How FWISD is fighting chronic absenteeism, including a new $1.5 million program

The Fort Worth school district is offering $500 bonuses for new school bus drivers.
The Fort Worth school district is offering $500 bonuses for new school bus drivers. Star-Telegram archives

Skullcaps, iPods and hoodies. Those are among prizes Fort Worth students could earn as part of a new attendance incentive program the school district hopes will generate more state funding while helping address chronic absenteeism.

Texas public schools get state funding based on a formula that includes average daily attendance. One student absence for one day costs the district about $48. If attendance is increased by 1 percent districtwide, Fort Worth schools can bring in about $5.1 million a year in additional state funding.

But those potential dollars are just one reason the district recently created a $1.5 million attendance incentive fund. School leaders also want to support early childhood literacy, middle school math and at-risk students by focusing on attendance.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing two or more school days a month. Nationwide, 7 million students miss about a month of school each year, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a virtual national education initiative.

Increased attendance helps deliver academic gains. For example, just a 1-percentage-point increase in average daily attendance in Fort Worth pre-K and elementary schools is associated with a nearly 10 percent gain in third-grade reading, according to Read Fort Worth, a coalition focused on improving childhood literacy.

Lack of transportation, health issues and complicated parent work schedules are among reasons some students don’t show up to class. Reaching out to parents and students to help bridge the barriers to class attendance helps create stronger schools, Chang said.

“How can you benefit from instruction if you are not there?” Chang said.

Andy Canales, director of research from the Houston-based Children at Risk, said red flags go up for teachers when their students miss too many classes.

“The role of the teacher is not just simply to deliver instruction but to help create an environment in the classroom that helps a child succeed,” Canales said. “In many cases, they are the front-line social workers that many students come across.”

Fort Worth Trustee Christene Moss said the new program will help principals and teachers improve Fort Worth schools.

“If you look at the students who are absent, they are most likely the students who are not doing well academically and also not reading,” Moss said.

‘A chance to try it again’

The Fort Worth school district will give campuses funding to create attendance programs tailored to the needs of each school. Campus allocations will be distributed to principals in February. The district expects attendance campaigns to begin in the fourth six-week grading period, which begins on Feb. 26.

All campuses will get funding based on enrollment this spring — $6 per high school student, $5 per middle school student and $4 per elementary school student. Total funding for this spring is about $410,000, according to the district.

Using data from the spring program, the district will plan for a 2018-19 program that begins in the fall. About $825,000 is available for next year’s program.

Campuses will run their own campaigns and compete against their own data. The campaigns will include prizes for students with improved attendance and for the most improved campuses.

Principals and school leaders will decide what awards will motivate their students. For some campuses, it could be T-shirts, beanie caps or hoodies. Another campus might offer iPods to students who improve their attendance, district leaders said in a meeting.

In the past, private businesses have given students prizes — such as cars — for perfect attendance. Also, parent groups such as the PTA have donated gifts for perfect attendance. The district’s current plan aims to focus on why students don’t make it to class.

Incentives are just one part of breaking down barriers to education, Chang, of Attendance Works, said, adding that the typical certificates of perfect attendance for a school year are not the solution. Instead, schools need to focus on showcasing “good” and “improved” attendance.

“You can do attendance incentives well and poorly,” Chang said, explaining that a reward program for elementary students could recognize students who show up on time every day for a week, and then start again the following week. Chang said this could give students “a chance to try it again and get it better.”

Fort Worth’s program was approved during a Jan. 23 school board meeting when the board voted 6-0 in favor of a fund transfer. Trustees Judy Needham, Ann Sutherland and T.A. Sims were not present for the vote.

Moss said that she supports using incentives to draw students to school but that it is only one way of addressing a complicated problem. Another way is through dynamic learning experiences, she said.

“If the classes are interesting, students will not want to miss school,” Moss said.

A complex problem

The Fort Worth school district had a 94.8 percent attendance rate during the 2015-16 school year when there were 87,233 students, according to state data.

Chang said the attendance rate can “mask a very high chronic absentee rate.” The latter refers to how many students are missing class. Students who have missed 18 days over the course of a school year, or about two days a month, are chronically absent.

“It is found across school districts,” Chang said. “It’s not just an urban problem. ... It tends to follow the contours of poverty.”

Grades that tend to have more chronic absenteeism are kindergarten and transition years such as grade six or grade nine, she said.

“How you address chronic absence will vary by grade,” Chang said.

Finding out why students struggle to get to class is key to any successful program, Chang said.

For example, an elementary student with asthma may be missing school because parents are worried about the child getting breathing treatments outside the home. The school can address absenteeism by communicating with parents and the school nurse, she said.

But a ninth-grade student who is missing classes because he or she is transitioning to a new campus requires a different approach.

“The root of the problem can be very complex,” Canales said.

Moss said sometimes young people are absent because they are caring for younger siblings.

“Who is staying with the child if the parent has to work?” Moss said.

Mario Layne, principal at O.D. Wyatt High School, said his campus is using grants and federal Title I funding to help get more students to class. The campus has held six-week award assemblies, attendance parties and attendance dances.

A team called Students On-Campus Support, or SOS, focuses on attendance and tardiness at Wyatt. Team members reach out to parents when students aren’t in class, Layne said. They are also on the lookout for students who miss two or more days. Often, they find that high school students and their families are dealing with complicated social issues.

“A lot of kids are dealing with incredible situations,” said Layne, explaining they have homeless students, students living with grandparents and some living in homeless shelters. “We find a lot of kids are dealing with a lot of trauma.”

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1