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Sioux Falls district works to improve school attendance

November 17, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Principal Ryan DeGraff made a point to be at the front doors of Terry Redlin Elementary when school started on a recent Wednesday.

As four or five preschoolers with puffy jackets and colored beanies waddled their way into the building, he welcomed them in.

“Are you ready for school today? Yup, we’re going to school today,” he said.

Even in preschool, children need to know how important it is for them to be on time and attend an entire day of learning, he said.

Once they reach kindergarten, that’s where attendance rates at Terry Redlin have been ‘historically poor,’ and habits for missing school start to form, Degraff said.

“It’s all about starting that conversation with families,” DeGraff said. “At an elementary level, it’s not necessarily the students who need to get to school on time. It’s understanding and letting parents know the importance of school, that if you’re not here at school, you’re not learning.”

About three years ago, officials across the Sioux Falls School District made a concerted effort to start addressing attendance issues at various schools, the Argus Leader reported.

On average, 8 in 10 students in the city attend school most of the time. But the number of chronically absent kids is above the state average, and at least 1 in 10 kids regularly miss class.

Changing that trend is a slow process, but the needle is moving in the right direction.

The secret is a focus on one-on-one relationships with students, regular incentives and constant communication with parents by meeting them where they’re at.

Terry Redlin has seen the largest attendance improvement of all the Title 1 schools — schools that receive federal funds to help student from low-income families — in the district, and the third-largest attendance improvement out of all elementary campuses in the last two school years, district data shows.

“When a parent calls and says, ‘Gosh, we’re going to be at an appointment,’ it’s about when should be a good time to have that appointment,” DeGraff said. “Or it’s ‘I have any appointment today,’ and telling them, ‘Yes, you can bring them back after the appointment. It doesn’t need to be a full day out.’ Those different conversations we didn’t always have, we’re asking those questions now. ”

The challenge of getting kids to school is complicated by Sioux Falls’ high mobility rate.

Between 15 and 20 percent of students bounce from school to school each year or leave the district all together, adding an extra challenge to the district’s goal of keeping kids in class for as many consecutive days as possible.

The schools with the highest mobility rates have the lowest attendance, and Title 1 schools like Terry Redlin see the worst of it, said Doug Morrison, director of research, innovation and accountability.

The school serves more than 400 students, all of whom are economically disadvantaged, according to the most recent state data available.

Terry Redlin’s mobility rate has hovered around 20 percent, meaning 1 in 5 students moves at some point during the school year, per district data. It’s the fifth-highest average mobility rate for elementary schools in Sioux Falls.

“When you have 25,000 students, it’s hard to move the needle at a macro level,” Morrison said. “But there are some bright spots. We kind of consciously decided attendance is important because it’s the highest correlation between academic achievement if you can get kids into school.”

That’s where community partnerships, incentives and recognition play a key role in bringing about small successes that move the needle, DeGraff said. Compared to the previous two years, Terry Redlin had more than 1,230 days of additional attendance, school data shows.

The campus has what’s called a “Strive for five” campaign, encouraging students to attend all five days of school each week. If students do attend all five days, their names are entered for a chance to win a $50 Walmart gift card the end of the week.

“That’s a game changer for many families, it’s a game changer for my family as well,” DeGraff said. “We couldn’t do that without the partnerships of community members.”

From there, the incentives increase. Sometimes, the recognition is as big as getting your name in for a chance to win a free bicycle, a tablet or more for good attendance. Other times, it’s being recognized publicly in front of your peers to encourage positive reinforcement with other students, DeGraff said.

And earlier this year, Mayor Paul TenHaken even promised a pizza party at his office for every Terry Redlin student who achieved perfect attendance.

What makes DeGraff smile most isn’t the reaction these incentives bring to his students, it’s the number of days they improve from year to year, he said.

“We have students who missed 30 days the year before, and they’ve only missed 12 days the next year,” he said. “While they’re still missing a lot, that’s 18 school days they now had compared to this previous year. It’s those extra gains, those little bit of gains we see from those students who need that extra win.”

Beyond incentives though, giving parents regular updates and focusing on individual student needs has also helped at Terry Redlin and other campuses, school officials said.

“The biggest thing we’ve focused on is in the area of relationships and the connectedness to school,” Whittier Assistant Principal Mike Moore said.

And that often means meeting parents and students where they are, Moore said.

This is the district’s first full year to use KinVolved, a communication tool founded by teachers to track data and engage families through real-time, translated, text messaging.

The district rolled out the program at five or six schools last year, including Whittier Middle School. Whittier also showed the most improvement from this year to last year, but the school’s average mobility rate was the second highest for Sioux Falls middle schools, excluding the Middle School Immersion Center.

Whittier also hosts attendance meetings, whether attendance is good or bad, to focus on the individual needs of students, and has students meet with mentors on a regular basis, Moore said.

“A lot of times what we see is maybe parents haven’t had positive experiences in school, so (attendance) isn’t high on their radar,” Moore said. “We’re really trying to focus on our relationships with families.”

KinVolved allows school officials to give parents regular updates on their child’s attendance. Sometimes, it’s a message to parents praising their child’s attendance, while other times, it’s a message asking how the school can help find a solution to an ongoing attendance issue, Moore said.

If the school can focus on the relationship with the family, then the relationship with the student being in class and engaged in learning often improves, Moore said.

“What we’ve found as time has gone on is we work with a number of families where that’s kind of their mode of communication,” Moore said. “They don’t use phones as speaking devices, so we’ll have parents who may be out of minutes to talk but they’re able to text.”

That’s allowed Whittier staff to engage with another portion of the school’s population they may have struggled to reach previously, Moore said.

“The last couple of years we’ve really made a concentrated effort as a building, as a group of educators,” Moore said. “And that’s where we’ve been able to move the needle the largest, through building those relationships.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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