E3 organization works to increase student attendance rates

If school districts throughout Central Texas could increase attendance by 2 percentage points, the region could get an additional $34 million in annual state funding for education, said Susan Dawson, president and executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit E3 Alliance.

That's the message E3 hopes to spread with the introduction of its task force for Missing School Matters, 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.

E3 Alliance is a regional, data-driven education collaborative that aims to improve education and drive economic prosperity. E3 asked Central Texas superintendents what issues the organization should focus on, and attendance was the top suggestion, Dawson said.By 2014, E3 hopes to boost attendance by 2 percentage points overall in Austin, Round Rock and Pflugerville ISDs and nine other Central Texas districts.

The task force includes 21 parents, educators and business leaders. This summer, the group aims to mobilize and inform the public, said Amy Jones, volunteer task force co-chairwoman.

"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.

Attendance in Northwest Austin

Austin ISD loses $45 in state revenue each time a student is absent. If the district had 100 percent attendance every day for an entire school year, it would receive an additional $25 million in state funding annually, according to AISD.

Overall, attendance was up for the 2012–13 school year, AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said.

"What we try to do is instill good habits around attendance, going to class and doing your homework, because we know that those are factors that will lead to better outcomes like graduation and college for our students," Carstarphen said. "We care about the kids and the academic impact, but the second piece is that [attendance] has a significant impact on our budget and bottom line."

In North Austin, Lanier High School increased its attendance by 2.8 percentage points to 92.7 percent, and Anderson High School's attendance rate rose 0.2 percentage points to 95.3 percent. Both schools exceeded the district's 92 percent attendance rate goal for high schools.

Reasons for absences vary, according to E3 research. In general, the better off families are economically, the better their children's attendance, AISD board trustee Robert Schneider said.

Attendance is part of the overall formula the state uses to determine funding for the district, he explained, and attendance dollars are not subject to recapture, the process in which a portion of local tax funds are paid back to the state and redistributed to poorer districts.

"If you don't have kids or you're a parent who lives in AISD but you're sending your kids to a private school or a charter, you're still paying property taxes. ... Your money's staying locally and educating kids that are ultimately going to be part of the economy in some way," Schneider said.

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, so E3 is counting on people in the community to help drive the campaign's message home, E3 Communications Director Rick L'Amie said.

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

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."

Risks and options

AISD's policy states that it is up to staff discretion whether to initiate a withdrawal of a student for nonattendance but that withdrawal becomes mandatory after 20 days of absence.

Before a student gets to that point, AISD tries to intervene at the campus level and with programs such as the Every Day Counts student attendance campaign presented in both English and Spanish.

Since the campaign's implementation in 2010–11, AISD's daily attendance increased by 1 percentage point in 2011–12, with a total student attendance rate of more than 95 percent during the 2011–12 school year. That attendance improvement generated an additional $4.7 million in funds for the district over two years, according to AISD. "We want to give [students] all the right exposure to instructional supports and content and information so that they get what they need to be successful in school and in life," Carstarphen said.

More information is available at each district's website and www.e3alliance.org or www.missingschoolmatters.org.