“Attendance is one area where 90 percent does not equal an A,” according to Sharif Liwaru, Elementary Schools Director at UNO’s Attendance Collaborative. That is because a 90 percent attendance rate equals 20 days of absence — the number that triggers a referral to the County Attorney as mandated by LB 933.
“A kid missing a couple days of school every couple of weeks may not seem like a lot of days gone, but academically, it has a greater impact than many parents are aware of. There is now increased communication between the school and parents about what it takes to be successful and what attendance expectations are.
“The preferred rate should be 95 percent of the time. Five percent absenteeism is less than 10 days per year. If they can keep it under 10 days, that’s good attendance,” Liwaru said.
UNO launched the Attendance Collaborative in 2009 with funding from Building Brighter Futures as a vehicle to study the problem of high absenteeism and to come up with a pilot program for improving attendance in Douglas and Sarpy county schools. In addition to Liwaru, the team includes Sarah Moore who focuses on middle schools and Nikole Roach at the high school level. The success of local school districts is important to UNO. “The impact of graduation rates is so direct on the university’s applicant pool that they wanted to be involved,” Liwaru said. “They were a neutral party, but still greatly affected by the issue.”
According to the collaborative, every year 1.2 million students drop out of school nationwide, which is 7,000 students every day. The Nebraska Department of Education reports that the statewide drop out rate is 10 percent, but the rate for Douglas County is closer to 25 percent. Absenteeism is the first indicator that a student will drop out of school.
Since its inception, the collaborative has been studying a sample of schools with an eye on developing pilot programs or best practices that can be implemented district wide.
“We are currently serving 18 schools within OPS, three within Ralston and two within Millard,” Moore said. “What we do is provide support at the school level. We don’t work directly with the students. We help schools enhance and create sustainable strategies to improve attendance. We look at what already exists, including state law, district level policies and procedures, and additional strategies they have in place. We examine those with the school and through research of national practices we help enhance those efforts,” she said.
“Through those efforts with those 23 schools we have created a ‘Guide to Achieving Excellent Attendance,’” Roach added. “It’s a culmination of the most effective strategies that are taking place at the elementary, middle and high schools.”
Each building has a School Engagement and Attendance Team (SEAT) that is encouraged to determine what works best for their institution. The Attendance Collaborative serves as a clearinghouse for idea sharing among the various schools.
“We missed you!”
One of the core values of the Attendance Collaborative is positive messaging. “We encourage staff to tell the students ‘We want you here. We missed you,” instead of “Why weren’t you here?” Roach said.
Another value is personal engagement. Teachers and administrators greet students when they arrive at the school building. Home room has been transformed from a place to take attendance into an opportunity for one teacher to monitor and mentor the same group of students from freshman through senior year.
Parents are kept informed about their children’s attendance through letters, phone calls and personal contact. One high school utilizes robo-calls to let parents know immediately if their child has missed a class they were expected to attend.
Additionally, there are four non-profit organizations sponsoring six Youth Attendance Navigators who work directly with students in the schools. Completely Kids is at Norris Middle School. The Urban League is at Monroe Middle School, Benson High and Northwest High. The Latino Center of the Midlands is at South High. The “Y” is at McMillan Middle School. “Hopefully, there will be additional funding to have more YAN’s in the future,” Moore said.
The community is also engaged in promoting attendance through engagement. Mentoring and after-school programs are critical to keeping students interested in school.
The good news is that perfection is not expected. “We encourage schools not to concentrate on perfect attendance,” Liwaru said. “Statistically, there is no academic difference between 0 and 8 days missed. We don’t want people to come to school when they are sick or to miss going to their grandmother’s funeral.”
Graduation rates have improved in OPS by a few percentage points in the past year. “It’s not going to improve dramatically overnight,” Liwaru said. “But we are in this for the long haul.”