Thursday, April 20, 2017

Chronic Absenteeism: Do We Have a Problem?

At the start of the 2016-17 school year a national report from the Department of Education was released on student attendance, and shortly after, responses were published from a number of different entities, including one from Governor Terry Branstad regarding the issue in Iowa schools.  We have had a few students over the past few years that miss a lot of school, and quite a few students that miss more school that we think they should.  However, not until this report came out did we have a measuring stick or a standard to compare to that indicated what was too many absences.  In this first ever report issued by the Department of Education, the number that indicated “chronic” was missing 10% or 15 days in a school year.  That is missing school for any reason.  Using that, in late July we took a closer look at the attendance of our students in the 2015-16 school year and found a higher percentage of our students that I would have expected.

On a national level, during the 2013-14 school year, over 6.5 million students fell into the category of chronic, which is about 13% of students who were missing at least three weeks of school.  We have had the occasional student who missed significantly more than that, despite all of our efforts to get them to come to school.  Those students are the ones that were in the front of our minds, so when we applied the 15 day standard to all students, we found that we had 66 students in the high school that missed three weeks or more of school over the course of the year.  That is far too many days to miss school!  A couple of months later, the Iowa Department of Education released a report on all districts in Iowa that showed our district had 7.1% of our students in grades kindergarten through 12th chronically absent.  That skews higher as kids get older and at our high school it was a little over 19%!

Nationally, almost 20% of high school students are chronically absent and minority groups have higher percentages than average.  Because of our low minority population, the impact is negligible on our data.  While we are below the national average, we are still too high, in large part because few of our absences are due to long-term illness or injury.  Yes, each year we have a student or two that have a significant injury, surgery, or debilitating illness that causes them to miss school, but more often than not, the reasons given by many parents for their child are not at that level.  

Why is this important?  It is not surprising that these students perform much lower on tests and do worse in college.  When looking at our list of students a number of them are off to college or plan to be, and many of them are unequipped because they missed out on important learning or they have yet to develop the self-discipline to get to school each day, or both.  Some of the research that accompanied the report suggests that even missing 15 days a year results in a student being significantly behind his/her peers in terms of what they have learned.  When looking at the way we structure our classes at the high school missing seven to ten days in a semester can result in a permanent loss of learning because that instruction is not going to take place elsewhere.  

When the people putting the report together looked at why students were missing school, there are some very serious reasons that for the most part we do not have to worry about at NFVHS.  Many report that they are afraid for their safety, either due to having to travel through dangerous neighborhoods or the threat of physical harm in school from other students.  Concerns about being bullied or harassed also fall into this category.  While at first blush one would associate these reasons being more prevalent in inner cities, bullying and harassment can happen anywhere.  We are fortunate that our community is safe and that our children can walk to school without fear, and we are also fortunate that the bullying and harassment that does take place has been dealt with or has not risen to the level that students are afraid to come to school. 

When looking at the other two categories of excuses for not going to school, illness is one of those major reasons, paired with students having to work, or because of involvement in the juvenile court system.  The third category is parents and students not placing a value on being in school.  Of those students who are chronically absent at our school, the reasons given for their absence would fall into these categories.  We do have the occasional student who has a legitimate illness that causes them to miss a large number of days.  Those cannot be prevented and we recognize that.  On the flip side, we have those that are called in sick or run to the doctor when they are not felling good for a day here and a day there that end up accumulating a large number of absences.  These students are the more worrisome because they also fall into the third category of not placing a high value on school, and they make little effort to “catch up” on what they missed.  Unfortunately, when assessing our kids that have missed 15 or more days of school, the highest percentage of them do fall into the third category of not valuing school.  What is particularly frustrating is that this is generational and we can talk until we are blue in the face and not present a strong enough case to get them to school on a more regular basis.  An obvious tool we have at our disposal is Iowa Code and mandatory attendance provisions, and the county attorney whose job it is to enforce truancy laws.  However, in all three of my stops as a high school administrator, getting the county attorney to help has been a great chore, and more often than not, has not helped.

There is a saying that came about when the Iowa Lottery started a number of years ago: You can’t win if you don’t play!  The same can be said in regard to a child’s education: You can’t learn if you don't attend!  I will be the first to say — and I have many times — don’t let school get in the way of your education.  There are fantastic learning experiences beyond the walls of our school.  However, that is not the reason kids are missing school.  When one actually carves out the actual time that students are in class over the course of the 180 days of the school year, every minute is important.  Missing a day or two over the course of the semester is one thing, but when one considers 19% of our kids missed more than 10 days, school must be a higher priority in their life!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

When The Tide Comes In All Boats Should Rise!

Nothing explains what we attempt to do with students with special needs better than the title of this article — When the tide comes in all boats should rise.  In fact, I believe it should be the philosophy that guides us with each and every student we work with, and should be the guiding principle as we attempt to meet individual learning needs for all students.

Let’s look a little closer at the quote.  While I have not done it many times in my life I have had opportunity to sit on a beach or a dock, or near the shore, and watch the tide come in.  Quite honestly, I have found that to be somewhat magical and relaxing, which is a reason that I would love to have a place where I could do that each and every day!  We all can imagine seeing boats rise a little bit, and it certainly makes sense that all of them would.  So how does this relate to education?

First of all, there is a shift going on to personalize education as much as possible for each student and their learning needs.  This is a tough prospect, but one that is emerging with practices in schools and classrooms.  It is a further shift away from the one-size-fits-all, assembly line education that many of us experienced in our high school days.  Back then, the teachers taught what they taught, assessed everyone the same, and basically as a student you learned what you learned.  Some of the more serious and bright students might learn quite a bit, and those that were not interested or struggled did not get much out of a particular lesson or course.  Common belief was that was just fine as not everyone was supposed to be college bound.  Public education was a sorting process designed to move the best and brightest forward into the most important careers.  Then a funny thing happened . . . some parents said that’s not right!  In essence they said that just because their child may not be the best or brightest, or may have some learning disability that prevents them from learning the same as others or as fast at others, does not mean they shouldn’t get the same opportunity as others.

The Individual with Disabilities Education Act, first referred to as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, became law in 1975 and was reauthorized in 1990 by the United States Congress under the current name.  The fundamental goal is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability.  In public schools our obligation is to “level the playing field” by accommodating and modifying for these students, so at that point they can rise with every other student.  The extent of the disability determines the services that need to be provided.  Many examples of students who have excelled because of this support exist, including a number of graduates from our school.

Another “tide” that came in a little over ten years ago was what is commonly referred to as NCLB, or No Child Left Behind legislation.  This act targeted all students with the goal of “1oo% of students in our country becoming proficient in reading and math, a utopian goal that while not met, certainly forced a number of states, school districts, schools, and teachers to change how students were taught.  In retrospect some very important changes took place in a number of schools, including attention given to changes to address the individual learning needs of each student.  This is a tremendous challenge, and a huge responsibility.  But when one breaks it down a bit, we have to realize that we cannot afford to have students slip through the cracks, nor can education in this country continue to be modeled after the factory model of producing thousands of identical products each year.  The demands of the changing economy will not allow that.  Thus, we look at each student and work to figure out how he or she can rise to meet their potential.  Some of the ways this can be done is through broad strokes, but we also have to look at each student as an individual too.

So, how are we doing that?  Our advisory program continues to evolve, which is a key to “shrinking our school” so that relationships are built and people know the individual student.  We have integrated a very successful job shadow program during the junior year that helps individual student’s better understand their academic needs.  Our career management requirements are changing so that we give more of our kids a chance to learn more about themselves and what their educational program should look like.  We continue to evaluate our course offering and curriculum, adding and changing classes to better meet the current and individual needs of our students.  A recent example is the addition of PLTW courses and a variety of language arts courses.  Job shadowing during the junior year gives students a chance to explore an area of personal interest, and programs like I Have A Plan Iowa allows us to get a better perspective of each student and their future path.  The changes we are making in grading are really focused on making sure that students know specific content and can demonstrate specific skills to that we have proof of what they know and can do.  

When the tide comes in we want all of our students to rise.  We have worked hard to put things in place for that to happen.  Hopefully the crew is ready for this journey!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What Stands In The Way of Productivity?

A strong opinion exists among the staff at the high school that smart phones have become a much bigger negative than they are a positive.  Tim Elmore, author, speaker, and youth leadership expert, agrees.  In fact, he considers the smart phone to be the “killer of productivity,” not just among students, but among adults as well.  While I am not an expert, I believe that we have some students that are absolutely addicted to their phones. More specific, they are addicted to “having to know what is going on,” which is provided to them through the texts, snaps, and posts on their smart phone.  A common question that I receive is “Why don’t you ban the phones from the building?”  That is a lot easier said than done, but certainly not something I can arbitrarily dismiss out of hand.  We will have more conversation about this as we look toward future policy.  None the less, here is Elmore’s article on the topic.

The Number One Killer of Productivity