If school districts throughout Central Texas could increase attendance by 2 percentage points, local schools could get $34 million more in state funding, according to Susan Dawson, president and executive director of the nonprofit organization E3 Alliance. As a regional, data-driven education collaborative, E3 Alliance aims to improve education, in turn driving regional economic prosperity.
"If you look at every single grade, Central Texas students have worse absenteeism than the rest of the state average," Dawson said.
That's the message the Austin-based organization hopes to spread with the introduction of its task force for Missing School Matters, a regionwide campaign launched in April to increase awareness of the importance of attendance. Led by a group of 21 parents, educators, business leaders and community members, the volunteer task force aims to mobilize this summer and inform the public, Co-chairwoman Amy Jones said.
"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.
E3 met with superintendents throughout Central Texas and asked what issues to tackle, and attendance was superintendents' top suggestion, Dawson said.
Schools receive state funding based on attendance numbers. Leander ISD loses about $40 per student for each day of class missed, said Veronica Sopher, director of school and community relations. The district has worked to inform parents about the educational and financial impact of discretionary absences, and several campuses have launched attendance initiatives, she said.
"Any time students are away from the classroom, they are losing valuable instruction time. When this happens, adjustments have to be made to catch them up, and this not only impacts their learning, but it also impacts the rest of the class," she said. "There are some times when students are sick, and we certainty want them at home getting better and not at school spreading germs, so we design protocols to address missed work. But when we have discretionary absences, it really does take away from everyone's learning."
Fall attendance challenge
As part of Missing School Matters, E3 partnered with the Get Schooled Foundation to invite schools to participate in the nationwide Get Schooled Fall Attendance Challenge. In the 2012 competition, Leander High School placed 15th out of 300 schools nationwide by increasing attendance by 1.45 percentage points compared with the prior year.
MSM has a limited budget, E3 Communications Director Rick L'Amie said, so the nonprofit 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 that if I dedicate the precious time that I have toward an initiative, this is the right initiative to do this with."
As part of the MSM initiative, E3 also recently completed data collection from nine schools in Pflugerville ISD and Hays CISD about 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.
Sopher said chronic absenteeism can lead to bigger issues in the LISD community.
"Chronic absenteeism can oftentimes lead to a student dropping out of school, and we know that it ends up costing taxpayers and the community much more when that happens. We exist as a system to focus on student learning so that our students can become active, engaged citizens," she said. "They learn those skills at school, and when they are chronically absent from school, they don't always learn some of those soft skills. The financial impact to the district, the community and the taxpayers can be incredible."
By 2014, E3 Alliance hopes to increase attendance by 2 percentage points overall in 12 Central Texas districts including Austin ISD, Eanes ISD, Hays CISD, Hutto ISD, Lake Travis ISD, Leander ISD, Pflugerville ISD, Round Rock ISD and San Marcos CISD.