Even before Loudoun County students have two full weeks of classes under their belt, they’re being told just how important it is to attend school regularly.
After seeing a small dip in attendance over the past few years—and a change in state accreditation standards that takes into account a school’s attendance rate—Loudoun County Public Schools is putting in more support to ensure students get to class every day and on time.
The school system’s attendance rate was 95.84 percent last school year. That’s down slightly from two years earlier, when it was 96.21 percent. While Loudoun’s rate is still among the highest in the state, administrators want to be proactive to break down any barriers that stand in the way of students getting to class.
When it comes to attendance rates, the county’s new Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services Asia Jones said, “Every tenth of a percentage point is important. … Student achievement and academic success is directly tied to quality and consistency of instruction.”
To try to ensure that message hits home, the School Board adopted a proclamation at its Aug. 14 meeting recognizing September as Attendance Awareness Month. Board members stressed that missing two or three days of school a month, regardless of the reason, is considered “chronic absenteeism” and can lead to academic trouble and higher dropout rates.
“This is an issue that needs to be talked about publicly,” School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said at the last board meeting. “Absenteeism is a problem and it affects your student academically. Please do get to school and get to school on time.”
With the help of six attendance officers, the school system is implementing a three-tiered approach to school attendance. Tier one is a proactive step to let every student and parent know from the first day of school the importance of attendance. This tier includes pointing families to the student handbook, which lists what absences that are considered unexcused and excused—illness, doctors’ appointments, religious holidays, family emergency or educational trip.
In tier two, which kicks in when a student chalks up three or more unexcused absences, administrators meet with the parents, create an attendance plan, and connect students with the school social worker, school psychologist or other support.
The third tier, for the small number of kids missing several days a month, includes meetings with the family, the school’s mental health team, and likely connecting the family to community resources to help address any obstacles. Those challenges could be a mental health issue, a parent losing a job, or a family’s overall lack of resources.
“It’s important that it’s all hands on deck—parents and students,” Jones said. “We want students to own their success and empower them.”
There’s one option that the school system uses only as a last resort—to report parents to the court system. In 2012, a Loudoun County mother was found guilty of violating compulsory attendance law. She was fined $1,000 for frequently delivering her three daughters late to Lincoln Elementary School. That same year, a second Loudoun family was brought to court for repeatedly bringing their three children to Waterford Elementary School late. Charges against the parents were later dropped because their children’s attendance had improved.
“Loudoun is not about taking students and families to court, but attendance is compulsorily and there are laws that students must attend school,” Jones said. “There’s usually some barrier as to why the student isn’t attending school. Addressing that barrier is the approach we take before involving court services.”
School districts across Virginia are giving students an extra nudge this school year to attend class regularly because attendance will now be one of the factors of a school’s state accreditation rating. The revised Standards of Accreditation will evaluate schools’ success in reducing absenteeism and lowering dropout rates. The accreditation ratings for the 2017-2018 academic year will be released later this month.
Jones said that giving kids the tools now to show up to school every day ready to learn lays the foundation for success throughout their school career and even when they enter the workforce.
“It can set them up for success,” she said. “If the child is not attending in their early years, research shows that it affects their ability to read on grade level and puts them at risk of other factors which could include dropping out of school.”
As the board adopted the proclamation recognizing Attendance Awareness Month, School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said, “We can’t do this alone. Let’s get the word out to the PTOs and PTAs—the parents are ultimately responsible to make sure students attend school.”
Absenteeism will be one of the topics covered at Loudoun County Public Schools’ Navigating the Path to Student Wellness Conference, planned for 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13. Psychologist Jonathan Dalton, from the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change in Rockville, MD, will give the keynote address called “Anxiety of Our Youth: What to Know and How to Help.” The free mental health and wellness conference for parents, educators and community members will be held at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn. Learn more at navigatethepath.com.