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The Relentless Nature of Improving Daily Attendance

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This post is by Susan Fairchild, Vice President of Knowledge Management and Chief-of-Staff, New Visions for Public Schools, and Michele Meredith, Senior Knowledge Management Officer, New Visions for Public Schools. 

Educators know the negative impact of poor attendance on student and peer outcomes. Educators also understand that supporting students' attendance behaviors is a relentless, micro-activity requiring that they know what's going on every minute of every day inside of their schools. Recent findings highlight the impact of just one day of weather-related absences, as well as the corrosive impact of chronic absenteeism. The effects of poor attendance can be seen as early as first grade, validating the call for early interventions.

What is not as well understood are the difficulties in designing and maintaining an effective attendance system. The assumption that attendance systems can't possibly be all that hard to build coupled with the reality that very few educators are actually trained in systems design are two possible explanations why one of a school's most critical systems is also one of its weakest.

In this two-part blog series, we highlight one high school's efforts to design an effective attendance system. We then document the ways in which they are using tools from improvement science to refine it.

THE CONTEXT

For the past year, we've been working closely with Principal Stacey King of New Visions' Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II (AMS II) in the Bronx. AMS II is in its fourth year of operation and graduates its first cohort of students this June. Like all of New Visions' Charter High Schools, AMS II serves a traditionally high-need student population (e.g., 86 percent receive free lunch, 14 percent have special needs, 11 percent are English language learnings, and 95 percent are black or Latino). AMS II also boasts a high year-to-date attendance rate (94 percent as of January 2016, down slightly from 95percent in September 2015). Based on the senior cohort's current credit and exit exam accumulation, AMS II's graduation rate will likely be anywhere from 91 percent to 94 percent. Principal King sees daily attendance as one important driver to help keep her students on track and help the school reach the upper bound of its graduation threshold--94 percent.  

THE COMPLEXITY OF DAILY ATTENDANCE

Those with only a cursory understanding of the inner workings of a high school may not fully appreciate the complexity associated with daily attendance taking. It sounds easy--yet, it is surprisingly hard. This is because school staff are accounting for the individual attendance behaviors of each student from the moment they arrive at school to the moment they leave. That is, they must organize themselves to counteract the inherent porousness of a typical school day. Within a single day, a student moves from one class to another as many as seven times--that's potentially seven opportunities to slip out of school unnoticed. At AMS II, school staff monitor the movements of 546 students. This translates into 3,822 discrete attendance data points generated each day [546 x 7 transition periods throughout the day]. Over the course of a school year, AMS II school staff are monitoring and responding to 687,960 attendance data points.

In addition to the magnitude of attendance data generated each day, tracking and validating daily attendance happens in an environment characterized by endless interruptions. The workflow of attendance coordinators and school staff are constantly interrupted by student, faculty, and parent needs. For example, during a normal school day the attendance coordinator at AMS II's workflow was interrupted 42 times for a total of 120.5 minutes between 7:30 am and 2:00 pm.

Principal King and her staff understand that a prerequisite to improving student attendance in the complex and noisy context of an urban high school is having a system in place that effectively attends to the 3,822 data points they see each day. At AMS II, this system begins with a comprehensive attendance framework that articulates the goal of the system and clarifies staff roles. It also specifies the data tools that monitor individual students' attendance behaviors, as well as the school's response to those behaviors (visit New Visions' CloudLAB).

DIMENSIONS OF AMS II ATTENDANCE SYSTEM

Organizing student attendance patterns against a clear system design framework is the first step in developing an attendance system. According to Mark Dunetz, Vice President of School Support at New Visions, a powerful attendance system: 1) states the goal of the system, 2) specifies the intervention criteria that trigger a response on the part of the educators, 3) identifies the school staff who are assigned to carry out specific tasks or activities, 4) centralizes a list of students and their attendance patterns, and 5) makes explicit the interconnections between the staff carrying out the activities, the data tools that record all implementation activities and the data tools that identify changes in student attendance behaviors (visit New Visions' systems strategy here).

AMS II's attendance system--developed in collaboration with colleagues from New Visions' Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science III--meets the criteria articulated above.

Goal of the System:

AMS II's attendance protocol articulates that the goal of the attendance system is to ensure that every student is working toward a 95 percent year-to-date attendance rate, that school staff are systematically responding to each absence and that problematic attendance patterns are identified early to inform an appropriate intervention from the school.

Intervention Criteria That Trigger School Staff Response:

In Table 1, AMS II has specified attendance behavior triggers, actions, and the response of school staff.

Table 1. AMS II's Attendance Intervention Criteria

Indicator

Action

Staff Person

1 Absence

Attendance Coordinator calls home for each absence

Attendance Coordinator

3 Consecutive Absences (parent has been in contact)

Attendance Coordinator notifies school counselor and Assistant Principal

Attendance Coordinator provides a follow up call

Attendance Coordinator

3 Consecutive Absences (Parent has not been in contact)

Attendance Coordinator provides a follow up call and a letter home

Student Meeting with student attendance letter.

Attendance Coordinator

5 Consecutive Absences and/or 10 cumulative absences within a 4 month period

Attendance Coordinator notifies school counselor

School Counselor makes call requesting a meeting date

School counselor generates a letter requesting a parent/guardian meeting within 1 week of the date of the letter (Letter should include possible consequences of excessive absenteeism for both the student and parent/guardian).

Attendance Coordinator

 

School Counselor

5 Consecutive Absences and/or 10 cumulative absences within a 4 month period AND contact is successfully made.

Counselor will hold a meeting, or series of meetings, with the student and his/her family to develop a plan to improve the student's attendan

School Counselor

 

Attendance Coordinator

 

Chief Operating Officer/Principal/Assistant Principal

 

Contact is not made AND 7 Consecutive Absences and/or 15 cumulative absences within a 4 month period

Another call is made by the counselor

2nd letter is sent via Certified Mail (Requesting Signature)

School Counselor

10 Consecutive Absences and/or 18 cumulative absences within a 4 month period

Attendance Coordinator notifies School Counselor and Social Worker.

A home visit is made by Social Worker to further investigate the matter using the Home Visit Report.

Attendance Coordinator

 

School Counselor

 

Social Worker

10 or more Consecutive Absences and/or 20 or more absences

At this point, a 407 [an alert printed for students who are absent 10 consecutive days or 20 aggregate days] will have been automatically generated in NYC Department of Education Source System

 

Attendance Coordinator notifies School Counselor.

If none of the previous attempts have generated an adequate response from the parent/guardian, the counselors and attendance coordinator must notify the principal for permission to report to the Administration for Children's Services.

Counselor, Parent coordinator and assigned Social worker communicate to formulate a plan for student and family.

Attendance Coordinator

 

School Counselor

 

Parent Coordinator

Principal

 

Centralized List of Students and Their Attendance Patterns:

AMS II has centralized all attendance data in New Visions' Attendance Heat Map--a tool that is updated daily and contains detailed information on each student. The heat map includes longitudinal attendance data, year-to-date attendance, lateness, absences in the past 10 days, consecutive absences, and a list of all absences in the year for each student. The elements of the heat map include absences by day of the week; attendance rate for each month; number of absences each week; and present, absent, or late each day. (To learn more about New Visions' Attendance Heat Map, see the user guide here, a video on the attendance risk criteria here, and a video on the advance features of the tool here.)  

Collection of Process Data That Audits Integrity of Implementation:

AMS II frequently audits the intervention triggers against staff response. For example, data on parent outreach efforts are matched to student absences and tardiness. The match rate between school response and student attendance behavior is then reviewed in leadership team meetings. Until patterns of implementation and execution of the system on the part of school staff are well understood, AMS II staff recognizes that they will have a much harder time interpreting the effectiveness of attendance interventions.

Links Attendance System To Other Core Systems:  

Accurate daily attendance requires that teachers take period attendance every day. AMS II is approaching this work, not just through the lens of compliance (i.e., "It's the law.") but by building collective empathy. In other words, AMS II is making explicit the linkages between the attendance strategy and the instructional strategy. When reviewing student progress report data and report card data for borderline or failing students at each trimester, teachers at AMS II are asked to identify the root cause of student academic challenges and potential interventions. In their documentation, teachers clearly note that several academic issues such as late assignments, missing test scores, and failing grades are the direct result of missing class or arriving late--putting even more pressure on the AMS II attendance team to get out in front of attendance issues. By explicitly seeing how the attendance efforts reinforce the instructional efforts, a greater sense of collective responsibility is reinforced throughout the school.

CONSTANTLY IMPROVING: IMPROVEMENT SCIENCE IN ACTION AT AMS II

AMS II has a high year-to-date daily attendance rate of 94 percent. But year-to-date averages mask the variability of attendance rates of individual students. Moreover, the school staff continues to search for the best way to consistently implement the system. We are seeing first hand that designing a system and implementing the system with integrity, though complementary, are very distinct processes. All too often systems break down somewhere in between. Principal King knows this and is using tools from improvement science to move AMS II's current attendance system closer to its desired state.

AMS II's continuous improvement efforts will be the focus of our second blog post. Stay tuned.

 

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