Monday, June 4, 2018

Taking Bold Action on Difficult Issues is Required to Lead

Reflecting after a job interview: Tackling Chronic Absenteeism requires Strong Relationships and Making a Meaningful School Experience for Every Student the Top Priority

In a recent job interview for a role serving as an assistant principal I bungled an opportunity to highlight my expertise about a topic close to my heart.

The gist of the question concerned chronic student absenteeism and how I would aim to help the school improve in this area. The question lingered long after I hung my suit back up in the closet and it compelled me to find a better answer in preparation for a leadership role. 

"How would I, as the new assistant principal in a school plagued with student attendance issues, prioritize and implement a program to improve?" 

Everything connected to any answer about the topic of student attendance comes back to three key principles: 

1) Relationships are the most important aspect of any school. Engagement in school begins with relationships.

"The conditions that students living in poverty face exacerbate poor attendance. 
And slipping school attendance often leads a person back down the poverty 
path. The good news is that by taking an all-in approach to the problem, we 
can begin to close the attendance gap, bend the overall attendance curve, and 
help our most vulnerable students and families."  Ned W. Lauver     
PHOTO: Nick Gregory
2) Focusing on instruction and learning guides staff and students in their effort to rally around meaningful goals.

3) Doing nothing is not a wise option, especially when we can drill down to the root of the problem and help children succeed.

Sharing my philosophy and theorizing about possible solutions in my interview was sincere, but my response never got beneath the surface. My answer lacked the type of bold ideas necessary to support lasting change. (I can only hope that a second interview will provide the opportunity to articulate my ideas better.)

My devotion to equity demands that I think more about student attendance as a leader and not merely as a candidate for the job. 

As a leader, I will need to put my heart and passion into actions aimed at addressing student attendance because it is one of the foundational principles for education reform. We know that poor attendance in school leads to lower achievement and negative outcomes for children after high school. The research indicates that socioeconomic status and health problems predict poor attendance so how we approach our understanding of both of those topics in our community requires expertise and a team effort. Leading with empathy will help me understand the complexity of the challenge, and leading with courage is necessary to work toward changing outcomes for children. 

"A national rate of 10 percent chronic absenteeism seems 
conservative and it could be as high as 15 percent, meaning 
that 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent."  
SOURCE: Balfanz, R., & Byrnes, V. (2012). Chronic 
Absenteeism: Summarizing What We Know From 
Nationally Available Data.    PHOTO: Nick Gregory
There are so many factors tied into student attendance including the sense of belonging in a school community (for students and teachers), the family backgrounds of individual students and the past school experiences for individual students. With knowledge about about different learning styles and the onset of technological and social media advances, educators are charged with evolving to meet new needs for an ever changing student population. By the time we add employee engagement and confidence in the building leadership to the mix, it is inescapable that positively impacting student attendance involves a myriad of factors. All of this needs to be acknowledged as a part of improving the building culture. Staff and community buy-in requires bold leadership that is equipped to adapt to the changing school landscape.

There is not a one-size-fits-all answer so knowing what is currently being done to tackle the attendance challenge and the history of successful efforts will help me hone in on specific actions and align any new initiatives with best past practices.

Seven of my ideas to begin the brainstorming process are included below. These are the key points I should have stated in my interview.  (Sources are cited at the bottom of this blog entry for your review)

Prioritize the specific needs of the school 

With guidance from the principal, counselors and teachers, figure out the specific problems in regard to chronic absenteeism. Agree on the problems before working on the solutions. What is the priority?

The home of every student at-risk of missing out on graduation gets a personal contact from the school before we start the school year

As the AP, most of these calls would be made by me. By finding out how many students in next years senior class are in jeopardy of missing out on graduation and tracking attendance data to find important trends among that population, we can begin to get a clearer picture of how to set realistic and ambitious goals.

The "Welcome back to School!" phone call includes an introduction, the reason for the call and the interventions in place to help the student succeed. The call will include our interest in enlisting ideas from parents and guardians. This is also a great time to make a personal invite the school open house, take note of any concerns, etc. This information comes in handy as the year progresses. This could be just the beginning of something more that includes check-ins with mentors and regular contacts to homes. These students are on my radar as a building leader and noticing positive attendance trends and improvement will become a major part of what I do each day in my leadership role. We will determine measures for positive recognition and spread the opportunities among staff to deliver the good news to our students and families.

Invest time and resources in a simple communication system 

A system that makes parents aware of absences in real time can help the school deliver on its mission of reducing chronic absenteeism. Communicating the importance of attendance to students and parents as part of the school culture will improve attendance, and it may take some time to see the results of these actions. Communication involves celebrating successes and building on struggles with regular feedback to staff. Educators struggle when being asked to implement strategies that are not couched in a specific vision with measurable goals. An initiative like this one will involve the entire staff working on this and a tireless effort by me to monitor and evaluate so I can lead our improvement.

Monitor new students to develop strategies and check our impact

By collecting data on all of the chronically absent eighth grade students from the previous year, we can identify and begin a process of tracking attendance and other measures for success in real time.

We should add a second tier of incoming ninth grade students who are close to "chronically absent status" in order to broaden our reach and invest the resources necessary to assist those students and families before they might fall through the cracks (school leadership can determine cut-off points).

We will begin the process of specific interventions with the incoming ninth grade class before school begins in August. Just like with incoming seniors, these students get a phone call and invite to the open house. This means my July and August just got a lot busier, but the payoff will be students and families recognizing that we care about student success and attendance. We serve our students when we show them we are invested in their success.

Many students feel that school is not relevant in their 
lives. "While having dedicated mentors to work with students 
and families on school connection is one strategy for improving 
attendance, mentors are not the only adults in the building who 
can be a part of the solution. There is a role for classroom 
teachers." - The Hamilton Project          PHOTO: Nick Gregory
We can track cohorts from previous years using the same "chronically absent" criteria and we can measure whether our interventions appear to be having an impact. Naturally, this process requires staff input and the expertise of experienced leaders in the school district. Reaching out county-wide at the ISD level and even statewide to discover best practices will become a critical part of my responsibility and it is a charge worth leading for our kids. With a seminar class and other possibilities for mentoring at the high school, we could eventually scale our communication plan to work with students and families and also include their input for strategies.

Provide mentorship to students who are chronically absent 

Through a seminar or student resource class in which students are assigned to a specific teacher for four years important relationships can be built in the school setting. There are models in existence to learn from and we can choose to implement plans that meet our needs and budget. Our goal is constant: Increase the likelihood of student success by decreasing the level of chronically absent students.

Give the experts in the school district a voice! 

Reform efforts warrant the space and time to bounce ideas around, leaving out the "buts" and reasons/excuses for why success is unattainable aside. These conversations are not confined to administrators. In my experience teachers and other staff are waiting to be asked for ideas. Education will always be a team effort and those who "go it alone" rarely succeed at bringing solutions to scale.

Chronic absenteeism among students usually endures over a long period of time so the pattern is predictable for many of our students. A cursory review of best practices reveals that we have to find the root of the problem, learn from trends and create realistic goals and strategies that can be effectively measured. 

We cannot lose sight of the fact that we are working together to reverse a negative attendance trend that seems to have gained momentum in recent years. Improving in the area of student attendance has an impact on everything we do in our school.

Measure the impact and share the results, even if the goals are not met

If the initiative is done with fidelity and the support exists to succeed then the staff and community deserve to see the progress. School improvement goals should reflect the priority of reducing chronic absenteeism and the message about attendance leading to success needs to exist year round, not just when we notice dips and slides.

The cliche, "what gets measured gets done" applies to the attendance challenge. Our progress will require more than a measure to understand if we are solving this problem however. We will need to look at metrics that provide a baseline for us to make comparisons. Reviewing performance metrics and outcome metrics will be a necessary and important part of the leadership mission. Collective responsibility for progress should be noted and celebrated as we make progress.

As a leader, I will be prepared to take ownership of our shortcomings and give credit to the staff and students when we are successful. My role is to keep trying and to move the needle on progress by working with others with a focus on student learning.

Sources that inspired my ideas are included below:

Source: Attendance Works

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. Gregory is a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.

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