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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

Boosting Student Attendance: Beyond Stickers, Stars, and Candy Bars

The first step toward educational equity for homeless students—and other students living in poverty—is to get them to come to school.

Equity
Boosting Student Attendance: Beyond Stickers, Stars, and Candy Bars thumbnail
Credit: ©2014 Susie Fitzhugh
Why do students with economic challenges tend to miss school more frequently than other students? How can we address the obstacles that create this attendance gap? Many school districts ask these questions as they struggle with the basic challenge of getting all students to come to school. We know that students can't learn if they're not attending. What are successful districts doing—beyond the usual enticements of stickers, stars, and candy bars—to boost attendance for all students?

Homeless Students as a Model

We believe that we can learn from a model that's proven successful with one of the most challenging subgroups: homeless students. U.S. schools currently enroll more than 1,300,000 homeless students nationwide (National Center for Homeless Education, 2015). Absenteeism among homeless students, students in poverty, and non-homeless students is always an issue that is front and center for educators, because grades and test results correlate strongly with attendance. According to a recent study (Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, 2015), homeless elementary students missed an average of four weeks of school (19 days) in the 2013–2014 school year, a week and a half more than low-income housed students (12 days) and two weeks more than non-low-income housed students (9 days).
Regular school attendance for a student who is homeless is particularly problematic, no matter how motivated that student might be. High mobility—frequent moves of the whole family from place to place, or couch-surfing by the young person on his or her own—often necessitates changing schools or school districts. New school settings require students to understand new rules, build relationships with new teachers, and meet new peers—all while possibly losing credits or arriving just in time to take a test for which the student probably is not prepared. Not to mention the many emotionally trying components of moving: leaving behind friends, being bullied as "new," feeling disoriented in a strange town or school, losing possessions, sustaining almost incomprehensible family stress, or even giving up family pets to enter a shelter or move in with friends or family.
These conditions are not ideal for doing homework, being adequately fed, enjoying extracurricular activities, or sleeping well. It's little wonder that homeless students, as well as other highly mobile students, frequently fall behind academically. They often find it nearly impossible to catch up and miss school more often (Masten, 2012).

Successful District Efforts in Texas

The federal McKinney-Vento program supports the identification, enrollment, and school success of homeless students. The law mandates that each district identify a "homeless liaison" who is trained to meet the needs of this growing population. The Texas Homeless Education Office (THEO) at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the Texas Education Agency, and the Region 10 Education Service Center, provides a variety of services to school districts, education service centers, and others. THEO supports 135 local school districts that have received McKinney-Vento grants by providing extra resources to further support homeless students during school years 2015–2016 and 2016–2017. Project leaders in each of the districts must regularly track the attendance of homeless students as a requirement of receiving grant funds. Some programs track attendance daily, some weekly, some monthly, and some by semester.
This intensive tracking showed that the 135 Texas school districts often achieved amazing results in raising homeless students' attendance rates. For example, at its 2015–2016 midyear review, Bastrop Independent School District found that its homeless population (a total of 129 students in grades pre-K–12) had an overall attendance rate of 95 percent, surpassing the general student attendance rate of 92 percent. In the much larger Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, the homeless population of 3,217 students had an attendance rate of 96 percent, compared with the general district attendance rate of 91 percent—and homeless students attended at a higher rate than non-homeless students at every grade level.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable hurdles homeless students faced and the difficulties homeless liaisons and other district advocates had to overcome, these students' attendance rates met or exceeded the districts' overall student attendance rates. What did personnel in these districts do to achieve such outstanding results? And could other districts use the same strategies to improve equity and opportunity of access with other highly under-resourced student groups?

Let Them Know You See Them

It would seem like common sense for schools to routinely gather and disaggregate data for under-served and at-risk student groups like homeless youth, migrants, foster children, or language diverse students. But many districts find this kind of tracking difficult. Although every school district collects attendance data every day (or even every period in secondary schools), many lack efficient ways to disaggregate that data. Changes in software, password permission requirements, and levels of technical expertise and district operation differ from district to district and can present barriers to easily tracking subgroup student attendance.
However, the experience of the Texas districts suggests that collecting accurate disaggregated data is a necessary first step in identifying and addressing the issue. Anecdotally, more frequent tracking correlates to improved student attendance. In districts where disaggregated data can be gathered on a weekly or even daily basis, interventions can forestall attendance and academic declines. One high-tech answer that has proven effective is color-coded software that shows students' attendance as yellow or red "lights." These "lights" vividly identify students needing urgent assistance.
In North East Independent School District, homeless liaison Tyler Shoesmith checks the attendance of homeless students weekly and consults with staff about situations daily. Shoesmith initiated a program called "Target 10." Every week, the program identifies 10 students with falling grades and unsteady attendance records. Each of those 10 students receives focused counseling and tutoring to achieve credit recovery. The next week, the program starts the list again and addresses the urgent needs of 10 more students.
Motivating students to attend school by referring their parents to truancy court may not work as well as providing those parents with comparison information in the form of easy-to-interpret displays or charts. Mr. Shoesmith developed a "graphic letter" (see fig. 1) that is sent to parents every two weeks, showing a bar graph comparing the attendance rate of their child to the rate of other students. In the last year, North East has seen a consistent 2–3 percent increase in homeless students' attendance rate and in overall performance.

el201611_Dill_fig1.gif
In El Paso Independent School District, where Olivia Narvaez is the homeless liaison, a districtwide initiative has assisted in bringing homeless student attendance to 97 percent, two percentage points above the district average. The district recently created an 11-member Student Retention and Truancy Prevention Department supported by an online data site called "EPISD Pulse," which provides data on the progress of at-risk students by campus and is updated daily.
Even better than following up with effective interventions for students who are absent is preventing absences from piling up in the first place. Giddings Independent School District's former homeless liaison Stephanie Jurek reported, "The most salient feature of the program is the prevention component—homeless students sliding academically at all are immediately referred to the homeless liaison assistant/instructional aide, who intervenes with services that are specific to each student's identified needs. This means supporting students before remedial services are needed."
Because of this proactive monitoring, followed by comprehensive support, the oil bust that added 40 new homeless families to this small agrarian district has not resulted in rising student absenteeism or academic loss. The program receives strong community support, and the district recently saw one of its formerly homeless graduates admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Let Them Know You Care

When student absences show up on an administrator's dashboard, what is the most effective response or follow-up strategy? This is the turning point where the life-changing work of moving students toward grade promotion or graduation is tested. For many under-resourced students, blame, shame, or truancy court does not work. Instead, the most reliable way to help is positive support from one or more committed school staff members.
Many different strategies, both low-tech and high-tech, can be effective in tracking and following up on consecutive absences. One effective model in the districts the Texas Homeless Education Office studied involved assigning absentee tracking duties to an individual at each school who was trained to monitor absences, provide timely alerts, and intervene. This "building contact" system works best when the individual, and preferably the whole school, is well trained in the diverse challenges facing the groups being tracked, including subgroups such as migrant students, special needs or undocumented students, homeless students, or youth in foster care. Staff training is crucial to understanding the most likely challenges the student or family may be facing when attendance or academic progress starts to slide.
Many schools schedule periodic monitoring meetings or case management meetings to discuss the progress of at-risk students. But such discussions usually don't occur frequently enough. In contrast, a building contact can provide a lightning-fast warning and response.
Bastrop Independent School District's former homeless liaison, Reina Gallegos, remarks about her district's campus contacts, "These are the ones who will e-mail me right away if a student is having issues—if a student is moving or needs transportation to school or if I need to make a visit to them to check in." The well trained, caring campus contact provides a platform for relationship building and personal engagement with the student. The fact that a student knows someone will notice when he or she is not there for two or three days—and will call to ask about what's happening in their lives—can be highly motivating, even life-changing.
Another effective follow-up approach is for the district to hire family outreach workers or assistants. In addition to tracking the attendance and academic progress of the target group, the family outreach worker contacts the family or youth to make them aware of available services and to do whatever is possible to remove barriers to attendance or academic progress.
For example, many homeless families don't realize that each housing move doesn't have to mean a school change. For McKinney-Vento program-eligible students and some foster care students, transportation from the new home or shelter (even if it's not in the same residency zone or school district) to the "school of origin" can be arranged. An eligible student may remain in his or her school of origin even if the student becomes permanently housed during that school year. McKinney-Vento funds may also provide tutoring, access to college preparation programs and summer experiences, school supplies, and emergency food and medical service. When barriers to educational stability are eliminated, students are better able to weather the storms of homelessness and achieve the stability they need to attend school regularly and succeed.
An outreach worker can also be a teacher or a truancy prevention specialist on extra-duty pay who finds students where they live or who hangs out at the end of the day and provides the connection that may tie a student back to school. Personal contact and communication strategies, combined with districts' capacity to provide case management and wraparound care, prove most effective in reducing barriers to attendance.
Mentoring is another powerful intervention for at-risk students. In one rural Texas district, the homeless liaison supports the mentor program by matching homeless students to volunteer mentors. One high school mentor helped his student obtain a custodial job at the district bus barn—a move that enabled the student to juggle class and work schedules because it was proximate to both the school and his residence.
Mentors, tutors, and campus contacts may help identify impediments to attendance. Sometimes those barriers are well hidden. Students who need to work to help the family survive may go right from school to a full-time or part-time job. If few other students in the school work full-time, the working student may feel ashamed and hide his or her situation. In many other instances, students may miss school because they provide the childcare for one or more siblings, another barrier not easily disclosed or discussed.
Identifying and breaking down these barriers often requires careful relationship building. Some school districts that are located close to a university provide such relationships by using social work interns in a case management model. Interns assess students' comprehensive needs and ensure that resources are available to meet those needs. They also identify students who are absent or struggling and then collaborate with school programs and campus counselors to find remedies.
For example, Waco Independent School District expertly deployed social work interns from Baylor University to assist under-resourced students in the district's high schools, linking them with services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As a result of this case management system, 100 percent of homeless Waco seniors graduated in 2015–2016.

Making a Difference

Getting students to school is the first and perhaps most crucial step in building equity and access for all students, opening the door to a brighter future. In these success stories, well-adapted technology to track and share data was sometimes the key to building consistent student attendance for under-resourced students. But at times, the most effective strategies are not high-tech. Ensuring that every student feels supported and knows that someone is aware of his or her presence often make a world of difference.
Authors' note: Resources related to reducing absenteeism for homeless students are available on the Texas Homeless Education Office website at www.theotx.org/resource_type/attendance-truancy-2.
References

Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. (2015). Empty seats: The epidemic of absenteeism among homeless elementary students. New York: Author.

Masten, A. S. (2012). Risk and resilience in the educational success of homeless and highly mobile children. Educational Researcher, 41(9), 363–365.

National Center for Homeless Education. (2015). Federal data summary: School years 2011–12 to 2013–14. Browns Summit, NC: Author. Retrieved from http://center.serve.org/nche/downloads/data-comp-1112-1314.pdf

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