More than 3,000 Jessamine County students missed 18 or more school days in the 2010-2011 school year, according to a report released last week that highlighted a chronic attendance problem the superintendent called “completely baffling.”
The Kids Count data book comes out each year, but the 2012 edition was the first to include the data for “chronic absenteeism” — students who missed at least 10 percent of the school year. A total of 44.1 percent of Jessamine County’s 7,720 students in 2010-2011 fell into that category — the fourth-highest total of Kentucky’s 174 public-school districts and the second-highest of the 120 county districts.
Superintendent Lu Young said she was surprised by that figure, especially since the district has seen attendance increases each of the last three years. Jessamine County had a record-high average daily attendance in 2011-2012 of 93.9 percent — but Young said that figure still means the average student would have missed more than two weeks of school.
“We can’t celebrate 94-percent attendance if that means kids are missing 11 school days a year,” she said.
Jessamine County has a history of poor attendance, falling below the state average each of the past 10 years and ranking as low as 161st out of 176 districts in the state in the 2002-2003 school year. Young said she had no reasoning to offer for why the district’s attendance has lagged for decades.
“I don’t think this community devalues education — in fact, I think it’s just the opposite, that they have high expectations for their children and youth and high expectations for them in school,” she said. “My team and I need to really get the message across that school attendance in Jessamine County is not where it needs to be and that we’ve got to really push hard there.”
The district has made a big push recently to address unexcused absences and truancy. An attendance-advocate position was added in 2009 and filled by Earl Trent, who has mitigated truancy issues in the district since. He said about 700 students a year are habitually truant — having six or more unexcused absences — and receive a final notice from the district. Court intervention is a “‘last resort,” Trent said, and comes into play only when multiple interventions at school and district levels have been attempted.
Jessamine County’s average daily attendance has increased each of the years Trent has been on the job. Young said other efforts to boost attendance over that period include grant-funded social workers at the elementary schools, the addition of an as-needed nurse pool and a district-wide incentive-based “Count Me In” week each February.
But top officials have not tackled the issue of excused absences yet. Young called that a “different lens” for attendance that the district was going to have to use.
“I think we need to look across that and say, ‘Are there ways that we can really campaign around improving attendance holistically, not just improving unexcused attendance?’” she said.
Students in Jessamine County can have up to eight excused absences each year at parents’ discretion and an additional 12 absences with medical documentation. Young said the district had cut the parent-note number down from 10.
Wilmore Elementary School sits at the top of the district’s attendance figures each year — a fact Young credited largely to the school’s work with incentive-based attendance. Principal Andi McNeal said that rewards for attendance on a regular basis — yearly, quarterly, monthly and even daily — help get students to school but that strong relationships and quality instruction also keep attendance up.
“It’s about being here with their teacher and their classmates, and that’s just something that we strive really hard for, creating relationships that matter,” McNeal said. “You want to be with the people that you care about.
“I think the instruction that my teachers plan is good, so (students) want to see what’s going to happen. We do a lot with incentives; our parents support us. And we make a big deal about it; when people aren’t here, we call. I think it’s that connection to every kid like we do with everything else.”
McNeal said eight parent notes seemed like a typical figure across districts where she had worked. She said she appreciates the opportunities the notes give parents for a variety of activities.
“Sometimes you have an opportunity to do something with your child that a parent note can take the place of, and you don’t have to pretend that they’re sick,” she said. “That makes me sad when kids feel like they have to lie.”
The amount of state funding that school districts receive is tied directly to their average daily attendance. Young said parents often “push back” when she pushes for attendance, alleging the schools’ only interest is in dollar signs.
“Raising our ADA has improved our funding, so we definitely want to do that, but it’s all about that child being in school and learning and staying on grade level and moving up through grade levels,” she said. “That’s where you develop the good habits for good attendance at work — good attendance at school. Attendance matters — they’re closer to the curriculum and the learning; it’s just better for them all the way around.
“I don’t make any bones about pushing the need for good attendance, but I would say it’s not about money; it’s about kids.”