Dubuque schools focus on improving attendance as new year begins

About 25 percent of students at Audubon School in Dubuque are chronically absent. (Allison...
About 25 percent of students at Audubon School in Dubuque are chronically absent. (Allison Wong, KCRG)(KCRG)
Published: Sep. 5, 2019 at 4:55 PM CDT
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With the new school year underway, experts say this is the time for students to form good attendance habits, and the Dubuque Community School District is hoping to improve attendance at its elementary schools.

In the last three years, the district has recorded the number of students who were chronically absent, meaning they missed about 10 percent of the school year. In 2016-2017, 9.9 percent of the district's elementary kids were chronically absent. The next year it increased to 11.1 percent, and just last school year it was at 10 percent.

Shirley Horstman, Director of Student Services, said the beginning of the year is the best time to develop good attendance habits.

"Principals are doing a lot of messaging, school newsletters, classroom talking about what is good attendance," she said. "And good attendance is coming each and every day that they’re healthy.”

The hope is the students and their parents will develop a routine that includes packing backpacks, finishing homework, and picking out outfits the night before school.

“We continue to do what we call awareness campaigns and part of that is the slow dripping of information continually throughout the year," Horstman said.

But some schools are better off than others. For example, Bryant School only had nine chronically absent students last school year, which was about three percent of its student enrollment.

Meanwhile, Title 1 schools experience more absences. Audubon had 58 students missing many days in the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 23 percent of its student enrollment.

Principal Ed Glaser is trying to improve that with proactive and positive actions.

"Traditionally, we would maybe go more punitive. You know, like if your kids aren’t at school, this is going to happen.” Now, they try to be positive and create an environment that's welcoming for students.

Glaser said, "we celebrate kids who are making growth. We celebrate kids who are here."

Those celebrations are daily or cumulative. For example, each teacher has a sign to put on their door that says, "My class has perfect attendance today!" When that happens, one student is tasked with going around the school to hand out stars, that are then posted on the classroom's doorframe.

"It becomes kind of like a fun thing for the class to do," Glaser said.

The school also has a "five and under" challenge, which challenges all students and staff to miss less than five days in a school year. At the end of the year, the kids who made it are rewarded.

Glaser said, "last year we took them to a bowling alley and then we combined that with a picnic in the park.”

The school also hosts family-friendly events. "My goal in that is for parents to get to know each other and for our staff to get to know the families," Glaser said.

Each Title 1 school has a "school connector," a position dedicated to attendance and parent engagement. Glaser said it's really helpful at Audubon, but other schools might need more assistance.

For example, Prescott, a Title 1 school, had 91 chronically absent kids in the 2018-2019 school year. However, Horstman said the funds aren't there to create more positions to handle all of those cases.

"At this time we do not have the funds to be able to budget for additional positions, and so we’re always looking for community partners that can help us spread the message, that can help work with the families," she said.

Horstman said the district is also equipping its principals with a new tool this year to help get to the root causes of students' absenteeism.

"It (goes through) like academic conditions, safety concerns, social dynamics, home situations, the health. It goes through all of the possible areas where barriers could exist for the child," Horstman explained.

The hope is to figure out what's causing the absences and then connect the family to resources that can help.

Just two weeks into the year, Glaser hopes he continues to improve his school.

"I wish our attendance was better, but I feel really good about some of the connections we’ve made through our attendance initiatives," he said.