Harriet Thompson Elementary

Students at Harriet Thompson Elementary School in Grandview, attend an assembly in 2016.

The Grandview School District had an attendance issue.

A serious attendance issue.

There were 881 students who were chronically absent from school in the 2014-15 school year — students who missed 18 or more days of school. Just 88 percent of students attended class on a daily basis.

“We felt that we were letting down our students,” said Tony Torres, the district’s graduation specialist.

The absences were impacting graduation rates. Students were falling through the cracks.

Between 2013 and 2015, the district graduation rate hovered around 67 percent, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The district had the fourth lowest graduation rate in the Yakima Valley.

Now, four years later, Grandview is wrapping up the school year with fewer than 400 chronically absent students, and 96 percent of students attend class daily.

Making changes

Torres said the impact of attendance on learning was brought to the district’s attention by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law that holds schools accountable for student success. For the first time, they began analyzing attendance numbers, and then a team of roughly 15 people — now 40 across the district — began making changes.

Starting with the 2015-16 school year, student attendance was tracked meticulously. A campaign was launched to have students “strive for five” — five absences or fewer.

School officials began weekly meetings to assess each absence and make an action plan in case a student needed help getting to school, including house calls.

Initially, there was resistance, especially among elementary parents, where district standards had been relaxed previously. Students struggled to keep up with stricter attendance standards, so the district needed to streamline expectations, Torres said.

The district worked to create a change in culture, encouraging the entire Grandview community to care about attendance, which is linked to higher academic success.

A van was purchased to pick up truant students and deliver them to school. Educators made evening visits to the homes of students missing class. Clothing banks were created at each campus, since a lack of clean laundry was a barrier to attendance, district officials discovered.

Other community resources such as counselors and food banks are part of a database educators can use to assemble individualized help for truant students.

For students at high risk — missing class 18 days or more — a community truancy board was established, creating an additional layer of intervention before the district turns to the juvenile court, as mandated by the state, to enforce school attendance. The board makes detailed plans with parents and tracks students weekly to try to keep them in school.

This is a huge shift from the past, when the court was the district’s default approach, Torres said.

The school also purchased a software system that prompts actions in line with state law, such as contacting parents after one unexcused absence or five excused absences. Torres said this was the only significant cost to the district.

Often, however, improving attendance simply requires better communication with students and parents, Torres said.

In one case, two siblings reported not being able to get to school because a pit bull was blocking their path. When Torres and another school administrator went to their neighborhood, they found the pit bull was protecting a new litter of pups and scaring the students from walking past — an issue that kept them from school for a matter of days but was resolved when the neighbor was made aware.

Results

The results have been astounding.

In the first year of the program, Grandview’s graduation rates rose from roughly 66 percent to 81 percent — sneaking above the state average of 79 percent, OSPI data shows.

This school year alone, the district decreased absences by 12,000, according to Torres.

On Saturday, the district graduated its largest class of seniors.

“Some of the students are success stories that weren’t going to graduate on time,” Torres said. “We were able to support the students (who) were on the verge of dropping out. They were going to fall through the cracks.”

Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, a regional agency working with local school districts, called the district’s strides “astonishing.”

“Districts think we don’t have a lot of control over attendance, that it’s up to the parents,” he said. “But I think Grandview shows that with a focused intervention, you can move the dial. There’s something that can be done.”

Chase said surrounding districts are also prioritizing attendance, with Granger School District having been recognized by OSPI for its improvements.

He said small changes in behavior can make all the difference. A school in Grant County’s Royal School District has seen student attendance in a math class improve because of a targeted effort for math teachers to say five positive things a week to a group of 17 students with attendance problems. Seven of the 17 had dramatic changes in their performance since the effort began, Chase said.

For Torres, these relationship-oriented approaches make all the difference in reaching students and their parents.

“We’re changing the culture in Grandview — I think that’s the biggest thing. Every day matters, every kid matters,” he said. “If we can’t get the kids to school then we can’t teach them.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka