This story is part four of Accounted For, an ongoing project of St. Louis Public Radio that explores the connection between chronic absenteeism -- defined as missing three and a half weeks or more of school -- and classroom success.
Melissa Schut drew out a problem on the white board at the front of her sixth-grade math class.
Like she often does, Schut started with three questions.
“Where are you starting?” Schut asked. “Where are you going? How are you going to get there?”
She paused to study the looks on students’ faces in her cozy classroom at Westview Middle School in Riverview Gardens.
“Go!” Schut said while clicking an electronic timer.
Pencils began to scurry across notebook paper. Little brows furrowed with concentration and the room purred with the sound of writing and erasing.
In a school where roughly one in four students was chronically absent last year, none of the 24 kids in Schut’s homeroom is on track to earn that label this year. It’s a high water mark she credits to the competitive nature of her class along with some healthy peer pressure. And good attendance now could pay big dividends for students down the road.
“Oh, I bother them about it every day,” said Schut. “If I have a kid that maybe missed two or three days I sit down with them and show them their tests and their quizzes and say, ‘what do you think happened? Every single time I’ve done that they say, ‘I wasn’t here, I missed some days of school.’”
Schut said the point isn’t to make students feel bad about not being in school for an illness or other reasons. Rather, the idea is to help students chart a straight line that connects going to school every day and doing well in class.
“Eventually, they start to say what I’m saying,” Schut said. “They’re like, ‘oh, yeah, this is important. I do need to be here.’”
Toni Marie Young finished her assignment early and set down her pencil with an air of confidence.
“Every morning I’m ready to get on the bus and come here and get my day going,” the wide eyed sixth grader said.
And she’s up for the way Schut challenges her in the classroom.
“She teaches us more things than we’re supposed to know,” said Toni. “She pushes us really hard.”
Schut delivers assignments like miniature pep-rallies, permeating her classroom with a steady stream of enthusiasm and constantly raising the bar for students.
“I tell my kids if you don’t have 100 percent, you can improve,” Schut said.
While students often sprint against one another to solve problems, attendance is a team sport. The daily head count is treated like an event, with students turning daily numbers into a percent.
Classes in the school compete against one another for the best attendance, and Schut said her students like winning. And in turn, that competitive spirit taps into a healthier side of peer pressure.
Max Jones looks forward to racing against his fellow students and wants to be a lawyer when he grows up. He’s not shy about asking his friends why they’d rather stay home and play video games.
“I say ‘I’m going to school the next day, why aren’t you going?'” said Max Jones.
It’s about this time of year that Schut said it clicks for many students: Good attendance means a better shot at winning friendly games with their classmates.
“It’s no longer, ‘well, I’m showing up at school because my mom wakes me up at six o’clock and puts me on the bus.’” Schut said. “It’s, ‘I come to school every day because I have to learn because I want to be in seventh grade and I want to be in honors classes, so why wouldn’t I go to school?’”
When students take that kind of attitude home, she said it naturally puts added pressure on parents and guardians to make sure their children are in school.
“I’ve had hardly any students show up without a doctor’s note or without a phone call,” Schut said. “The kids themselves are taking a lot of that ownership.
The competitive streak that runs through Schut’s class appears to be yielding results.
Last year, 20.1 percent of Westview Middle School students and 15.2 percent of all students in Riverview Gardens scored at the proficient or advanced level on the mathematics portion of the annual Missouri Assessment Program (MAP). Based on benchmark exams this year, Schut said roughly 40 percent of her students are on track to score at the proficient or advanced level when they take they take the MAP test this spring.
“Even those kids that came to me proficient are gaining still,” Schut said.
There’s a link to classroom behavior, too, especially in a subject like math where one skill leads to another.
It’s easy for a chronically absent student to fall behind, get frustrated and act out in class. That can lead to a host of behavior issues and distract other students. A study last year in New York City found that 86 percent of the time chronic absenteeism was the first warning sign that a kid was headed toward a suspension.
While every student is different, Schut said when a kid misses an excessive amount of school it can cause headaches in her classroom.
“They get really frustrated and upset,” Schut said. “It does play into the behavior piece. ‘If I don’t know what to do, I’m going to pick something that I want to.’ That’s probably not what the teacher wants you to do.”
Schut said even though what leads to chronic absenteeism can be complicated, the equation that’s working for her is pretty simple. It’s not hard to get sixth graders excited about something; she just harnesses that excitement and points it in the right direction.
A transition year
When it comes to chronic absenteeism, students in sixth grade are at a statistical crossroads.
The problem typically follows the pattern of an inverted u-shape. There’s a peak in kindergarten and first grade, attendance begins to improve through fifth grade and then starts to get worse starting with sixth grade.
“We think that somewhere between fourth and sixth grade is when most students decide whether or not they’re college material, or maybe even become a doctor or lawyer or engineer,” said Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an education professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis. “Sixth grade is a critical time when kids are forming this identity of themselves as being capable, engaged learners.”
A team of researchers in Baltimore crunched the numbers and found that fewer than 29 percent of chronically absent sixth graders graduate on time. That data prompted them to conclude that chronic absenteeism is one of the most common risk factors in determining if a student will drop out of school.
“When you have children who are not in school, not engaged in school, it’s more likely that they would be seeing themselves as somebody who’s not a good student, who’s going to drop out of school or may not go on and get a demanding, challenging job,” Brown said.
If the problem lingers, researchers in Utah found that chronically absent eight graders were almost seven and half times more likely to drop out of school.
“Teachers who are able to engage those students and keep (them) attending on a daily basis, that’s extremely helpful,” Brown said.
From a giant bulletin board showing monthly numbers to a list of students with perfect attendance, reminders about the need to be at school as much as possible are taped, stapled and posted all over Westview Middle School.
“We know that we can’t teach them if they’re not in our building,” said Westview Middle School Principal Valeska Hill.
Hill came to the school in 2010 as part of a $3.5 billion effort on the part of the U.S. Department of Education to turn around the lowest performing schools in the nation. Spanning three years, the first round of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program was meant to be a shot in the arm to the ailing parts of America’s public education system.
In Missouri, 32 struggling schools received $54 million to ramp up graduation rates and improve classroom instruction. When a team of specialists from the state arrived, Hill said they started the process by homing in on attendance, which along with ramping up classroom instruction and alleviating behavior problems, was part of an integrated approach to jump starting academic success at the school.
“We had to make sure our kids were here, and if they were not here, why?” Hill said.
To clamp down on poor attendance, she said administrators began to focus on the individual reasons a student wasn’t showing up at school on a regular basis.
“In doing that, the alignment in the classroom was seamless,” Hill said. “Because, teachers are now able to say, ‘I can use the instructional strategies that I’ve learned through professional development and apply that to the kiddos who are in my classroom, whereas before, you’re really holding me accountable for absenteeism. I don’t have kids in my classroom but you’re expecting me to have 80 percent of my kids master whatever skillset that is.’”
That approach has steadily moved the needle. In the year prior to Hill’s arrival, just under 38 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2009-10 school year. That number was reduced to 27 percent last school year, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
The improvement is far from dramatic, but the roughly 10 percent reduction in chronically absent students has paralleled a higher percentage of students at the school who have scored at the proficient or advanced level on the annual MAP test.
Scores in math are up 4.5 percentage points, from 15.6 percent during the 2009-10 school year to 20.1 percent last year. During that same period of time, scores in science have improved from 5.5 percent to 8.5 percent and in English and Language Arts, scores are up to 22.3 percent from 18.3 percent.
“We relate that to increasing our attendance,” Hill said. “It’s a direct correlation. Kids are here, teachers are able to apply instructional strategies they were taught.”
As the district hustles to earn back its state accreditation, Hill said this year administrators at the school and the rest of the district are stepping up their game to keep kids from slipping through the cracks. For the first time, attendance data for each student is fed to the school from district offices and then reviewed by staff. Students who start to slide off the rails receive behavior contracts and given incentives to make improvements in behavior and attendance.
Hill said the overarching theme is to create a more individualized approach to dealing with the specific reasons that could be keeping a child from coming to school on a regular basis.
Also new this year is an especially aggressive approach to engage parents or guardians when a student begins putting together a string of absences.
“Some parents, and I’ll just be honest, aren’t that happy with constant phone calls and constant letters,” Hill said. “But, you know, that’s the accountability piece for the district. Kids have to be in school, that’s what the law says. We know that by them being here, we have so much to teach in terms of behavioral structures and the academic piece of it. No. 1, kids have to be at school.”
Hill said thanks to improved data they know where they’re at and where they want to go. But getting there will take time and help from the community.