Fifteen minutes after the morning bell at Harry Street Elementary School, Crystal Botts sits just inside the front door – smile on her face, stack of tardy slips in her lap – awaiting late-comers.
“Morning, Jesus,” she says to a fourth-grader shuffling toward her. “You’re late. What’s going on?”
The boy sighs. “Waffles,” he says, shaking his head.
“Waffles?” Botts says.
He doesn’t offer details, but Botts and Shanna Nispel, the school social worker, don’t really need details. Two weeks into the school year, Jesus already is one of their regular tardy-slip kids. He’s often late, usually because he overslept, struggled through breakfast or just couldn’t get out of the house and into his mother’s car in time to make the 9 a.m. bell.
This time, he swears, the waffles made him late.
“Every situation is different, every family is different,” Botts said. “My role is to build relationships with the families, let them know this is important and that when their kids miss school, they miss crucial learning time.”
Botts and other attendance coordinators at seven Wichita elementary schools are part of a focused new attack on chronic absenteeism, a habit that day by day, year after year, translates into learning deficits for thousands of Wichita students.
‘Be There’ campaign
Schools define chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of school time, or about 18 days a year. Unlike truancy, which relates to unexcused absences, chronic absenteeism includes parent-excused absences such as those for sickness, medical appointments, family commitments and vacations.
United Way of the Plains this month launched a public “Be There” initiative aimed at raising awareness of the importance of school attendance.
The campaign includes online resources, public service announcements, billboards and a pilot project at seven Wichita elementary schools – Dodge, Franklin, Gardiner, Harry Street, Lawrence, Payne and Stanley – where more than $375,000 in grants is helping to fund Check & Connect, a nationally recognized attendance intervention program.
The message is simple: Be in school. Get your kids to school on time. Make sure they stay through the final bell. Because what happens in the early grades, including kindergarten, affects a child’s prospects in high school and beyond.
The television and radio spots focus on graduation day. While “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the background, a narrator says: “Your child is crossing the stage to get her diploma. She’s high-fiving her classmates. She’s hugging her grandparents. She’s hugging you.
“But that day won’t happen if your child misses too much school.”
At the national level, about one in 10 kindergartners and first-graders are chronically absent, according to a report released last week by Attendance Works, a national advocacy organization. And although much has been written about the correlation between high school absences and dropout rates, new research suggests that attendance trends starting in first grade can predict graduation rates, the report says.
Kids with lots of absences in the early grades – even excused absences – miss crucial reading instruction and are more likely to not read on grade level by third grade. That increases their chances of falling behind in middle school classes and ultimately dropping out in high school.
Unlike many districts, Wichita tracks chronic absenteeism by school and grade level. Records show that overall last school year, about 17 percent of students were considered chronically absent.
Dig into the numbers, and the picture becomes more disturbing: Four high schools reported rates of 30 percent or higher, and six middle schools reported rates of 20 percent or higher. At the elementary level – particularly in kindergarten and first grade – several schools reported that more than one in five students were chronically absent last school year.
Only a handful of states require schools to report chronic absenteeism. Kansas does not. Most schools focus only on average daily attendance, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law and some school turnaround plans, but that can paint an inaccurate picture.
“Even at 95 percent (average daily attendance), you can easily have 20 percent of your kids chronically absent,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. “It just tells you how many kids show up every day. … It doesn’t tell you how many kids are absent so often they’re academically at risk.”
‘How can we solve this?’
At Harry Street Elementary, a neighborhood school just south of downtown Wichita, Botts already has noticed several students who regularly miss school, arrive late or leave early.
Judging from past years, she says, several children will not even enroll until after the Labor Day weekend, when their families return from summer trips or extended stays in Mexico and elsewhere. Those kids will have missed 14 days of school.
The first week, a Harry Street first-grader missed two out of four days. After his second absence, Botts visited the boy’s house and talked with his mother.
“I introduce myself and tell them what my role is, and that I’m here to provide support,” she said. “It’s a lot of education: ‘Do you know that when they’re late, they’re missing reading? They’re missing math?’ A lot of times they don’t make that connection.”
The first-grader’s mom had recently been released from prison and was “working through several issues,” Botts said.
Another student missed several days because her single mother is disabled and couldn’t walk her to school, but she didn’t want the 7-year-old crossing several busy streets on her own. Botts brainstormed possible solutions with the mom, including identifying friends, relatives or neighbors who could help with transportation.
Botts gave the mom some city bus passes, and now she rides to school with her daughter. The girl has had perfect attendance since.
“That made all the difference, just reaching out and saying, ‘OK, what can we do? How can we solve this?’” Botts said.
Every home visit is a different story, she said, but some themes emerge. Several parents and grandparents say it’s hard to get kids out of bed, dressed and fed in time for school. Botts urges them to establish bedtimes and evening routines that allow for plenty of sleep. (Elementary-age children need about 11 hours a night, experts say.)
Many parents cite transportation issues. Because most Harry Street students live within 2.5 miles of the school, they don’t qualify for bus rides. Parents without cars either walk their children to school or send them on their own.
Other parents keep kids home sick on days they could and should go to school, said Nispel, the social worker. Nationwide, chronic illnesses such as asthma are the leading cause of school absenteeism. But parents don’t always know when a child is too sick for school and don’t get the guidance they need from school or health providers.
“You can’t blame them for worrying, because they’re sending us their most precious thing in the world – their babies,” Nispel said. “We try to work with doctors … and let them know we have a very, very good nurse that will keep track of this.”
In coming weeks, the seven pilot-project elementaries will hire part-time paid and volunteer mentors to help address attendance issues by working directly with kids and families. Later this month, officials with Check & Connect and Attendance Works will visit Wichita as part of a United Way-sponsored summit on school attendance.
Marshon Curry, whose daughter Arayah is a fifth-grader at Harry Street, stood outside the school one recent morning and watched the girl walk in. Last school year, after Arayah was late for school a few times, the school sent notes home reminding him that every minute counts.
The school’s message on attendance is clear, he said.
“If you’re one minute late, they get a tardy,” Curry said. “And I don’t want her to have any tardies, so I make sure I’m here early.
“If they’re late one minute they miss something, and we don’t want them to miss anything,” he said. “Any time they miss, it’s something they can’t get back.”
▪ Average daily attendance: The percentage of a school’s student body that attends on a typical day. The definition is the same nationwide, but does not provide student-level data.
▪ Truancy: A measure of how many students miss school without an excuse. The definition varies from state to state.
▪ Chronic absenteeism: A measure of how many students miss a certain percentage or number of days, including excused and unexcused absences and suspensions. Researchers consider a student chronically absent if he misses 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days.
Source: “Mapping the Early Attendance Gap,” a report by Attendance Works
‘Be There’ campaign
For more information about the United Way’s “Be There” campaign, including what you can do to make sure your child gets to school, visit AttendToday.org.