Attendance: Wake-Up Calls Go High Tech
"Truancy is a nationwide epidemic and the old tools don't work."--Travis Knox, President of AIM Truancy Solutions
Desperate to improve student attendance, schools are now using GPS devices to track truant students. According to a recent report schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kentucky, Kansas and California "have resorted to fitting students with hand-held GPS devices the size of a cellphone." Parents must voluntarily agree to have their child receive a phone call each morning reminding them to go to school on time. In addition, the student is required to enter a code to track their location five times each day.
Early reactions indicate that the program is having a positive effect. With a few exceptions parents agreed to allow their child to participate.
Miss school and you miss out. That was the message that we continually conveyed to our students. Turning around a low-performing school or improving the performance of under-resourced students often means improving student attendance and reducing truancy.
When we began our effort years ago, our average student missed over nineteen days of school each year. We knew that, unless we could improve attendance, we would have little chance of raising student performance.
There is no simple solution to improving attendance. It takes a lot of hard work. Improving attendance can only be done one student at a time and it means doing everything possible to encourage students to attend regularly.
Wake-up calls mean we care
Years ago our school began using a hand-me-down roto-dialer to make daily wake-up calls to our most frequently absent students. Like those in the aforementioned pilot programs, we found little parent resistance. In fact, we had parents of students with good attendance request that their child be put on the call list, because they left early for work and they wanted to make certain that their child arrived at school on time.
Shortly after the program began, a student walked up to me and said, "At first, I didn't like getting the calls, but I am a senior and this is the first time that I felt like the school actually wanted me to be here every day.
Surveys of school dropouts cite the most frequently given reason for dropping out was that no one at the school cared if they attended.
Persistence Pays Off
Wake-up calls were only one part of our efforts to improve student attendance. We learned that our students would regularly attend a safe, orderly, clean, and inviting school, particularly if the students felt that the teachers sincerely wanted them to succeed.
We also learned that the best way to change student behavior was to change our own behavior. Doing the same things the same way would not make the school more inviting. We had to do a lot of soul-searching. We had to change our expectations, and make some painful changes in our grading and homework policies.
Everyone in the school played a key part. Through the tireless efforts of the staff we were able to reduce the annual absence rate from nineteen days per student to less than eight days per student.
Schools Need Support
The challenges faced by schools in their attempt to encourage regular student attendance clearly points out the flaws in our accountability system. Schools, teachers, and principals are held personally accountable for student performance when they have no influence or control over attendance laws or their enforcement. In far too many instances, enforcement of attendance laws is non-existent. Students literally show up when they feel like it.
In the same way, schools in many states rely totally on the good will of their students to put forth their best effort on state assessments because their is absolutely no consequence for students who do poorly. Students can literally "Christmas-tree" a state assessment and nothing happens.
The careers of teachers and administrators as well as the reputation of the school and the school district depended on the good will of the students. If they don't feel like taking the test, there is no consequence.
From experience I have learned that unless everyone—students, teachers, administrators, schools, and school districts-- is held accountable for student performance, there is not true accountability. Unless everyone is working together toward a common goal, we have no accountability system. Instead, we have a system that scapegoats those who work in schools.