By: Chris Woolard
It is important for Ohio’s students to be in class every day ready to learn. Ohio defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason. This is about 18 days, or 92 hours, of school. Whether absences are excused or unexcused makes no difference — a child who is not in school is a child who is missing out on their education.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District understands the importance of getting every student to school every day. The district is wrapping up the second year of its citywide attendance campaign, “Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” The campaign promotes the importance of regular school attendance throughout the entire city with billboards, yard signs, radio commercials, social media, phone outreach, home visits and videos. The campaign lets students know that they can make it to school today, they can make it to school tomorrow, and they can make it to their college or career goals.
“Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” works to remove barriers that contribute to students being chronically absent and rewards good and improved attendance through a data-driven decision-making process. The campaign rewards students for on-track attendance, which the district defines as missing 10 days or less per year or 2.5 days or less per quarter in order to prevent students from becoming chronically absent. Before the “Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” campaign, nearly two-thirds of students in the district missed more than 10 days per year. After the first year of the program, the district reported 2,400 more students on track with attendance compared to prior years.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District leverages strategic partners to ensure the entire community works together to make attendance a priority for all students. Community volunteers have joined the district to ensure the success of the campaign. The Cleveland Browns Foundation is a signature partner for “Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” Cleveland Browns players have recorded phone calls, visited schools and appeared in videos to remind students to get to school. The Browns players have to show up every day to be successful, and they carry that message to students — you have to show up to school every day to succeed.
Beyond enlisting players to motivate students to get to school, the Browns Foundation and district partnership strategically removes barriers students face in getting to school.
The Browns Foundation convened a meeting with Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Shoes and Clothes for Kids to positively impact attendance by donating Special Teams Packages to 2,000 students in the district. A Special Teams Package provides students with three school uniforms, a casual outfit, socks, underwear and a gift card for shoes. This partnership helps students who may not be attending school due to a lack of shoes or clothing. Cleveland Metropolitan School District uses data to strategically target students who need clothing to get to school and tracks attendance of students who receive Special Teams Packages to ensure the program is making an impact.
A key part of the campaign’s success has been shifting the mindset from only recognizing perfect attendance to rewarding good or improved attendance. The Browns Foundation has partnered with the district to provide incentives to schools, classes and students who have shown improved attendance. The Browns Foundation has leveraged partnerships and brought other corporate partners to the table, including Arby’s Restaurant Group, which has donated monthly lunches to reward classrooms showing improved attendance and academic performance. GOJO Industries, Inc., is another partner to recently help out with this initiative and will provide Purell hand sanitizing products to schools. Starting next school year, GOJO also will help pilot a hygiene program at a network of schools to curb absences due to illnesses. Again, the district will track data to measure the program’s effectiveness.
As part of encouraging students to come to school, the district has created “You Can Make It Days,” which are days the district has determined to have lower attendance than other days of the year. Cleveland Metropolitan School District analyzed data and identified specific days students are more likely to miss, such as the day after a snow day or the day before a holiday. The district uses “You Can Make It Days” to encourage consistent attendance throughout the year and emphasizes the importance of attending school each day. On “You Can Make It Days,” students who are at school may be treated to surprise visits from Cleveland Browns players, treats from CEO Eric Gordon or raffles for prizes provided by community partners.
The district and the Browns Foundation recently hosted a Chronic Absenteeism Summit held at FirstEnergy Stadium to share their successes and lessons learned with other districts, policymakers and national experts.
To learn more about the program, visit get2schoolcleveland.com.
Chris Woolard is senior executive director for Accountability and Continuous Improvement for the Ohio Department of Education. You can learn more about Chris by clicking here.
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By: Virginia Ressa
Happy New School Year! My colleague and friend, Stephanie Donofe, ended her blog last week by wishing everyone a happy new year. I thought it was perfect — that’s exactly how I feel at the start of a new school year. It may not be Jan. 1, but you’re starting anew: redecorating, buying supplies, planning lessons, organizing resources. It is a fun time of year, as long as the weather doesn’t turn too hot.
One of the most interesting aspects of a new school year is meeting your new students. They may not be new to the school, you may know of them from your colleagues or even have data in a file, but you don’t truly know your students until you spend time with them. There are lots of “interest inventory” tools out there to ask the students about themselves. Some of these are probably a lot more useful than others. Do you really need to know Johnny’s favorite food? Maybe, but I bet there are questions you could ask that would reveal a whole lot more about your students and their lives than asking for their favorite foods. Maybe it would help to ask students about what comes “easy” to them and what things they consider “challenges.” I saw a set of writing prompts that asked “would you rather” questions like, “Would you rather be really tall or really short?” or “Would you rather live in the city or the country?” These types of writing prompts also are great conversation prompts and could elicit important details about students’ lives, their interests, fears and more.
In Ohio, we have a very diverse student population. Almost 3 percent of our students are learning English as a second language. That might not seem like a lot statewide, but it is significant if those students live in your district. Students with disabilities make up 14.5 percent of our population and are learners in classrooms across the state. The most startling of the statistics I looked at today is the percent of our students who are economically disadvantaged: 49.9 percent. That’s half of our 1.7 million students living in households struggling to meet their financial needs, which we know has many repercussions. Part of those students who are economically disadvantaged are the 1.2 percent who are homeless; that is 20,185 homeless students in Ohio. Right now, Ohio is experiencing a record number of students needing stable, out-of-home care as a result of the current opioid epidemic.
When we meet our new students, especially those new to the district, they don’t come with signs on their foreheads that tell us what their needs are. We have to work hard to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to understand what their environments are like when they leave our schools. I don’t say that to sound depressing — I promise, I’m not here to spoil your new year. I bring up these issues because it is essential for teachers to learn about their students so they can better meet students’ needs. This is not an easy task, and we often unintentionally revert to applying stereotypes and making assumptions. In such a diverse state, making assumptions about who our students are is definitely not best practice and reminds me of my mother’s admonition about the result of making assumptions (do you know that one?).
I’d like to share with you a personal story that isn’t all that pretty. When I began teaching, I was working in an urban alternative school with “at-risk” students. As a history teacher, I thought it would be fun to start the year off by making timelines of our own lives. I created a sample on the board with details of my life, then I asked my seventh-graders to draw a timeline of their lives. I wanted them to go back before they were born and include their parents and other family members on their timelines. There was one student who just would not get to work. As a new teacher, I felt that if I let him “get away” with that, it would set a precedent for the year. So, I urged him to get to work a couple of times. I tried changing my tone from friendly to stern. Still nothing on his paper. I set a consequence, threatening to send him out of the room if he wasn’t going to participate. He made the decision to leave the room himself and cursed at me on the way out. What I found out when I talked with him later was that he didn’t know much about his family or when or where his parents and grandparents were born. Because I never asked him why he wasn’t working, I didn’t understand his behavior or his learning needs. I was naïve in assuming this would be a “fun” activity for all my students. I hadn’t considered the complicated emotions it might elicit because I didn’t yet know my students.
That’s a hard story to share so publicly. I have to remind myself that it was many years ago, and I was very young. But that’s not an excuse and doesn’t make my naïveté okay. What helped to make things right was the frank and honest discussion my student had with me about his life and the apologies we exchanged as we both pledged to ask rather than assume.
As you meet your new students, remember that there are many things you don’t yet know about them. Ask lots of questions, provide opportunities for them to share their experiences and lives with you and their classmates. Share some of your own personal stories, even your strengths and weaknesses. Take the time to stop and think before you assume anything about a student. A student may be learning English for the first time, but she also may be proficient in reading and writing one or more other languages — she already has strong literacy complex thinking skills that you can foster. A student receiving free lunch may have a more stable home than the student who comes in with a full lunch box every day. The student identified as having a learning disability is likely able to achieve at the same rate as his peers if provided the right supports.
I encourage you to embrace the diversity of your classroom by getting to know your students and avoiding making assumptions about them. This is a lesson I learned the hard way — I hope this is a time when you can learn from another teacher’s mistake.
Have a very Happy New Year!
Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.
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