Even before the pandemic, kids in lower grades tended to miss the most school. Exactly why is probably a mixture of factors, but regardless of the exact reasons, the impact on learning can be severe. At that age, kids are building foundational skills, and falling behind can lead to staying behind, especially for kids with less.
The specter of chronic absenteeism – when a student misses at least 10 percent of school days – was nothing new for Horton Elementary in Chollas View. The school serves almost exclusively socioeconomically disadvantaged students, a factor that closely correlates with chronic absenteeism. So, when school absences skyrocketed post-pandemic, and Horton’s already-elevated levels of kindergarten chronic absenteeism shot up, educators got stressed.
A problem spot: Over the past summer, Horton’s principal Danielle Garegnani found that of the youngest chronically absent students, the vast majority of them were reading below grade level. That was a fact parents needed to know.
So, Garegnani and her team made increasing attendance in transitional kindergarten and kindergarten a priority. They held a parent orientation to stress just how formative early learning is and created consistent contests and attendance challenges to get kids excited about coming to school.
Is it working? Over the past two years, Horton has progressively increased attendance rates. Thus far this year, the school has had significantly fewer transitional kindergarten and kindergarten absences than at this point last year. Their average daily attendance has ticked up.
One Educator’s Perspective
Patty Covarrubias has been on the front lines of this effort. She taught preschool for 15 years but is in her second year as an early childhood educator in a transitional kindergarten classroom at Horton. She also recently joined the school’s attendance team.
“I want to be proactive,” Covarrubias said. “I want to be able to say, these are the things that I’ve done to help parents.”
So much of attendance, especially for kids at this age, is out of the control of educators and students, Covarrubias said. So, much of her focus has been on fostering robust communication with parents that makes them active stakeholders in their kids’ education. In previous years she would send more generic messages alerting parents of upcoming holidays, for example. Now, she sends detailed messages each week recapping what students did, previewing what’s to come and updating parents on attendance.
Those updates are especially valuable when the school implements attendance challenges. The school recently awarded her students a popsicle party for having nearly perfect attendance for an entire week.
“Kids would tell me, ‘I have to come to school so I can go to the popsicle party,’ so I knew those conversations were happening at home,” Covarrubias said.
Another change has been something of a mental shift. While teachers can sometimes get caught up in punitive responses when students are absent or show up late, Covarrubias instead wants to dial up the gratitude.
“When my students show up late instead of saying ‘why are you late,’ I say ‘I’m so happy you came to school,’” Covarrubias said. “Changing that language and being thankful when kids show up makes them feel super welcome.”
Covarrubias has also had the opportunity to learn from the San Diego County Office of Education’s Improving Chronic Absenteeism Network, which Horton is part of this year. One especially valuable lesson for Covarrubias came in the form of a question: what was your favorite memory from school, and did it have to do with anything academic? For most, their most cherished memories didn’t come during lectures or when doing homework or when sitting at a desk.
In Covarrubias’ case, it involved her high school English teacher, Mr. Zeigler. In his class, they would often watch movies and dissect them in essays. “For our field trip, we went to Universal Studios. A lot of people would think that’s not educational, but we learned so much about how movies were made, so he found a way to make it educational,” Covarrubias said. She even got to meet Jennifer Love Hewitt.
“Schools are obviously a place for education where kids are learning, but they’re also a place where kids can make fun memories that they can take with them,” Covarrubias said. “It’s more than just test scores, you’re building a community.”
What We’re Writing
- I recently wrote a feature on Horton Elementary and how administrators and teachers are working to reverse chronic absenteeism. I found that they’re getting creative, and so far, they’re having some success.
- Amidst a flurry of legislative signings and vetoes, Gov. Gavin Newsom greenlit a bill that allows local education agencies to pay student board members. Leaders at San Diego Unified, which sponsored the bill, anticipate they will vote to approve paying their own student board members in the coming months.