attendance

If 80 percent of life is just showing up, as the witty aphorism goes, then students in the Grandview School District are well on their way to academic success. Attendance, after all, matters. You can’t learn if you aren’t there. It’s really that simple.

As the school year ended this week in the economically stressed Lower Valley community, Grandview has made remarkable strides in cutting chronic absences (missing 18 or more days of school) in half and encouraging consistent daily attendance among students.

Whereas four years ago 88 percent of Grandview students attended class on a daily basis, now the percentage has risen to 96 percent. That had led to a concomitant increase in graduation rates — from 66 percent in 2015 to 81 percent in 2018. And, where the impact figures to most be felt is among elementary school students, whose good habits of regular attendance will help them accelerate learning down the road.

How Grandview accomplished the attendance turnaround is similar to successful efforts in previous years by the Granger and Sunnyside school districts. Namely, they paid attention and followed up on each and every absence, figuring out the reasons for them and taking steps to mitigate the causes for chronic truancy.

If that sounds so simple as to be reductive, well, then let us quote another famous aphorism, that of Occam’s Razor: that sometimes the most obvious solution is the correct one.

These past few years, Grandview changed its policies and mindset. Once sort of laissez faire about absences, especially among younger students, the schools started calling parents after each absence. They employed a van to go to houses to personally pick up tardy and truant pupils. They offered assistance to low-income families via clothes and food banks. They formed a community truancy board to intervene with chronic class-cutters before the final option — state-mandated juvenile court — becomes involved.

Invoking punitive measures, such as hauling families to juvenile court and imposing penalties, has given way to a more holistic, inclusive approach that provides incentives both tangible and psychological to encourage participation.

Several years ago, the Granger School District saw its chronic absentee rate go from 16 percent to 3.6 percent after adopting a nationwide program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which included home visits, daily calls to parents and free bikes to students with a perfect attendance record.

Grandview’s initiative is called the “Strive for Five” campaign — meaning five or fewer absences. It, too, features evening visits by district staff to homes of chronic school-skippers, in which educators can learn the underlying reasons that contribute to students’ absences. In some cases, the issue was something so basic as a parent not sending her or his child to school because of a lack of clean clothes. Hence, Grandview’s implementation of a “clothes bank.”

Programs such as Grandview’s and Granger’s are not so much about scolding families whose children miss class as developing a positive relationship between educator and pupil to make kids want to come to school and feel they are missing out if they stay home.

Numerous research projects have shown that “home visits” by teachers or school district officials spur attendance. A 2018 Johns Hopkins study found that students whose families received as little as one visit from a teacher were 21 percent less likely to be chronically absent than other students. Students who received regular home visits, the study determined, showed increased rates of English Language Arts and mathematics proficiency and had increased likelihood of scoring better on standardized tests.

In addition to performing better in the classroom, students with fewer absences have been shown to develop better life skills. As the study’s authors noted, “Absenteeism contributes to high school dropout rates, leaving students without the academic credentials and skills needed to compete in a 21st Century workforce. Regular attendance is the precursor to the “soft skills” that employers expect and require. Students who do not develop the habits associated with good attendance in the early years will find it difficult to develop them as adults.”

All it takes, sometimes, is a “nudge” to get kids to comply, writes Phyllis W. Jordan, executive director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “(M)any parents are clueless about how many days their children have missed,” Jordan wrote. “Most didn’t think their child had missed any more time than other students.”

As Grandview’s success shows, heightened awareness by families is key to curbing truancy. But, so too is a sustained commitment by educators — from the attendance clerk to the superintendent — to follow through. More districts should adopt this proactive approach.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.