The Payette School District is working to improve student attendance and address issues that affect attendance in the 2019-20 school year.

According to Superintendent Robin Gilbert, the district’s focus is to encourage students to maintain regular attendance, rather than just punishing students who have poor attendance.

“That has been a goal of the district,” said Gilbert in a Nov. 21 interview. “We … know our students can’t achieve, they can’t learn if they’re not in class.”

In Idaho, schools receive funding based on average daily attendance, thus schools get less money if fewer students regularly show up.

“We started the year by putting out information to parents to let them know our new requirements.”

Idaho Code 33-202 requires children ages 7 to 16 to attend classes on subjects usually taught in a public, private or parochial school for a period equal to when public schools are in session, unless the child is otherwise comparably instructed. But Gilbert wants to see students from Kindergarten through 12th grade make regular attendance a habit.

Gilbert cites research published in the “School Leader’s Guide to Tackling Attendance Challenges,” by Jessica and Randall Sprick, which found that students who miss 10 percent of school days or more are at greatest risk for not only failing classes but dropping out of school. The research states absenteeism as early as first grade can indicate this risk.

“Last year we started doing the research and I had attended a workshop by Jessica Sprick on attendance and improving attendance.”

Gilbert participated in a group study with other administrators in the spring, which helped lead to attendance policies being rewritten. For 2019-20, students must attend 90% of any class to be considered for credit. The policy defines kindergarten through eighth grade regular attendance as not missing four per quarter and high school attendance as not missing more than four days per class per semester. Gilbert says parents are contacted when a student misses 10% of days at any point of the year, “instead of waiting until they miss nine or eighteen days, because they’re already in the habit, or a cycle.”

The Spricks’ book also notes that living in poverty increased absenteeism, as well as unaddressed learning disabilities.

Even though kindergarten is not mandatory in Idaho, Gilbert says poor attendance in that introductory grade can influence poor attendance later.

“Even if their attendance is poor, or they’re missing more than ten percent of the days, in kindergarten there’s a direct correlation to dropouts later,” according to Gilbert.

The district has a goal of 95% attendance for all of its schools. To achieve this, Gilbert has tasked each school with devising strategies that work for them.

“Each school has written incentives or a plan for within their school to [reward] good attendance and to make it a highlight of their schools; We’ve set aside a committee at each school to address it.”

At Payette High, the Dean of Students identified students with chronic absenteeism and met with them at the start of the year to agree on steps to improve their attendance before they fall behind.

Rewards for meeting the district’s goals vary by site. Payette High School students earned an extended lunch break on Nov. 22 for meeting their goal this month.

That’s not to say Gilbert encourages parents to send their child to school sick, but rather she encourages parents to gauge whether they’re too sick to attend classes.

“Just because ‘Johnny’ says ‘I have a sore throat’ or Johnny says ‘I don’t feel good,’ doesn’t mean we keep them home,” as Gilbert put it.

The district provides parents with a worksheet which allows parents to evaluate symptoms and determine when to call them in sick.

Being aware that the social-emotional aspect of school can also influence students to miss classes, Gilbert has built this into her strategy.

“We can do a functional behavioral assessment, which is just data to inform us why kids are missing,” is one such strategy. “We can resolve the problem rather than just telling kids to get to school.”

Gilbert noted that enrollment is down by 100 students this year, due in part to the opening of Treasure Valley Classical Academy.

“We lost enrollment to the new charter school, so that was a hit,” Gilbert admits.

Other than losing students to another school, “significant” improvement in attendance has been noted at Westside Elementary and Payette High, as well as “good” improvement at Payette Primary, as Gilbert described. Year-to-date numbers for district kindergarteners is subject to change, as Gilbert noted the numbers are affected by students who have moved out of the district and not yet been un-enrolled.

But in order to achieve the 95% goal, Gilbert reminds parents that after all her staff can do that it’s up to them to make it happen.

“We’re working on our dropout rates, we’re working on our test scores, all of those things. But we can only improve them if the kids are in class. Changing our thinking and trying to help change the thinking of our community when it comes to regular attendance, that’s the goal.”

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