By Mel Riddile
“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”—Stuart L. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
“Strong instructional leadership is essential for a school to be successful.” Research into how principals spend their time points out that effective instructional leaders focus on “organizational management.” These school leaders understand that they must first create the conditions in which teaching and learning can occur. Strong instructional leaders seek first to create a safe, orderly, and inviting school environment that supports learning, encourages regular attendance, and promotes positive student behavior.
Student attendance is the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room when it comes to discussions of school improvement. How can teachers be held accountable for student achievement when students have poor attendance? How can school and principals be held accountable for student achievement when states allow students to quit school at age 16 and/or have weak attendance laws? How can schools be held accountable for student achievement when law enforcement agencies or the courts are reluctant to enforce existing attendance laws? Finally, how can schools be held accountable for student performance when they have no resources like school attendance officers to assist in improving attendance.
Upon arriving at a new school, I proceeded to ask the teachers a simple Peter Drucker-type question. What do we need to do in order to improve? Although simple in structure, this question contains some critical underlying presuppositions. First, we believed that our students were capable of learning at much higher levels. Second, our school needed to improve. Third, our school can improve. Finally, our school will improve.
When I asked the question, I had a number of teachers give me similar answers, but I will always remember what our Science Department Chair, Sherry Singer, said to me. “Mel, our students don’t come to school, and, when they do, they can’t read.”
It was from that simple question and Sherry’s straightforward response that our decade-long school journey began. For it was on those two focal points, attendance and literacy, that we formed our “R-A-G-S to riches” school improvement plan—Reading plus Attendance will result in better Grades and a Safe school. In other words, we believed that, if we could get our students to regularly attend school and give them strong literacy skills, student achievement would improve and discipline problems will decrease. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? However, in apparent simplicity lies complexity.
A Culture Shift
We learned that improving attendance and implementing a school wide literacy initiative each require substantial changes in school culture in terms of mindsets, attitudes, and adult behaviors or habits. I knew from experience that improving attendance had a lot to do with will power combined with good old fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves, hard work. Improving student attendance also required alignment between state laws, law enforcement and court policies, district policies, and school practices.
The Carrot and the Stick
Having the right laws and procedures in place was important in the short-run. However, in the long-run, we had to build a safe, orderly, and student-centered school culture that attracted students. We had to become a place where students felt wanted and where they wanted to be. We had to be the kind of school in which each and every student was both known and valued. We had to be the kind of school that students wanted to attend and hated to leave. We had to be a school that had to work to get students to leave the building at the end of the day, not one that had to work to get students to attend.
To be that school, we had to provide a safe, clean, orderly, warm and inviting school environment built on quality relationships. In addition, we had to create a culture of success in which students came to school expecting to succeed while knowing that their teachers would not stand bye and allow them fail.
The Role of the State
When Virginia imposed strict accountability measures on schools in the mid- to late- 1990s, the principals met with state officials and made it very clear that if we are going to be held accountable for student achievement, the State needs to strengthen and enforce existing attendance laws, which they did. Compulsory attendance laws in Virginia require attendance until age 18. In addition, state statutes require schools to refer students to the courts after a prescribed number of days—five.
The Role of Law Enforcement
Local crime statistics indicated that teenagers who, either should have been in school at the time, or who had a record of chronic truancy committed a significant proportion of crimes against property. The principals simply asked the police to, instead of ignoring school-aged students walking around the community during school hours, pick up truants and return them to school.
The Role of the Courts
Principals met with court officials to urge them to impose strict consequences on truants. Judges were understandably reluctant to detain a student for truancy when they had so many more serious criminal offenses to deal with. However, we pointed out to them that if they weren’t willing to detain them for truancy, they would be detaining them for much more serious offenses later. In addition, we pointed out that their current lack of will in enforcing existing laws was actually encouraging truancy. We predicted that, their willingness to take a strong stand, would, in the long-term, result in a significant drop in truancy cases, and it did. Ironically, because the courts were willing to detain truants as a last resort, in the long-run, they rarely had to do so.
The Role of the District
Principals met with district officials and requested additional attendance officers, a clear district-wide policy on attendance referrals, and a clear policy relating to attendance and grading. All three requests were implemented.
Now we had strong state laws, the agreement of the courts, and district support. Now, that all the barriers were removed, it was up to us. We had no excuses and no one to blame. It was time to get to work.
Next: The Role of the School