Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning is on a mission to make sure kids get to school every day.
"If I have to, I will come and knock on every door of every student letting them know they have to attend," Browning said at a recent meeting with teachers. "Our absentee rates are atrocious."
About 10 percent of all Pasco students missed 21 or more days of classes during the 2011-12 school year.
The district's average daily attendance was 93.2 percent, meaning about 7 percent of students were out on any given day.
At some schools, the daily rate was closer to 10 percent.
"How do you teach a child if they're not in the classroom?" Browning said.
The district is forming an advisory committee to look into policy changes. It's also in the initial stages of an attendance campaign complete with contests, awards and a communication blitz.
Getting the message out, starting even before classes begin on Monday, is key to the effort. The next steps are critical, said School Board member Allen Altman, who has attempted to shine a light on this problem for several years.
"First and foremost, it's a family and society issue," Altman said. "Those parents need to recognize the value of having their children in school every day. We can't hold teachers and principals accountable for the academic performance of children who are not in school."
Once those children are in their seats, he continued, it becomes incumbent upon the schools to ensure they get the opportunity to learn in a meaningful way.
"In some areas, students were missing because they did not feel engaged," Altman said.
Richey Elementary School in New Port Richey acknowledged its absenteeism issues at the end of 2011-12, when more than 10 percent of students missed 21 or more days of class.
Principal Ken Miesner reviewed student data and discovered that a big problem for the school of mostly walkers was the weather.
"They're not going to walk two miles in the rain," Miesner said, noting that many families could not drive their children for the 9:40 a.m. bell for a variety of reasons, including work. "Same thing when it's cold out."
Richey launched an "attendance court," in which Miesner, the school social worker and others would meet with parents of children with excessive absences to discuss possible solutions.
"We found for the most part it did improve," Miesner said, noting that in 2012-13 the school had just 3 percent of students missing 21 or more days. "We aren't finished with this yet."
One of the things the school plans to do for the new year is increase the number of cars that load children in the car loop at the end of the day.
That change is a direct result of a related attendance problem — parents repeatedly picking up their children before the final bell to avoid the lengthy car line.
Cotee River Elementary faced a similar concern with children leaving early or showing up late, in addition to having a lower than desired attendance rate, principal Lou Cerreta said.
The school attacked the situation by reviewing attendance data monthly and conferring with parents of children whose numbers raised concerns. At the same time, it created student awards that recognized children who earned good grades while also not being tardy or leaving early.
Last year, its average daily attendance ticked up from 93.1 percent to 93.7 percent. The goal for the new year, Cerreta said, is to forge toward 96 percent.
He's reinstituting the school's perfect attendance award. And he has begun drafting letters with Cotee River's new social worker to inform parents of the importance of having their children at school all day, every day.
Focusing on the attendance of the youngest children should be a priority toward improving attendance, said Mark Ackett, supervisor of attendance for Hillsborough County schools. Like Pasco, Hillsborough is increasing its attention on absenteeism in the new year.
Pinellas schools also have created a new committee to focus on the issue and seek solutions.
"Probably the most important thing is to address early attendance problems," Ackett said. "Because in six years, you're going to see your results."
Altman said increased attendance is a key issue, and he plans to push it hard for Pasco schools. A 2011 district initiative didn't gain as much traction as he would have liked.
"I'm going to make sure that light is focused on the problem," he said, "It's a huge issue that has to be dealt with."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.