Weakley Students Radically Reverse Absenteeism

Community Incentives Keep Kids in Class
Posted on 08/05/2019
Graph of changes in chronic absenteeismChronic absenteeism affects academic achievement, a student’s interactions with others, and the probability of graduating. So in 2017-18, when Tennessee made chronic absenteeism a part of district and school accountability, Weakley County showed up and -- some might even say -- showed out. As the result of a combination of efforts, Weakley County Schools saw a significant improvement in chronic absenteeism rates last year.

After three years of over 10% of students missing 10% or more of the school year including two years at 11.9%, the 2018-19 school year saw a drop of more than 3 percentage points to 8.8%. Primary, elementary and middle schools recorded a reduction of almost two percentage points in their chronic absenteeism, bringing the K-8 rate down to 8.1%.

High school absenteeism went from 16.8 to 10.5% with Dresden showing the greatest shift and Gleason and Westview falling below 10%. Primary, elementary and middle schools recorded a reduction of almost two percentage points in their chronic absenteeism, bringing the K-8 rate down to 8.1%.
Graph of drops in absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of days in the classroom whether excused or unexcused. In 2018-19 in Weakley County that meant a total of 17.7 days.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee students who are chronically absent in kindergarten are 15 percentage points less likely to reach proficiency in either third grade math or English Language Arts, and students who are chronically absent in ninth grade are 30 percentage points less likely to earn an on-time diploma (62% vs. 92%).

Research underscores that attendance affects achievement, a fact evidenced by the county’s higher numbers in testing. Achievement on the state End-of-Course exams, which are notoriously rigorous, also improved, noted Betsi Foster, who has been observing trends in Weakley County Schools for 8 years in her role as the data analyst.

Incentives Make a Difference
Foster points to the actions taken by schools to incentivize attendance as a major contributing factor to the jump in numbers.

“We are very grateful to Martin Motors, Farm Bureau Insurance and Jowers Sign Company for providing such a substantial reward for our high school students last year,” Foster said, referencing the gift of a Nissan Altima and a year of insurance. The brightly wrapped car depicting all the county mascots served as a frequent reminder at festivals and events of what awaited students who consistently attended classes. Westview’s school counselor Erica Myers initiated the effort that became a county-wide incentive.

Other county-wide measures included more streamlined and clear attendance policies, a final exam incentive that allowed students with perfect or near-perfect attendance to skip finals, and various school-level rewards throughout the year.

Schools tapped local businesses for products, gift cards, and sponsorships of celebrations including yearend pizza parties and movie days.

Positive results have encouraged schools to build on their plans for the upcoming school year. For example, in 2018-19 at Martin Primary School (MPS), 6.3% of students were chronically absent, which was down from 8.4% from 2017-18. This year they have developed a themed promotion of attendance.

To continue their improvement, the school is shifting to a daily Superhero focus using fun HERO (Here, Every day, Ready, On time) identities for each classroom.

Each day that students are present the entire day (no one is tardy, no early check outs) the class will earn a letter from the goal phrase: “perfect attendance.” When the phrase is spelled out, the class receives a class party, with a different party every time the goal is reached. Posters and a hallway display showing progress will help to promote the effort.

In a presentation to fellow MPS teachers last week, Tiffany Frazier pointed out that chronic absenteeism is proven to be an early warning sign for academic risk and school dropout.

“Research has shown that chronic absenteeism in kindergarten is associated with lower achievement in reading and math in later grades,” she explained. “Students learn the foundational skills for reading and math in the early elementary grades. All future learning builds on those skills. If students miss out on those foundational skills from chronic absenteeism, then they are likely to struggle with reading and writing in the upper grades.”

Similar incentive plans are planned in other schools.

“We are thrilled with the progress we’ve made,” said Director of Schools Randy Frazier. “And we have confidence we can sustain and even improve on those strides this year.”

Truancy Intervention
Frazier also noted the state has placed schools in an even more aggressive position of addressing the negative consequences of absenteeism.

The Truancy Intervention Plan adopted by the Weakley County School Board last year reflects the seriousness with which absenteeism will be viewed in 2019-2020. When a student accumulates three unexcused absences, the principal will send a letter to parents/guardians reporting the situation. School personnel will hold and document a meeting with the parent and the student to develop an Attendance Contract which must include a schedule of follow-up meetings in person or by phone.

When a student accumulates five unexcused absences, a certified letter will be sent to the parent naming the student truant and inviting the student and parent to meet with Weakley County Truancy Board. The principal will then follow up with the parent and student concerning Truancy Board invitation.

At six unexcused absences, county staff will call the parent to determine the reasons for absences and report results to the principal and Mark Maddox, the county Attendance Supervisor, who will notify the Juvenile Office to seek help.
And when a student accumulates seven unexcused absences, the parent and student must appear before the Weakley County Juvenile Court.

“Truancy is a very serious issue, one we want to avoid at all costs,” said Frazier. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that what happens in classrooms across the county encourages, inspires, and informs and we want to work with students and families to help them understand the great benefits of consistent attendance.”

Saying thanks

Adam Adkins & Erica Myers
Last year, Westview counselor Erica Myers reached out to Martin Motors owner Adam Adkins after learning of a similar car giveaway in Kentucky. Last week, she presented the final numbers along with thanks from the school board and high school principals to Adkins for his donation of the Nissan Altima.

Erica Myers and Alan Garner
Alan Garner, representing Farm Bureau Insurance in both Martin and Dresden, accepted appreciation and the final numbers regarding the high school incentive program from Erica Myers, the school counselor who launched what became a county-wide incentive program. The Dresden and Martin offices made possible a year of insurance and gas money for Jacob Romans, the Greenfield student whose yearlong steady attendance led to his winning a car.

Donald Ray High and Randy Jowers

Randy Jowers of Jowers Sign Company provided the colorful wrap on the car that promoted the incentive program to visitors at numerous events throughout the year. Donald Ray High, director of instruction for secondary schools, presented the framed chart capturing the incentive’s success.