Monday, April 23, 2018
Education

Absentee rates at Hernando schools: high but showing improvement

BROOKSVILLE — West Hernando Middle School posts its latest attendance figures every day on the cafeteria wall.

When students begin to miss school days more than 10 percent of the time, which disqualifies them from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities, teachers talk to them and reach out to parents.

If the trend continues, the conferences include guidance counselors, academic team leaders and administrators.

"It's not just one person having those conversations with kids," said principal Lori Lessley. "We try to get a lot of people involved."

The numbers show the approach is working, Lessley said, but she knows there's more work to be done.

The same is true throughout the Hernando County School District.

The district has instituted several strategies that have helped gradually reduce the percentage of chronically absent students — defined by the state as missing more than 21 days of the 180-day school year — from 15.4 percent during the 2011-12 school year to 13.5 percent in 2014-15, the most recent year for which statewide numbers are available. According to district statistics, that number fell by about .3 percent in 2015-16.

"We've really honed in on absenteeism the last couple of years, said deputy superintendent Gina Michalicka.

But as the Tampa Bay Times recently reported in a multi-county story about the issue, the 2014-15 rate in Hernando was the highest in the Tampa Bay area and well above the statewide average of 9.7 percent, according to the state Department of Education.

Those numbers may be misleading, Michalicka said, because Hernando schools count students as present only if they attend at least half of a day's classes. In some other districts, children are credited with attending if they show up for only one class.

"I'm sure our numbers would come down if we all measured the same way," said John Stratton, executive director of academic services.

The districtwide strategy generally matches that of West Hernando: making students aware of the importance of attendance and providing incentives for students to show up.

And if they do not, first teachers, and then administrators and other school staffers, reach out to students and parents.

At elementary schools, parents are usually called after two or three absences, Michalicka said.

At the middle and high schools, teachers monitor students who start falling below the 90 percent threshold required for participation in sports, band and similar activities.

Students who consistently fall below that number, and their parents, meet with school administrators, guidance counselors, social workers and teachers. These staffers, Lessley said, can present the student and parents with a "baseball card" showing academic performance and absenteeism.

The two are closely related, said Parrott Middle School principal Brent Gaustad.

"That data shows it — the more they're here, the more they learn," Gaustad said. "It's pretty simple."

The 90 percent threshold for participation in extracurricular activities, implemented about three years, has been a crucial incentive, Stratton said.

Older students — and absentee rates tend to go up with age — can also lose their driving privileges if they miss too many classes, he said.

But an even bigger incentive is improving the school experience, Lessley and Gaustad said.

The rate of students missing more than 21 days remained a stubbornly high 23 percent last school year at West Hernando, which has several classrooms for medically fragile or emotionally and behaviorally troubled students who tend to miss more school. But so far this school year, attendance has increased by more than 2 percentage points over 2015-16, which should translate to a lower rate of chronically absent students.

That improvement is partly because offerings such as an environmental science program, which moved to the school this year, are engaging students and making them want to attend, Lessley said.

The percentage of high-absentee students at Parrott dropped from 19.5 percent in 2010-11 to 17.25 percent last school year.

"We want to make (learning) more collaborative and enjoyable," Gaustad said. "More clubs, better technology, better classes. If you make it more fun, that hourlong bus ride doesn't seem so long."

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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