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To Get Kids To Class, Missouri School Districts Incentivize Attendance

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Parent Donetta Stuart, left, talks to King Elementary attendance specialist Dionne Culp.

It’s crunch time for Missouri school districts trying to reach state-mandated attendance goals.

The phone rings constantly in the attendance office at King Elementary, one of the Kansas City Public Schools where attendance is below the district average.

An out-of-breath Donetta Stuart describes the morning she’s had – and it’s only 9 o’clock. 

“Normally when we miss the bus stop, I take her to the next bus stop, but her daddy didn’t do that. It was crazy. We had a crazy day,” she says.

Stuart’s 7-year-old son, Maurice, is a first grader at King. She also has a 12-year-old daughter, Deja, who attends a charter school.

“I don’t like her walking to the bus stop by herself, so that’s why I take her to the bus stop sometimes,” Stuart says. “Then I double back to get Maurice on the bus because his bus comes like 10 minutes later.”

Stuart admits she’s usually the one running late. Fortunately, she has Maurice to tell her to hurry up.

“They’ll tell the parent, ‘If I miss school I might not get to get an Eagle buck!’” says Stuart. “Or they have a, what is it, like an attendance party.”

An atten-dance, actually.

“That’s just a little dance in the gym,” says KCPS Assistant Superintendent Anthony Lewis. “Students love that. It doesn’t cost us anything.”

A personal approach

A few years ago, Missouri switched from average daily attendance to what’s known as the 90/90 rule – 90 percent of students in school 90 percent of the time. The district gets dinged if too many kids miss class. So Lewis tries to figure out what’s keeping them out of school.

“No parent wants to send their child to school with a dirty uniform, so they tend to stay at home until the parents can go to the laundromat,” Lewis says.

So KCPS has started putting washing machines in schools to give parents one less reason to keep kids at home. Whatever the problem, Lewis tries to find a solution.

When kids are absent, parents get two automated calls – one at noon, another at 6 p.m.

Usually, a teacher will reach out, too.

“The robocalls can be ignored,” says Dionne Culp, an attendance specialist at King, Troost and Faxon, the three elementary schools the district determined needed the most help. “The robocalls, once you pick up, yeah yeah yeah. But when someone takes the time to give a parent a call to find out if that student is OK? That right there opens up the lines of communication.”

Most attendance specialists work with secondary students and their families, but not Culp. She says, yes, parents do get defensive sometimes. 

“But once they realize we’re not out as a gotcha, we’re out to support?”

Well, Culp says, that changes the conversation.

“I have had parents apologize to their children,” says Culp. “I had a parent who cried because she realized what she was doing was hurting her child, and she just didn’t look at it that way.” 

Changing habits

Stuart knows exactly what Culp is talking about.

Back when Deja was a student at King Elementary, Stuart often dropped her daughter off late. She didn’t think it was a big deal. But it was a big deal ... to Deja.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Dionne Culp, an elementary attendance specialist for Kansas City Public Schools, uses calendars to show parents what it looks like when their kids miss school.

“One day she said, ‘Mom, I’m tired of being late.’ And I was like, I never thought about me being a late person making her a late person,” Stuart says.

KCPS uses a tiered system to track attendance. That makes it easy for Culp to show parents what it’ll take for their child to get back on track.

“We go over a calendar so we can see what it looks like when they’re here. We’re checking off those days. Great! You were here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” Culp says.

Culp’s even started a club for students who aren’t meeting attendance goals. She thinks students are more likely to come to school when someone greets them each and every morning.

Chronic absenteeism

“One of the things schools I think schools can be very helpful with is making sure all children and families feel welcome in the school,” says Mike English, executive director of Turn the Page KC, a nonprofit whose goal is to get every Kansas City third grader reading.

There are a lot of reasons why kids can’t read at grade level by the end of third grade.

“Many of them are not necessarily related to what happens in the classroom,” English says.

Few states require 90 percent attendance 90 percent of the time. But English thinks how Missouri does it has forced districts to get serious about getting kids to school. 

In 2012, KCPS asked the Kansas City Council to pass a truancy law. Parents can be fined or jailed if their kids aren’t in school.

But English says that rarely happens.

“The way it’s enforced is not necessarily been punitive, but a way to open a door for a conversation between a school and a parent,” he says.

In Missouri, a student is chronically absent if he or she misses more than 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days.

“So what we’ve seen over the past four years in the Kansas City area, Kansas City, Missouri, the number of kids that are chronically absent has been reduced from 14 percent to 10 percent. That’s going in the correct direction. That’s going the way we want it to go,” English says.

Supporting families

Back at King Elementary, Culp is preparing a note to send home to parents. 

Credit Elle Moxley / 89.3
Students are considered chronically absent if they miss more than 18 days of school in a year.

“This list right here is the ones that are going to receive that notice,” she says. “Their students have attendance above 90 but like right below 93 percent.”

This time of year is critical. If kids have missed a lot of school already, there might not be enough days left for them to make up for lost time. But if not, Culp needs them to come to school every day.

Stuart looks thoughtful as Culp explains all this.

“Nobody wants to hear, oh, your child’s been late, your child’s been late, but when you hear what can I do to help you or is there something going on?” Stuart says. “It’s more of like she said, a positive approach.”

And that, Stuart says, has made her a better parent.

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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