School districts pushing to increase student attendance

If school districts throughout Central Texas could increase attendance by 2 percentage points, local schools could get $34 million in state funding, according to Susan Dawson, president and executive director of the nonprofit organization E3 Alliance.

That's the message the Austin-based organization hopes to spread with the introduction of its task force for Missing School Matters, or MSM, a regionwide campaign to increase awareness of the importance of attendance.

"If you look at every single grade, Central Texas students have worse absenteeism than the rest of the state average," Dawson said.

Schools receive state funding based on attendance numbers, Dawson said. E3 is a regional, data-driven education collaborative that aims to improve education, which in turn drives regional economic prosperity. E3 recently met with Central Texas superintendents and asked what issues they should tackle, and attendance was the superintendents' top suggestion, Dawson said. By 2014, the task force hopes to increase attendance by 2 percentage points overall in 12 Central Texas districts including Pflugerville ISD, Round Rock ISD and Hutto ISD.

"In the schools that were concentrating on partnering with us last fall, the average attendance increase was 2 percentage points. So if we can get that across the region, it's going to have a huge impact," Dawson said.

In April, E3 launched a 21-member task force composed of parents, educators, business leaders and community members to help lead the campaign. Task force co-chairwoman Amy Jones said the group's goal will be to mobilize this summer and inform the public.

"We're going to be addressing subgroups in a variety of different [ways, for example]—back-to-school nights, PTAs, church groups, nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Clubs and Communities In Schools or Big Brothers Big Sisters so that everyone in our community is talking about the fact that missing school matters, and there are small things that we can all do to make a difference," Jones said.

Fall attendance challenge

As part of MSM, E3 partnered with the Get Schooled Foundation to invite schools to participate in the nationwide Get Schooled Fall Attendance Challenge.

In the 2012 competition with 300 schools nationwide, Stony Point High School in RRISD was named the National Grand Champion after it increased attendance 5 percentage points compared with the same time period the prior year, according to E3 Communications Director Rick L'Amie.

Albert Hernandez, Stony Point High School principal, said the school was working to promote school attendance before the challenge and that tools such as postcards sent to students accruing multiple absences, phone call "blitzes" and working with district staff helped win the national award.

"We're very happy to receive this national recognition," Hernandez said. "Our administrative team has done exceptionally well working systematically to turn the tide [in improving] attendance."

E3 has also helped increase attendance throughout Round Rock ISD.

"Regular school attendance impacts both student success and a school district's financial operations. The E3 Alliance has been a valuable partner in helping Central Texas school districts make attendance a priority," RRISD Community Partnerships Supervisor Michelle Jackson said.

MSM has a limited budget, L'Amie said, so E3 is counting on people in the community to help drive the campaign's message home.

Task force co-chairwoman Lauren Paver said E3 has a successful track record of doing research, making data-driven decisions and working with effective partners to improve education locally.

"I believe education is the ticket that can change somebody's situation, typically for the better," she said. "I'm confident ... this is the right initiative to do this with."

Explaining absenteeism

As part of the MSM initiative, E3 also recently completed collecting data from nine schools in Pflugerville ISD and Hays CISD on reasons for absenteeism to determine whether the top excuse is illness, transportation issues, work schedule conflicts or simply students skipping class.

"So for the first time that we can tell in the country, we're doing a legitimate, statistically valid sample that's a valid research base to understand why kids are absent," Dawson said, noting that she hopes the organization will be able to release that data at its MSM summit this summer.

"If a kid is sick, they're sick. But there's a huge difference between [if] they have fever and they're contagious and you want them to be at home versus they have asthma, and for a $15 inhaler we could have them in school 10 more days a year," she said.

Hutto ISD Superintendent Doug Killian said sickness is the top reason why students miss school in the district. Hutto schools, however, have kept a high attendance rate because of educating parents about the importance of students attending school as much as possible, he said.

"Our attendance rate is very high—above 97 percent—and we attribute that to educating our parents and students on the importance of being in class and on time," Killian said. "We [usually only] see a dip in our attendance rates when there is a [virus] or something going through the district."

Pflugerville ISD plans to use the information taken from the E3 attendance challenge to isolate specific reasons why students miss school and if absences tend to happen among students in certain geographical areas.

"[We want] to see if it would be possible to focus educational efforts or health care services to specific populations or areas," PISD Public Information Officer Amanda Brim said. "The expected return would be healthier students and greater attendance."

The MSM summit is scheduled to be held June 11 and will be free and open to the public. More information is available at www.e3alliance.org and

www.missingschoolmatters.org.