Blog Post Category: Back to School

8/25/2016

Addressing the Needs of Students who are Chronically Absent from School

By: Chris Woolard

The end of August is always a bittersweet time of year as the end of summer combines with the excitement and nervousness of a new school year. I still get butterflies, and I know how anxious my own kids are for the new challenges ahead. My three are so excited about going to school (maybe not so much the earlier alarm clock), but they are ready to go.

One issue that has been getting more attention, not only in Ohio but nationally, is the importance of addressing the needs of students who miss a significant amount of school. It may be common sense that students need to be in school, but data and research is starting to add much more insight into just how important it is. Students are missing more and more instructional time, and it’s having a very real impact on the way that our students are able to learn, grow and be successful.

Every day can’t feel like that first day, but every day is still important

Chronic absence is more than just attendance, as it focuses on students who miss a significant amount of instruction. In Ohio, we define it as students who miss more than 10 percent of the days in a school year. This adds up. It could be two days of every month or longer stretches throughout the year, but regardless, that translates into big chunks of missed instructional time. A student who habitually misses a day here and there but adds up to 20 days over the course of a year may have much different needs than a student who misses three straight weeks of school. This makes it a challenge for students to keep up and for teachers to be able to keep pace. Chronically absent students are less likely to be readers in the early grades and less likely to graduate. In some parts of our state, nearly one-third of students are chronically absent.

There are many reasons why students are chronically absent beyond just illness — bullying, homelessness and other family situations to name a few. But there are many more reasons why students may not be regularly present in school. These are serious issues that require community efforts across sectors to address.

Across the country, many schools and organizations are coordinating efforts to help communities address their unique concerns. There are some fantastic examples of schools working with community partners to provide dental clinics, after-school programs and mental health services. Cleveland’s recent campaign included support from the Cleveland Browns and focused on students who were missing a few days of school per month.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a toolkit to help guide the conversation with health care providers, juvenile justice authorities, nonprofits and other community partners. Attendance Works is a project working with many states and districts to help develop proactive strategies. Its effort to call attention to these issues through September Attendance Awareness month includes many resources and promotional materials.

What can communities do? Attendance Works has created a list of 10 things communities can do to help address chronic absenteeism. But it starts with making sure that school attendance is a priority for your own children. You also can get involved in your neighborhood schools and see what they need. Help students find ways to connect school to their passions. Volunteer as a mentor, support a club or offer to drive a carpool in your neighborhood. Every school is unique and will have different needs, but the common thread is that the school should be a place where students are safe, supported and engaged in classroom instruction.

As a parent, I know how disruptive it is to our family schedule when one my kids misses a day or two of school and the work that goes into getting back to our routine. As a state, we want all Ohio students to be ready for success when they graduate from our schools. With data, we can understand some of the factors that can be hurdles for that goal. Chronic absence is one of those hurdles. We are looking closely at the data to better understand how many students are chronically absent, why they are chronically absent and what we can do to get them back in class.

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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8/10/2017

A Great School Year Starts with Knowing Your Students

By: Virginia Ressa

ThinkstockPhotos-477634708.jpgHappy 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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8/23/2017

GUEST BLOG: Remember Who You Are - Dustin Weaver, 2017 Ohio Teacher of the Year

By: Guest Blogger

ThinkstockPhotos-825216570.jpgOne of my favorite pastimes — both personally and professionally — is reflecting on my experiences. In many ways, the 2016-2017 school year was like all the others throughout my teaching career — incredibly fulfilling and extremely challenging.

But last year also was quite different. Serving as Ohio’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, I experienced opportunities that I had never dreamed of. I traveled to Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Coronado, California; and Huntsville, Alabama for amazing professional development seminars. I stood in the Oval Office and met the president of the United States. I also met 55 other Teachers of the Year who are just like you and me: they love teaching and, above all, they love serving young people and making a difference in their lives. 

Throughout my time with these educators, I have learned — over and over again — the value of educators; an understanding that takes me all the way back to my student teaching internship. A little more than a decade ago, my mentor teacher asked me, “Do you value what you do?” I have no idea what prompted her inquiry. I do know that my answer was, and is, overwhelmingly yes!

I value teachers because educator quality matters. A formidable amount of research has conclusively determined that teacher effectiveness is the number one variable that influences student learning outcomes. Because of this, we must continually increase the intentionality of our instructional practices, striving to become better teachers every period of every day. In other words, we must be the growth mindset we wish to see in the world.

I value teachers because of the ways in which they can and do impact the whole child. Almost without exception, our students are hurting. Many have encountered poverty, drugs, homelessness and abuse, and even our best and brightest often lack self-confidence. Thus, teachers must be extremely intentional not only in terms of their instructional practices but also in building strong relationships with their students.

While in Huntsville, I attended a dinner event at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. A few of the town’s residents had graciously prepared some delectable desserts for the Teachers of the Year. To be honest, I was exhausted from a long day of activities, and I hoped to mingle for just a couple minutes and then return to the dorm promptly to rest. However, after hearing I was from Ohio, one woman told me that I simply had to meet her husband. So, I did.

Mr. Saunders was from Ironton, not far from my hometown of Chillicothe. Like virtually everyone else in the room of several hundred people, he had served as an engineer for NASA. His travels had taken him from southern Ohio to New Orleans to Huntsville. I enjoyed listening to the stories of his engineering career, which he retired from at the age of 55. On a whim, I asked him what he had done since his retirement.

It turns out that, after a few years, he was offered a job as an engineering instructor at a local college. I asked him if he had any teacher stories. He proceeded to tell me of the time one of his students brought his father to meet him after graduation. The student proudly held out his degree and said, “Dad, you told me I couldn’t achieve this, but Mr. Saunders? He told me I could.” Throughout his story, he could not help but cry — and he was not alone. Mr. Saunders went on to tell me that, through all his incredible life events and accomplishments, he never experienced fulfillment that surpassed that which he felt as a teacher.

This event resonated deeply with me, and I struggled to understand why. Then, during a moment of reflection, it hit me. A few days earlier, I had watched “Moana” with my daughter. One of the recurring topics in “Moana” is the search for identity and the desire to know who you are and your place in the world.

As you begin the 2017-2018 school year, whether it’s your first or your 30th year in the classroom, do not lose sight of who YOU are. YOU are a teacher. YOU matter. YOU make a difference in students’ lives. Through your efforts, YOU can change your students’ life trajectories.

Best wishes for an outstanding school year! 

Dustin Weaver was an English teacher at Chillicothe High School when he was named the 2017 Ohio Teacher of the Year. In the 2017-2018 school year, he stepped out of the classroom to become the principal of Chillicothe High School. To contact him, click here.

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Last Modified: 6/1/2016 4:16:44 PM