With just a few days of school left before the winter break and preparations for the holidays in full swing, teachers are likely to see more empty seats in their classrooms.
The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of the times when the Champaign school district struggles most with keeping kids in class.
Attendance is a nationwide problem, particularly at the high school level.
In Champaign, the district is mandated by federal consent decree to raise attendance of minority students. The district's goal is to raise attendance in all its schools – with a total of about 9,000 students – to 95 percent by the end of this school year.
Empty seats also cost the district money. State aid is based on attendance. The formula for calculating it varies every year, but each student-day of attendance last year used to determine state aid brought the district $14.15 per day, per child, Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas said.
There are all kinds of reasons children don't attend school. Some miss because of health reasons, such as asthma, difficulties in managing medication or pregnancy. Others are homeless; or they are in homes without utilities or enough food; or their families keep moving from place to place.
Some are caring for younger siblings or a sick parent. Others are on their own. Their parents are working two jobs or shift work, or they are away caring for a relative, so the children are responsible for getting themselves up and to school on time.
Stephanie Record, the attendance improvement coordinator for Central High School, was trying to track down some of those students who weren't in school one morning earlier this month.
– Her first visit was to the home of a girl who is out of school because she is pregnant. The tutor who visited her house has dropped her because she hasn't been home at their scheduled meeting times.
The girl wasn't home when Record visited, either, so Record left a note for her.
– At another house, Record talked with the grandmother of a student who has been missing several class periods during the day, including the one just before his lunch period.
Record said he's taking two lunch periods, and she tells the grandmother he can see a tutor or participate in an online credit recovery program in lieu of serving the detentions he has for missing classes.
– At 10:15 a.m., Record checked on the next family. As the mother let Record in, she explained her son and daughter slept late but are just on their way to school. The mother then asked Record to talk to her daughter, who is considering dropping out.
"They weren't on their way to school," Record said after driving the students to school and making sure they had passes to get into class.
Record said she's frustrated with the mother, who keeps excusing them from attending. An older child already has dropped out of school, and Record said the girl has missed the equivalent of two years of school during the last four years.
"Them being disengaged in school is the result of a parent keeping them out for such a long period of time," she said.
A state grant helped the district hire Record and three other attendance outreach workers since 2003 to work with chronically truant students and their families.
They target the students with the most unexcused absences. The student at the top of Record's list on a day in early December – the 66th day of school – had missed 54< 1/2> days.
The staff works closely with deans and counselors, meets with students and parents and does home visits. All agree that the strategy with the most success with such students is building relationships and finding someone at the school who can connect with the student – whether it's an attendance worker, teacher, coach, counselor or secretary.
"I think kids who we are going to see the most success with are those connected with us or another adult in the building that they have a relationship with," she said. "It could be anybody. But if we find that person in school who connects with them, that's what gets them through sometimes."
Centennial Principal Judy Wiegand said it is helpful to have someone who can focus on the school's top truants and take the responsibility off the deans and counselors.
"You don't see it when you look at the percentages. We tend to be right at 92 percent (attendance rate) and have been the last few years," Wiegand said. "But in my opinion, it is certainly helpful having that person to get out and do that outreach work.
"They try to delve deeper into why is that student making the choice not to come to school."
Consider these current problems:
– One student is responsible for getting the power turned back on periodically, and other household duties, because his mother has a disability.
– Two brothers have to drop off an infant sibling at day care, then catch a bus to school, Record said. They're nearly always late.
– Another student helps his mentally-impaired brother get on the bus in the morning.
"A lot of these kids have so much more on their plates than school, and so much more on their minds," she said.
Record, whose background is in social work, tries to understand their life circumstances and keep their school attendance in perspective.
"There are different levels of success that don't show in the numbers," she said.
The district's attendance workers sometimes find it difficult to get high school parents involved.
"At this age, a lot of parents think a 16- or 17-year-old, it's their responsibility to come to school, and there's not a lot they can do about it," said Rush Record, the attendance outreach worker at Centennial High, who is married to Stephanie Record.
Other times, though, parents welcome help from the attendance staff, he said. They refer families to service agencies if they need help with food, rent or utilities, and they hand out bus tokens.
"A lot of families we work with are living in poverty. We're not doing a lot of home visits in Cherry Hills," Stephanie Record said.
They also continually remind students of the importance of education.
"But convincing someone who's living in the moment and hanging out with friends having a good time is tough," Stephanie Record said.
Rush Record said he sometimes acts as a mediator, talking with teachers and giving suggestions for making up missed work.
"When you've got a student that misses so much school, they get behind academically, and they can get frustrated and feel like they are lost and just can't make up all the work," he said. "We remind them they have time, so all is not lost."
Central Principal Bill Freyman said the outreach workers "have been really helpful in dealing with the kids who are moderately truant, the kids who have some real attendance issues but are still workable where we can tie them to services or supports.
"While we're successful with individuals, I can't say we've been successful at solving the problem," he said. "The No. 1 reason students don't do well here right now is because they don't come enough."
Critics chime in
Carol Ashley, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the consent decree case, believes the district needs to broaden its focus.
"They need to get the kids who are missing 10 days a year," she said. "It doesn't address the kid who is missing a little bit, and that takes him from a C to a D."
Fred Clarke, director of pupil services for the district, agreed.
"The focus does need to be on those kids who are showing those initial signs and intervening before (the student) gets to be a chronic truant," he said.
Ashley criticized the district's approach to attendance thus far, saying it has no comprehensive attendance plan, but a hodgepodge of programs.
"It needs a shot of community involvement. It needs a methodical approach," she said, adding that it is also related to climate and discipline. "It's not just about getting kids there. It's about what environment they experience (at school)."
Clarke said while progress hasn't been as fast as he'd like, the district is moving forward, and the students targeted by outreach workers improved their attendance in the first quarter of this school year by about 7 percent, the best increase so far.
A priority, he said, is increasing community involvement.
Last spring, the district created an attendance improvement volunteer program similar to mentoring programs, in which a community volunteer meets regularly with a student with attendance problems. Clarke said it has struggled to find enough volunteers.
Administrators held a breakfast meeting with several members of the Ministerial Alliance in November to propose a collaboration, in which churches would be paired with schools to work with students and families and make suggestions improving the district's interaction with families.
The district also would like to identify students in various congregations who might have attendance problems and have churches help emphasize the importance of attending school.
"They have wider arms than we do," Clarke said of churches, "and they have additional resources to reach out to those people that are involved in students' lives that we don't have access to."
'Everybody is watching'
While the district works with students of all races who are missing school, the consent decree mandates it reduce the gap between black and white students in attendance. Stephanie Record said she deals disproportionately with black students. Earlier this month, almost all of the top 30 truants at Central were black. At Centennial, the list was almost evenly split between white and minority students.
Officials hope the involvement of black churches will help boost the attendance of black students. But, as one principal noted at the Ministerial Alliance breakfast, those students involved with a church are not usually the ones missing school.
The issue is not unique to Champaign, but "We're under the gun here because everybody is watching," Stephanie Record said.
The school district is trying a number of other things to keep kids in school. Currently, it is holding a contest between Central and Centennial high schools. Whichever school improves its attendance the most by the winter break will win a live radio remote from WCZQ 105.5-FM.
The timing of the contest was designed to help boost attendance during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The radio station has run public service announcements promoting attendance, and the district put up six billboards around town in August.
The district also provides money for incentives to the schools, such as $5 or $10 gift cards for food or to Best Buy or Wal-Mart. At the elementary school level, students might get extra recess or computer time or Illini gear for improving attendance.
At the high school level, the attendance staff uses the gift cards to encourage juniors with attendance problems to come to school during testing periods – or to reward students who have shown improvement. Beginning in January, those with perfect attendance will be eligible for a monthly drawing for a gift certificate to the mall.
Centennial has tried random drawings for students who are in class on time. Wiegand said the drawings raise awareness among students that attendance is important.
"You just never know if that's what the hook is," Rush Record said.
If nothing works to improve a student's attendance, the district must rely on the court system. Freyman has met with Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz to talk about how to proceed with the most severe truants at Central.
"Once we've exhausted what we're doing, we really need to focus on the kids who aren't too far gone to help. We don't want to give up on any kid," Stephanie Record said. "(But) we have to be realistic with some of these kids who are so severe, and we have to focus our energies on those who we can impact the most."