The cheers at the end of the day could be heard down the hall and around the corner, all the way in the office where Sarah Briscoe was making daily announcements.
The hollering was coming from a second-grade classroom where every student showed up for the school day. The daily ritual of announcing perfect-attendance classrooms is part of the school’s all-out focus on getting its students into desks every day.
Bryan Hill Elementary School in the far-north side College Hill neighborhood can boast an attendance rate 97.9%, a figure bested only by one of St. Louis Public Schools’ gifted-program magnet schools.
While the neighborhood school’s proficiency test scores lag significantly behind students at the gifted schools, having students in class every day is a critical part of improving academic outcomes.
And that’s why it gets its own bulletin board in the main office.
“Every day if you look to the right, you’ll see what our percentage is for the day,” said Briscoe, who has been principal of Bryan Hill for seven years.
Once a week, Briscoe assembles the team responsible for tracking and encouraging attendance. Seated at a long wooden table in the principal’s office are the secretary, counselor, family and community specialist, and a part-time social worker. With them are two full-time student and family mentors from the Grace Hill Settlement House.
“That team meets every Wednesday; rain, sleet, snow, we meet. There’s no cancelation of that meeting,” Briscoe said.
The school’s nonprofit partner, Grace Hill, does everything from employment services to early childhood education. It began its work with the school three years ago. Bryan Hill shares the district social worker with nearby schools. But the two mentors are in the school every day.
Having so many staff members dedicated to attendance means Bryan Hill can deploy an almost one-on-one strategy. The families of the school’s 185 students are divided between the team members. Each family is color-coded green, yellow, or red.
“Red means these are families that we really need to wrap our arms around, check in with; they may need housing, they may need a job. They have circumstances that we’re going to really have to help them to get their kids to school,” Briscoe said.
The neighborhoods served by Bryan Hill are low-income with a transient population.
"They move here because it’s cheap,” Briscoe said, “but then then see how much crime there is, or their house has been broken into, or they’ve been shot at, and they move right back out.”
Bryan Hill loses about 40% of its families every summer, but it's turnover rate used to be about 60%, according to Briscoe.
The attendance team reaches out to families on a near-daily basis, offering to help with rides or tackle situations affecting a child’s ability to be in school.
“They know that if they receive a call from me that it’s pretty serious,” Briscoe said.
The state’s education department takes attendance seriously as well — factoring it into both its accreditation and funding formulas. Missouri sets a benchmark of 90% of kids being in school 90% of the time. Fall below that figure and lose accreditation points and funding dollars.
That focus on attendance, of course, is because kids can’t learn if they’re not in school.
“Every student in here knows their attendance percentage, they know their reading level. We can’t teach you, we can’t get that level up if you don’t come to school,” Briscoe said.
Students at Bryan Hill are still below grade-level in reading and math. But being in school day-after-day — and in the same school year-after-year — creates a consistency that’s key to improving.
Briscoe entices the students to come to school with constant perks and challenges. Have perfect attendance one month? Then it’s an invitation to a nacho party.
“We make school fun for them,” Briscoe said. “We want to look forward to something each and every day that they’re here.”
The school will throw a party Tuesday for any students who missed only two days of school in second semester. The guest list is 134 names long.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
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