Attendance Task Force to explore student anxiety, pursue new initiatives

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As the second quarter has come to a close, the Cranston Public Schools (CPS) Attendance Task Force now has an entire half-year’s attendance data to examine, and has created its action plan for the remainder of the school year.

According to the district’s data coordinator, Rosemary Burns, a great deal of information has been culled from this year’s numbers, further fueling the task force’s enthusiasm for curbing chronic absenteeism and showing the importance of the district’s initiatives, which have only just begun.

“It’s so important to have the leadership going forward with which to focus on and continue the amazing trajectories that we’ve started,” Burns said. “We’ve been able to make a huge impact, much bigger than we ever expected.”

The task force met last week to examine the latest data Burns had compiled, and to choose their focus areas for the remainder of this school year and into the next.

“The big topic that the task force would like to focus on is school anxiety and the possible connections to chronic absenteeism. Task force members Charlotte Josephs, principal of Woodridge Elementary Principal, Deborah Svitil, nursing supervisor for CPS, and Susan DeRiso, director of literacy, and I all went to the Department of Health in Providence and talked about some of the issues affecting absenteeism,” Burns said. “We met with [state Health Director] Dr. [Michael] Fine, and he is very interested in seeing what real data we find in regards to the impact of anxiety on attendance and whether other districts are seeing it. The task force is interested in recommending a focus on anxiety going forward.”

Burns also met with Cranston pediatrician Dr. Richard Onhmacht, who expressed his willingness to help in exploring the issue of student anxiety.

“He said he’d be happy to help support our efforts, whether it be through participation in workshops or focus groups, he’s willing to help,” Burns said.

While at the Department of Health, other topics related to chronic absenteeism were also explored, including this year’s flu epidemic.

“It was determined that the best thing we could do to support their efforts at the Department of Health is to really remind parents of the importance of getting the flu vaccine,” Burns said.

CPS held a variety of flu vaccine clinics at the schools earlier this year in order to help promote the vaccination of students and their families.

“We can also reinforce building positive relationships between the health care agencies and encouraging efforts to have non-emergency appointments take place after school hours,” Burns said.

A new initiative for the district is also being explored which has been successful in other districts, including the nearby district of Providence.

“We’re talking about initiating a very small start of a Walking School Bus,” Burns said. “We need to really look at our data, find a school where chronic absenteeism is a problem with the population of walkers and organize from there. It would include having an adult who will start with the beginning of the route and finish at the end of the route, ensuring everyone is getting to school, knocking on doors if need be, and walking to school together.”

Burns noted, however, that the initiative, even if started small, involves a lot of research and organization. To that end, she has been speaking to two of the women who have been actively involved in the process and its success in the city of Providence.

“They’ve received both local and national training and they will be helping to provide us with guidance and tools, helping us to develop our own tools as well,” Burns said. “Cranston is a part of the Family Care Community Partnership of Rhode Island, which makes it part of the FCCP Zone, a group of organizations and volunteers who help make this initiative successful. It’s important that this be a very carefully thought-out, well-planned initiative, so that we think about what could go wrong, so that things go right. It’s important also to have a plan and then a Plan B for backup.”

Another big piece of the task force committee’s job is exploring Burns’ district data.

As they delved deeper into data for the past two quarters of the 2014-15 school year, many success stories emerged, as well as several distinct patterns. A need for individual recognition efforts was expressed by the task force.

“The task force would really like to further explore what has contributed to the successes of the schools who have shown the greatest rates of improvement, the best attendance rates. They really feel that the individual schools should be rewarded for their efforts, either with a School Committee presentation or a plaque or trophy, or something like that which really would produce even more excitement. The task force has asked me to really go through the numbers and ask the principals formally what they’ve done in their buildings to contribute to their success,” Burns said. “It’s really outstanding what is happening. There are successes all across our district, at every level – elementary, middle and high school.”

In her presentation to the task force last week, Burns noted that the goals set for the end of the school year in the reduction of chronic absenteeism are close to being met, with two quarters of the school year still to go.

She noted several areas of interest when assessing the data for the first two quarters.

“At every level we’ve decreased chronic absenteeism. We’ve reduced it district-wide by 19 percent. However, kindergarten chronic absence numbers are up by a lot since last year. What we’re seeing at the local level is supported by national trends,” Burns said. “If you look at district trends, by and large you see that proportionately, students who are receiving special education services are absent more often, while students who receive English Language Learner services tend to be present more often. Last year, many more girls were absent than boys, and this year they are more even with boys absent slightly more. Grades one and six in six of the 17 schools have higher rates of absence. However, grade six in 11 of the schools has higher rates of attendance. Grade three rates in the higher levels of attendance, more than any other grade. High schools have the lower levels of attendance in grades nine and 10.”

One area of surprise to most was the discovery of the day of the week on which most students are absent, district-wide. The expectation was that Friday would have the highest levels of absenteeism. However, this was not the case.

“Throughout the district, more students are absent on Mondays, and present on Wednesdays, with Thursday being the next most common for absences overall,” she said.

Burns noted that this type of intense data exploration shows the importance of having such longitudinal data to work with, especially for the individual building administrators.

“It’s critically important that this data is analyzed regularly and reported out so that our administrators at the building level have solid longitudinal data to work with,” she said.

The next meeting of the task force will be in the spring, and the group will be working on developing a tool kit to help continue the progress made, including tools for helping with family engagement, student engagement, and school self-assessment, in addition to the other goals and focus areas set forth last week.

“We need to continually measure our effectiveness, improve and keep things that work, or stop doing the things that aren’t working,” Burns said.

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