City school district eyes solutions to absenteeism

Watertown City School District Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr in her office. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — While acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic affects many things, including attendance, the Watertown City School District is looking to start community conversation and take action regarding chronic absenteeism within the district.

When it comes to absences, students fall into one of three categories. Tier One absences, which account for zero to 5% of total attendance, are considered normal and expected. Those students who fall into the 6% to 9% Tier Two are considered at risk, and those accounting for 10% or more in Tier Three are considered chronically absent.

The percentage of absences that fall into Tier Three has risen in recent years, from 24% during the 2016-17 school year and 26% the following year, to 28% during the 2019-20 school year and 39% the following year. So far for the 2021-22 school year through Oct. 14, the number sits at 61%.

“Just taking a look at that snapshot that we’re at right now, we have a problem; we need to come up with solutions,” Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr said as she addressed the Board of Education Tuesday evening. “The first strategy is to educate the school and the community and build awareness, and that’s part of the purpose of discussing it this evening, to get the message out there. It starts with educating everyone and having an awareness that there is a problem.”

To this end, charts will be sent home to families that will show individual student absences, late arrivals and early dismissals, as well as a list of total excused and unexcused absences the student has accumulated. These charts will be part of what are known as “nudge letters,” which the district has opted to send out every quarter — or trimester in the case of K-4 — to all students, not just those who might already be chronically absent.

The nudge letter gives basic information about how absences are tiered in terms of what Attendance Works suggests is positive attendance, at-risk attendance and what would be identified as chronic absenteeism. The district decided to put the information in graphic form so families can see their students’ absences, as well as their child’s overall grade percentages. This is not intended for comparison purposes, but to see whether their students are on target or if they should be concerned that their child is not attending school with appropriate frequency.

The letters will include late arrivals and early dismissals because while students might attend school each day, some are consistently arriving late and missing class material. The district is not looking to be punitive with the letters, as they are intended only to create awareness.

“When you’re getting these letters, if the child has had COVID or if they’ve had another extenuating circumstance or sickness, put that aside because we feel for you and we want to make sure that your child, their health needs are met first,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “But the overall picture when you start to look at this data, we know that we need to first of all work on supports and doing things that are universal in school to get kids excited about coming.”

Another strategy that has been discussed in the district since the school year began is engaging and building relationships, as well as intervention and implementation strategies.

The three homeschool coordinators for the district go out and take a look at students who have been chronically absent and make home visits. In the event that somebody is not at home, a note is hung on the door with the names of the coordinators, their phone numbers and other contact information. The note also lets people know why the coordinators were there and that they’d like to connect. The district hopes to build relationships with each family to figure out why students are continually absent.

In terms of early intervention, the district often does things in different areas such as reading and math, and Mrs. LaBarr said attendance needs to be added as an early intervention consideration. That may be where a homeschool coordinator makes a home visit, it could involve assigning a mentor in the school where students check in with them, or it could be another form of outreach to families.

Stacey Eger-Converse, assistant superintendent for instruction, is putting together a district-wide attendance committee, part of the district’s comprehensive improvement plan, that would meet monthly and review data related to attendance. The committee will be charged with brainstorming and looking at the root causes of attendance issues in the district.

“We have a lot of practices and strategies in place that are best practices when you look at the research on attendance improvement, but for whatever reason, they’re not necessarily reaching all of our families,” she said.

While the district doesn’t identify isolation or quarantine orders in its data, it has a good idea of what percentage can be filtered out. In individual buildings, principals are generally aware of whether a family needs outreach, or if absences are because of things related to the pandemic.

Noting that this is a systemic issue, Mrs. Eger-Converse said she does not see it abating and that she thinks many districts have seen exacerbated attendance issues as a result of the pandemic, maybe even in districts that would not necessarily have had this on their radar because their percentages were so low prior to the pandemic.

Because it is sometimes hard for district representatives to garner information from families, Mrs. Eger-Converse said the district’s new family engagement specialist, through the My Brother’s Keeper grant, could help with outreach to families and how to address concerns.

For several years, the district has tracked individual students, and one solution being considered is expanding through a tool known as Panorama. Panorama pulls key student information into one spot and gives visual dashboard reporting so districts can move from interpreting data to taking action and improving student outcomes.

Panorama is an early warning system. If a student is showing red in just attendance, the district would be able to see that, Mrs. Eger-Converse said. The district can also create groups within the system — to track students who are struggling with attendance and also struggling with discipline, for instance.

The district has rolled out Panorama to the high school and is working on launching it for other buildings. The attendance committee will look at that data as well, and identify strategies that haven’t been tried yet.

“Right now it’s very high. That could level off if they don’t have any more days of absences between now and the end of the year,” Mrs. LaBarr said of those who are chronically absent. “Even so, that’s a lot of kids who have missed. At the bottom of that chart, there’s research out there that says kids who miss two or more days in September, when you look at it that way they miss over a month or more during the whole school year. So it’s really important early on in the year to set the tone so that kids are here.”

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