Portland schools using 'positive engagement' to fight absenteeism

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PORTLAND — Chronic absenteeism leads to a significant loss in learning time, which often puts students well behind their peers in terms of gaining knowledge and key academic skills.

The issue can be exacerbated by cultural and language barriers, as well as logistical difficulties, including transportation, the care of younger children while getting older ones to school, and work schedules.

But not coming to school, especially at the elementary level, can mean that students are not developing critical skills from language acquisition to basic reading, which educators say are important to lay the groundwork for future academic success.

That’s why the Portland Public Schools have put a special focus on chronic absenteeism, which is different from truancy.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the academic year for any reason, including so-called excused absences when a parent does take the time to call in, whereas truancy is defined as “the willful and unjustified absence of a child from school.”

The School Department has been working with the nonprofit Count ME In for the past several years and is now starting to see some encouraging results, according to an update delivered to the School Board at its Nov. 13 meeting.

According to the Count ME In website, “Over 27,600 or 15 percent of Maine students are chronically absent (and) students who miss school frequently are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, more likely to fail in middle school and eventually drop out of high school.”

In order to avoid these outcomes, Count ME In and the Portland schools have been working hard on delivering the message to students and families that “missing school, even in kindergarten, has consequences.”

“The bottom line is that nothing we do matters if our students aren’t attending (class),” Assistant Superintendent Jeanne Crocker told the School Board last week.

Susan Lieberman, director of Count ME In, said the organization was formed in 2013 in response to concerns being raised across the state about how to best increase graduation rates and decrease drop out rates.

“The elephant in the room,” she said, was absenteeism. “The number of days missed has a (direct) impact on learning,” Lieberman said. If a student is missing two to three days of school every month, “they’ll always be lagging behind their peers.”

She said that chronic absenteeism is best tackled through positive engagement with both students and their families.

“We saw quite a bit of improvement when we turned the conversation around to, ‘We’re so glad you’re here,'” instead of taking punitive action or being accusatory toward parents when their children are chronically absent, said Beverly Stevens, principal at Ocean Avenue Elementary School.

She said the school started taking a team approach a couple years ago that included the school nurse, school social workers and classroom teachers, who now place personal calls to parents and students saying, “We missed you so much and here’s what did today.”

Stevens said Ocean Avenue Elementary even created individual attendance plans for families because “at age 6 it’s not up to you whether you get to school,” but at the same time, “students can’t learn if they’re not in school.”

Last fall East End Community School also made combating chronic absenteeism a priority, according to both Lieberman and school administrators.

Assistant Principal Kelly Thornhill said things began to turn around at East End School when “we began to look at every student to piece together their story and personalize our intervention.”

But, she said one of the first steps was to educate staff.

“Teachers now say, ‘We notice when you’re not here,'” and “at the end of the day they make a point of saying ‘We’ll see you tomorrow.'” Thornhill said administrators also make “every effort to greet as many students by name as possible each morning.”

She said the school also made a point of asking parents to schedule their vacations and appointments around the school calendar whenever possible.

This approach, Thornhill said, led to a 44 percent drop in chronic absenteeism last academic year.

Principal Boyd Marley said school staff “leaves no stone unturned,” from contacting parents on social media, to knocking on doors, to helping them install reminder apps on their cell phones. “I think Kelly has even purchased some alarm clocks.”

He then mentioned one student who missed 43 days of school as a third-grader and who was a year behind in reading. Marley said the school finally conducted a home visit and worked out a plan.

The student has now jumped six levels in their reading ability by attending school more consistently. And, the best part, he said, is, “as the student’s attendance has grown, their (academic) confidence has grown and the student is also now better integrated into the school as a whole.”

“The big piece is staying positive and not making judgments, but just letting students know they’re wanted, welcomed and missed,” he added.

While the success at Ocean Avenue Elementary and East End School were highlighted at last week’s School Board meeting, Lieberman said it’s important to note that Count ME In is also working closely with every elementary school in the district to address the absenteeism issue.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Portland’s East End Community School has significantly reduced chronic absenteeism by taking a more personalized and positive approach. Students who attend school more have better academic outcomes and are also more engaged in the school community, like these math team students.

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