Can belonging be measured by student attendance? I believe so, but carefully.
I recall a number of years ago one of our secondary schools was working on improving the engagement of the learners in their school and using attendance data as one measure. Although they didn’t know it at the time, by using attendance data, what they were really measuring was Behavioural Engagement (Toshalis and Nakkula, 2012); which includes attendance, classroom participation, question-posing and question answering, and extracurricular involvement. If I recall correctly, they were also using student achievement data to measure the other forms of engagement, as defined by Toshalis and Nakkula, 2012, in their research paper entitled, “Motivation, Engagement and Student Voice” (2012)…one of my favourites as many of my colleagues know and which has informed our BLPSA:
What they discovered was that they needed to look at the “attendance story” of each student (which our small size allows us to do), as there were surprises; some of the academically solid students missed a large number of days due to extracurricular involvement – sports days, hockey, music, dance, etc. – and they began to wonder about the impact of this level of involvement – knowing as well that it was important to the well-being and sense of belonging of those students. They discovered that there really were only a few students who they has serious concerns about as they rarely attended school, however they began to intervene for all situations. They did achieve some success that year in this work.
The point is that this school was, as are many of our schools today, “on to something” as we know that “successful schools begin by engaging students and making sure that they come to school regularly” (Ontario Ministry of Education Presentation, February 2016). “If they aren’t in school, they don’t learn. Improving school attendance improves success in school.” (Bruner, Discher, Change, Attendance Works, http://www.attendanceworks.org, cited in Ontario Ministry of Education Presentation, February 2016). We also know that poor school attendance increases the risk of students leaving school early, and that the research shows that the context of the school makes little difference (small school versus large school, rural versus urban). We also know that poor attendance begins in early elementary school, and grows increasingly by grades 6, 7 and 8. Thus, we are all paying closer attention to the overall attendance of our students and are beginning to increase our levels of intervention.
Every School Day Counts, Every School Day is Important
This is because the province of Ontario is beginning to shine a “spotlight” on the need for schools to be knowledgeable about attendance including relevant legislation, the current research, the factors impacting attendance, and best practices to make the necessary change as these are all factors that need to be considered as we engage in the analysis of our data. So what are some things that we need to know?
- “Persistent Absenteeism” can be considered to be “any student/pupil who has missed 10% or more of school days for any reason, including unexcused or excused absences, over an academic year” (Ontario Ministry of Education Presentation, February 2016).
- The Education Act specifies that it is the duty of the principal to ensure that attendance is recorded. 265(1)(c)
- Compulsory Attendance – Students who are between the ages of 6 and 18 are required to attend school daily.
- Attendance is excused if a student is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere, due to illness/medical, there is no school/transportation depending upon their age and distances, has obtained a secondary school graduation diploma, receiving music (half day/week), expelled, suspended, excluded, due to a holy day, etc. Section 21(2).
Data to Consider:
- During the 2013-2014 school year, 12.8% of elementary students were “persistently absent” from school. English Language boards were at 13.2% and French Language boards were at 5.1%.
- During the 2013-2014 school year, 1 in 8 elementary students were “persistently absent” from school in Ontario.
- During the 2013-2014 school year, 1 in 5 elementary students were “persistently absent” from school in the Thunder Bay region.
- During the 2013-2014 school year, 1 in 4 elementary students were “persistently absent” from school in the Superior-Greenstone District School Board. We had the second highest rate of absenteeism in the province.
- That year, in Ontario, there was a 19% achievement gap in Grade 6 Math between Grade 6 students who were persistently absent and student who were not.
Responding to this Data:
As the school describe above discovered, it is the conversations that we are having/must begin having about attendance that will be the catalyst for change as we learn that we need to re-culture our expectations about attending in our district school board. Raising the level of awareness about the impact of attendance not only on student achievement but on a student’s sense of belonging ultimately results in intervention and an increasing level of support for some students. We must educate and support parents/caregivers early on and consistently (remember the letters that principals were sending home with report cards providing information regarding the need to improve attendance?) in understanding that they are the “greatest enablers of poor school attendance” (Ontario Ministry of Education Presentation, February 2016), while at the same time ensuring that our policies and procedures keep students in school. This would include a deep analysis of the “attendance culture” in our schools, asking ourselves what the alternatives are for some suspensions, what happens on snow days (do we capitalize on the small number of students and provide for some targeted instruction?), the approach that is taken when students are removed for vacations, the communication with local organizations around the scheduling of tournaments and competitions (which we all acknowledge are critical for our students), how we are role modelling daily attendance, and the list could go on and on. However, critical to this discussion is the notion that we need to figure out if students are absent because they don’t feel as sense of belonging or are if they absent because the culture of our region makes it okay to miss school?
I appreciated the Ministry of Education for providing us with some questions to consider as we engage in these dialogues:
We need to remember that students gain a sense of belonging to the school and engagement in their learning when they are at the center of this learning, when they “own” their learning, are active participants, seeing the relevance and having some control over their own learning and to achieve their own success. Might some students want come to school if our classrooms were increasingly student centered? What if we help our communities to understand that all student MUST be in school every day?
Until next week: How are you engaging in your students’ attendance data to further this conversation with staff, parents, students and community?