone, the district reported more than 84,000 missed school days. These figures included excused and unexcused absences, as well as suspensions. Perhaps more troubling—some of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism were found among the youngest students, including pre-k and kindergarten.
In an attempt to stem the tide, TCS introduced the HERE campaign, a PR effort with the goal of lowering student absences and raising awareness about the importance of attendance among students, parents, and the broader school community.
HERE, short for “Have Everyone Ready to Educate,” was based on a simple premise: When roll is called, students should be there, ready to learn, TCS Public Relations Coordinator Lesley Bruinton told TrustED.
The use of the word “everyone” placed responsibility for attendance not only on students, but also on teachers—and, it reminded parents that they too had a part to play.
The campaign sprang from attendance data the district collected, and it focused on appealing to different audience segments.
Through a series of television PSAs, wall and window decorations, yard signs aimed at specific schools, social media messaging, and other outlets, the HERE campaign sought to remind the local community that students can’t succeed if they don’t attend class.
The campaign also encouraged schools to share attendance data and hold students accountable. And, it encouraged parents and other community members to make attendance a priority at home.
In the end, Bruinton says the HERE campaign was successful in raising awareness about student absenteeism, helping lower absences in the district by nearly 2 percent.
Going forward, Bruinton says there are opportunities for the district to engage the community even further around this critical issue.
1. Encourage individual schools and community members to take ownership.
A top-down awareness and messaging campaign by itself can do only so much, she says. To have a real impact, students, parents, community members, and school staff need to be invested in the idea.
That might mean sending social workers door-to-door to check on students and families. It might mean working with elementary school principals or teachers to introduce classroom lessons and ideas that embody the importance of school attendance, and its relevance to future success.
TCS is considering the development of a new virtual dashboard that will highlight district attendance as a way of raising awareness and of holding educators and others accountable for driving attendance numbers up.
2. Make attendance campaigns ongoing, sustained efforts.
Who says your attendance campaign has to stop?
School districts should constantly engage students and families over this and other chronic issues.
“Some people think that a catchy slogan and branded materials will automatically make the absence numbers go down,” says Bruinton. But a full-fledged, ongoing effort is needed to make a real dent in these kinds of problems.
Whether through in-person meetings or online community forums, make sure your community has a platform to offer suggestions, engage in constructive debate, and submit ideas and solutions to help solve the problem.
3. Remember the why, not the what.
When it comes to awareness campaigns, it’s easy to put a plan in place simply to check a box, says Bruinton.
But you won’t succeed if you are simply going through the motions.
Before, during, and after your next attendance campaign, assess your progress compared with your goals and make sure your strategy and your actions are still in line. That means gathering data and doing some rigorous analysis.
At TCS, educators used community surveys to determine if the HERE campaign was working. A new strategic plan will be used to help inform future campaigns.
Is chronic absenteeism a problem in your schools? Does your state tie funding to school attendance? If so, how do you deal with that? Tell us in the comments.
Want more on this topic? Check out these three simple steps for fighting absenteeism in your schools.