School district’s call to action puts focus on student attendance

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When it comes to success in school, attendance counts, and Cranston Public Schools (CPS) is making sure that everyone knows just how much.

September is National Attendance Awareness month, and CPS is teaming up with school districts from all across the nation to emphasize the importance of regular school attendance and the risks associated with chronic absenteeism to parents, students, community agencies, school faculty and staff. However, the emphasis on attendance in Cranston stretches far beyond the month of September.

Beginning last school year, Rosemary Burns, the district’s data coordinator, began collecting information regarding the district’s levels of student absenteeism, crunching the numbers and spreading the word at the school leadership level. Chronic absenteeism is an issue on both sides of the city, in every school, and affects all socioeconomic levels and demographics.

This school year, an “Attendance Counts!” task force was formed, which includes representatives from the individual schools at all levels, administration, high school student representatives and community partners, all with the same goal – increasing student attendance at school. The group has hit the ground running, and their focus is on analyzing attendance data, building awareness and communicating the importance of regular attendance to everyone, everywhere. A website was created, (http://cps-attendancecounts.weebly.com/) providing tools that can help support the attendance goals of parents, teachers, administrators and after school providers.

“There’s been a whole pendulum shift, a shift in our culture, with the inception of ‘mental health days,’ the use of all sick days whether or not you’re sick, and extending vacations outside of the school vacation weeks,” Burns said. “These types of practices can lead to chronic absenteeism. People need to know that we have a problem, that this is important, but we also need to analyze the data and see the reasons why students are absent. We need to build communication and awareness. Lack of attendance in preschool and kindergarten often leads to a lifelong habit. There’s a correlation between the high school dropout rates and chronic absenteeism.”

A startling statistic posted on the district’s “Attendance Counts!” website clearly illustrates the impact that chronic absenteeism has on student success and education. The statistic states, “When Kindergarten students are absent 10 percent or more of the school year, they are less likely to read at grade level in grade three. When fifth-grade students are absent 10 percent or more of the school year, they are less likely to pass reading and math in middle school. When ninth-graders are absent 10 percent or more of the school year, they are less likely to graduate.”

Currently, the statistics for Cranston student absenteeism are just as startling, with 14 percent of elementary students, 17 percent of middle school students and one third, or 32 percent, of high school students chronically absent per year. Chronically absent is defined as a minimum of 18 days per year.

With the school year back in swing, individual schools have begun emphasizing the importance of being in school, on time, every day. Messages are being delivered during faculty first day of school meetings, school open house events, classroom visits and PTO meetings. An online tool, Get Schooled (www.getschooled.com), allows students to help themselves and their peers focus on attendance. Community leaders are working within their own capacities to deliver the message as well.

Task force member Susan Thomas, senior director of training and program development at the Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership, is hosting an “Attendance Counts!” solutions workshop on Thursday, Sept. 18 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Central Branch of the Cranston Public Library. The workshop will be led by Burns, and will feature several task force members as well as Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist. The group will be exploring the issue of chronic absenteeism and its impact on student success, and discussing solutions and interventions to address the issue and increase student attendance rates district-wide.

As Cranston joins in the nationwide effort to increase school attendance, Superintendent Dr. Judith Lundsten, a national leader and supporter of the campaign, reminds the community that attendance makes a difference.

“Attending school every day matters. I know that some absences are unavoidable, as children will get sick and need to stay at home occasionally. Remember the important thing is to get your children to school as often as possible. I’m looking for great attendance at all of our schools this year,” Lundsten said.

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