As we race to find the silver bullet for closing the achievement gap in our schools, a statewide example may demonstrate that attendance is a key component to closing the achievement gap. If average students were graded on their committment to regular attendance, they would receive the equivalent of an A-. However, their low-income counterparts fall far behind in their attendance performance and subsequently their overall scholastic achievement.
Statewide, schools in Wisconsin are focusing on improving attendance in hopes that time at school will directly correlate to improved grades and overall achievement.
Local educators say those attendance rates — the number of actual days of attendance divided by the possible days of attendance — are overall very good, but there still is room for improvement. Students from families that qualify for free- and reduced-price school meals, which a measurement of family’s economic status, typically rank about 1 percentage to 3 percentage points behind their more affluent peers.
Although 1 percent might not seem like much, in reality it means that low-income students don’t spend as many hours in class, and that could be a substantial reason why they typically lag behind in typical measurements of academic performance, educators say.
“Attendance is by far the No. 1 indicator of school success,” said Chris Budnik, an assistant principal at Wausau East High School. “The kids need to be here to get an education.”
Chronic absence, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason, is a national problem, according to Attendance Works, a national initiative that promotes better policy, practice and research regarding school attendance. More than one in 10 students miss nearly a month of school every year, and as many as 7.5 million students chronically miss school.
Of the nine school districts that cover Lincoln and Marathon counties, not one posts lower than a 95 percent attendance rate, according to the most recent data posted by the state’s Department of Public Instruction, from the 2011-12 school year, all exceeding the state average attendance rate of 94.9 percent.
But school administrators say they are taking specific steps to better those numbers, mostly by identifying early the students who consistently miss school.
“Good is the enemy of great,” said Jeff Lindell, director of pupil services in the Wausau School District. “When we have one unexcused absence, that’s too many.
Wausau East High School is just about equal to the state average in high school attendance rates, at 93.9 percent. (The state high school average is 93.8 percent.) That’s significantly lower than Wausau West High School’s 98.5 percent attendance rate.
Wausau West has a modified block schedule, which is similar to a college schedule, and its attendance procedures are different that East’s, Budnik said. And East has a higher percentage of low-income students. But still, Budnik has been focused on bolstering attendance at East for more than a year.
Budnik said administrators work with students who miss a lot of school as individuals, helping them and their families overcome the barriers students have in getting to school. Impoverished families, she said, could have transportation issues, so the school might help by providing bus passes. Each problem is tackled one by one, she said.