Attendance workshop brings districts, community partners together

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On Sept. 18, a collaborative workshop was held between the Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership, the Cranston Public Schools Attendance Counts! Task Force and the state Department of Education to share ideas and strategies with other school districts throughout the state regarding how to combat chronic absenteeism.

There were representatives of 24 districts in attendance, with close to 70 participants.

Shameem Awan, vice president of Amica and vice chair of the mentoring partnership’s board, opened the workshop.

“There are 60 programs statewide that offer an opportunity to build a relationship between children and caring mentors,” she said. “Attendance plays such a crucial role in success.”

Each year, the partnership puts out a survey for participants to gauge success.

“Based on the responses, it is a positive experience for all involved. Parents, teachers and mentors see changes in the students and their overall attitudes,” she added.

Sue Thomas, director of training and program development at the mentoring partnership, introduced the day’s speakers, including Rhode Island Education Commissioner Debroah Gist and Cranston Superintendent Dr. Judith Lundsten.

“The reason we are here is because of two main things – getting across the message how important it is to come to school on time every day, and how community members can help solve this problem,” Thomas said.

Gist spoke of the time and energy expended in raising quality in schools.

“We have the support and resources to continue our progress, but we need kids to be in school on a regular basis,” she said.

Gist proudly reported that Rhode Island serves as a leader in attendance and measuring absenteeism. 

She compared education to a three-legged stool comprised of the student, family and educators.

“If any of these three is not in place, it needs extra support,” she said.

Gist acknowledged there is a bigger problem with absenteeism at the high school level.

“The roots for high absence are formed in early childhood. I pledge whatever we can do to be supportive and help spread the word,” she said.

Lundsten reported on her travels throughout the district and the creative ways schools are trying to keep absenteeism at a minimum. One particular incentive she witnessed recently really stood out.

“Chester Barrows Elementary took pieces of PVC pipe and created a sculpture called Chester,” she said.

Chester will stand outside a classroom that has good attendance, serving as a mascot and a reminder for children to come to school so he can be at all classrooms.

Stephanie Geller from RI KIDS COUNT presented a presentation entitled “What is Chronic Absence and Why Does it Matter?”

She covered many points, such as alarming rates of absenteeism across the country.

“Nationwide, as many as 10 to 15 percent of students – 7.5 million – miss nearly a month of school every year. That is 135 million days of lost time in the classroom,” she said.

Geller said most of her information was obtained from the attendanceworks.org website.

“Chronic absenteeism is a red flag, or a precursor to an achievement problem. It is troubling when it starts in K or pre-K. Not everyone realizes the importance of kindergarten, particularly in communities with only a half-day program,” Geller said.

One point Geller specifically focused on was the impact of September attendance.

“September attendance is a predictor of the rest of the year,” she said.

Geller ran down a list of seven key messages focusing on the importance of good attendance. Each focused on how and why good attendance leads to future success.

Dr. Rosemary Burns, the data coordinator for Cranston schools, also gave a presentation. Her focus was on the journey Cranston schools have taken so far to fix attendance issues.

“We need to engage students and parents, recognize good and improved attendance – not always focusing on the bad – provide personalized early outreach and develop programmatic responses to barriers,” she said.

Looking at data, the Cranston district has learned that Thursdays are the highest days for absences and January has the most. Girls are out more than boys.

“When looking at subgroups of our population, multi-race students have the highest rate of absenteeism, while Pacific Islanders have the lowest,” she said.

Students who have IEPs (Individualized Learning Plans), are in the special education program or receive free/reduced lunch have high absenteeism rates.

“This year we are focused on communication and awareness. We are truly lucky to have such an engaged community,” Burns said.

The last speaker was Cranston High School East junior Emily Nunez, whose presentation was about the Getschooled initiative.

“Getschooled.com is an interactive site for students where they are rewarded points for playing games, reading articles entering contests and getting college/FAFSA help,” she said.

Nunez reported that she has actually received very positive feedback from friends and classmates about the site.

“With the administrators on board, it will have a huge impact on students succeeding,” she said.

Nunez said students are more motivated to participate if they are reminded and encouraged to do so every day. 

“As a student, I am doing my part. I have spoken at orientation, class assemblies, I post to social media and speak to my friends,” she said.

“At this time, there isn’t another workshop in the works but based on feedback and the commissioner’s wishes that, could change,” said Thomas.

For more information about strategies for improving attendance, visit attendanceworks.org and get schooled.com/dashboard.

For more information about creating a mentoring relationship, visit www.

mentorri.org.

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