When 2019’s Oklahoma School Report Cards came out this semester, Norman’s grades appeared to point out one worsening issue: Student absenteeism.
The Norman Public Schools report card showed that the district was slightly below the state average when it came to good attendance, and that the district had fallen in good attendance records since last year. According to the report card, 84.6% of the district’s students have good attendance (down from 86.9% last year), leaving 15.4% of students regularly struggling to attend school.
“I’m just going to tell you: Norman Public Schools got a ‘C’ in chronic absenteeism,” district superintendent Nick Migliorino told community leaders at this year’s State of the Schools address in November. “...As we have employers in this room, one of the things we hear all the time is…’how do we get them to show up to work?’ It starts in kindergarten, when the parents get them to show up to school. This is one of the things we need to preach in this community: kids need to go to school.”
But absenteeism isn’t a new problem, or one that’s an anomaly in Norman.
Chronic absenteeism occurs when a student misses at least 10% of days in a school year, which is 17 days in Oklahoma. A report from the U.S Department of Education estimated that in 2015-2016, about 1 in 6 students in the U.S. missed at least 15 days of school. Black and Native American students are more likely to deal with absenteeism than white students; the issue is also more likely to affect students in low-income homes or those with a disability, according to the report.
“We know that if students aren’t in our classrooms, they’re not going to learn, so we need students there, we need them consistently,” said Scott Beck, director of student services for secondary students. “So I think that’s something that’s not something new. That’s not a new issue for us.”
Beck and Holly McKinney, director of student services for elementary, said while the district has been dealing with absenteeism for a long time, 2019’s report cards don’t necessarily represent a big issue.
Under State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmiester, the State Department of Education changed its annual report card structure within the last few years, rebuilding the system to create more nuance in how districts are evaluated each year. McKinney said while the state previously graded districts on a school’s overall attendance, the report cards now reflect individual students’ records. The state formula for determining a district’s absenteeism grade has also changed within the last year, McKinney said.
“We’ve always been very aware [about] which students are in school, which students that we have worries about — we reach out to parents, we partner with them to determine if there’s any other supports they need or anything we can do to partner with parents to ensure that kids are in school,” McKinney said.
In Norman, those supports may look different by the student. Nationally, there’s a few indicators of why or how a student may struggle with absenteeism. Norman’s absenteeism numbers reflect the national racial disparity in school attendance — students of color are more likely to struggle with attendance than white students — and show that students with disabilities or lower income levels have increased levels of absenteeism.
But on a district level, McKinney and Beck said the issue is a very individual one. A student may skip school because they’re sick or anxious, because they just don’t want to be there, because they’re dealing with complicated family issues.
Beck said the district works to create a system of care around students — from medical care, to school counselors, to free and reduced lunch programs — that helps address some of those underlying absenteeism causes. Communication — with students, teachers, administrators and parents — is key in all of it, he said.
“Those are very kind of personal [reasons] with families, so we would work individually with each kid,” Beck said. “So I think a lot of our work, and the work of our principals, we have spent so much time emphasizing thinking about trauma-informed kinds of instruction and programs in the school, thinking about our student advocacy work, the work of our advocates in our counseling teams, how they reach out to students and families.”
McKinney said this year’s absenteeism grade wasn’t a surprise or necessarily a worry for the district, since administrators are already communicating about the issue and working to address it on a daily basis. The district is also working to make sure that parents understand what absenteeism is and how to help students make it to school when they need to.
“It’s been that way in Norman — the chronic absenteeism label has not changed necessarily,” McKinney said. “I think now we’re just being more intentful to be proactive and really making sure you’re educating parents.”
Beyond directly working with struggling students and educating families, McKinney and Beck said a key part of encouraging attendence is making sure students feel connected in their school environment. Extracurriculars can help build a sense of community that may make a student more likely to have stronger attendance and relationship to their school, Beck said.
“If a student feels like they belong, if they feel welcome, that someone’s going to notice if they’re not there, that really makes a big difference,” McKinney said.
One community partnership has been particularly successful for students, they said. Four years ago, Norman Rotary Club member Craig Heaton approached the district about a program to tackle absenteeism. The relationship spawned Rotary Success Cycles.
Every nine weeks, the Rotary Club draws the names of one male student and one female student with perfect attendance for that cycle. The club gives them a free bike, lock and helmet.
“The schools report back to us that it has helped with attendance…it does seemed to have helped, and the teachers and principals loved the idea,” Heaton said.
Heaton said the program has been successful on a school attendance level, but has also meant a lot to induvidual students and families. He’s heard from a father who snapped a photo of his son waiting in the garage at 6:30 a.m. on a weekend to ride his new bike; he’s heard from a student at Dimensions Academy who was excited to use his new bike to ride to the grocery store for his family.
“It’s not the only variable that incentivize kids, but it’s definitely one that we really enjoy,” McKinney said. “To see the difference that it makes on a student that may have never had a bike and the fact that they were at school and they were able to receive that — it’s a pretty neat thing.”
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