Keeping children in the classroom is always a priority for schools, which makes the fight against student absenteeism a critical one. If the results of several programs at Lois Hornsby Middle School are any sign, schools may have new tactics to use in the future.
In the past year, middle schools were redistricted to accommodate the opening of James Blair Middle School, and many new students are now at Hornsby. This, in addition to the school’s already large population of military families, made efforts to integrate students early critical, said Hornsby Principal Jessica Ellison.
“We lost a lot of students as part of rezoning changes in the division, while also getting a lot of new students from Toano and Berkley, and we had to reconstitute ourselves,” Ellison said. “We had a lot of students new to Hornsby at the start of the year and we wanted to do all we could to make sure none fell through the cracks.”
According to a 2016 study from the U.S. Department of Education, 1,732 students in W-JCC were considered “chronically absent”, or 15.3 percent of enrolled students at the time, just under the national average of 16 percent. A student was considered chronically absent after missing 15 days of school.
Since then, several states, including Virginia, have revised their state accreditation standards to account for chronic absenteeism, divided among three levels. As of the 2017-2018 school year, all schools in W-JCC, with the exception of Lafayette High School, were classified as level one, meaning chronic absenteeism was at or below 15 percent.
“W-JCC Schools closely watches absenteeism at every one of our schools,” said W-JCC Superintendent Olwen Herron. “The division’s overall rate of chronic absenteeism is 10.7 percent. Our teachers, counselors and school social workers are constantly working with students and their families to find out the cause for absences and how we can help address any barriers to a child being at school regularly.”
W-JCC school policy is that after five unexcused absences, schools are required to meet with the parent and student; if a second such meeting is held, the parent and student may be referred to court services. There have been concerns that with redistricting, those numbers would dramatically go up this school year.
The staff at Hornsby decided to use a series of new programs aimed to make the school more welcoming and less intimidating to newcomers; they also offer new forms of aid and activities to students.
“We do a lot of things to curb absenteeism, every school does, but we wanted to take the extra step to focus on the relationship aspect,” Ellison said. “If you work to make students enjoy school, to feel welcome at school, you make it easy for kids to come back to school, for them to want to be there.”
One of the few extant programs at Hornsby was what the school has named Flight Crew, a program that takes new students and shows them around the school. School counselor Amber Spicer, who oversees the program, said the impact was immediate.
“When I have students who aren’t coming to school, a lot of times it’s because they’re anxious or worried, so programs that make kids comfortable in school makes it easier to come back to school,” Spicer said. “I’ve had students come to me and tell me how helpful the program is, seeing all these friendly faces their first day, and even some feedback from parents about their kids making new friends.”
Flight Crew was expanded this year to include a participating student from each classroom at the school. One such student, eighth-grader Ava Dilday, said while offering a students-eye view of things is helpful, making sure each new student has friends at the school is even more so.
“That first day at school is always scary, so we meet new students, show them around and introduce them to people,” Dilday said. “It’s always good to make sure these guys have at least one friend, and I’ve made a few along the way too, which is even better.”
Among the new programs introduced, which includes clubs such as the new Hornsby Step Team, among the most successful has been the Peer Tutoring Group, which pairs struggling students with student mentors. Kelly Crumpler, a math teacher who oversees the group, said the results speak for themselves.
“While obviously, as educators, we do our best to offer all the help we can, sometimes it's hard for a kid to take constructive criticism from an adult, or they may be too embarrassed to ask for extra help,” Crumpler said. “Giving them some kids their age who know the material, it can be a lot easier, and not only do these peer tutors know the material, they often think of ways of teaching it that sometimes even a teacher wouldn’t have thought of.”
Seventh-grader Lily Davis, one of the student mentors, said she has worked with about 15 to 20 different students over the course of the school year.
“It’s been very interesting because they’re doing math we did last year, so it’s like ‘great, I forgot how much I dislike it,’ but we can also help them avoid the mistakes we made,” Davis said. “I think it helps to hear it from another student, and it’s great to connect with them and to watch them as they begin to understand it.”
The students aren’t the only ones helping either.
Another initiative has teachers send postcards home with students, offering kind words and encouragement. According to eighth-grader Eva Long, those words can go a long way.
“I recently got a card from my science teacher Mrs. Shaefer, and ever since then, I’ve talked with her more, not even just about stuff in class,” said Long. “These cards let us know that the teachers are here for us, even after the bell rings.”
While attendance numbers won’t be available until the end of the year, according to Ellison there has been a drop in absenteeism at Hornsby since the start of the school year.
“We have tracked some kids who have had some shaky school attendance in the past since the start of the year, and month by month those numbers have dropped,” Ellison said. “We looked not only at our attendance rate from last year, but estimates for the attendance rate this year, and our numbers are higher than both, so we’re very happy with the results so far.”
Ellison says Hornsby plans to continue the programs next year, and encourages other schools to try similar programs of their own. Several other schools, including James River and Stonehouse elementary schools, also have programs. Across the division, 13 out of 15 W-JCC schools have reduced their rates of chronic absenteeism from 2016-2017 to 2017-2018
“We must focus on reducing absenteeism in order to earn accreditation, the two go hand-in-hand,” Herron said. “If students are attending school regularly and are engaged in their learning, they are more likely to be successful academically.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.