Each year, our student leaders at Westwood Middle School focus on one goal within the area of school culture and climate to improve. During the 2017–18 school year, they chose to address improving school-wide attendance. So how does a group of eight middle-level student leaders take on chronic absenteeism within their school and within the families in their community?

With the help of our administrative team, our student leaders began their work by researching the effects of chronic absenteeism. They learned that children with poor attendance fall behind academically and are less likely to graduate on time than their peers with strong attendance. They also discovered some of the reasons why students frequently miss school. Some students miss school due to illness and responsibilities at home, which prevent them from attending. Others are not comfortable in the school environment because of factors such as bullying and harassment, and miss school in order to avoid these encounters. And then there are some students who don’t see school as valuable, so they stay away.

After their research, these eight students spent time discussing ways to encourage attendance and deal with the reasons students would not want to attend school. To understand the full scope of the issue, they worked with our attendance administrator and attendance secretary to collect relevant data. They learned that 22 percent of our students had missed more than 18 days within the previous school year, which are the students at high risk for dropping out of school. Next, they realized that they need to raise awareness for the entire school community about attendance and its importance. And finally—and this is where the fun begins—students brainstormed ways to recognize and celebrate those students’ strong attendance.

Here are the four actions our middle-level student leaders took to improve student attendance:

  • Communicated attendance facts to all of our families.At the start of the school year, every family received a fact sheet that our district office staff created about the importance of attendance. The students called families every month through our school phone messaging system. The students used many facts from the website Attendance Works (Advancing Student Success by Reducing Chronic Absence) to write their messages and then they put their unique and cute spin on the messages.
  • Shared monthly student and staff attendance data to the school community.With the help of our administrative team, the students collected data on both student and staff attendance. They made a display that showed this data and put it in our shared common area for all of the students and staff to see. In addition, the student leaders communicated this information with our local community through phone messages, school newsletters, and in meetings with the school board and PTO.
  • Recognized each student and staff member with perfect attendance each month. Using the attendance data, the students decided to show students and staff who had been to school every day the importance of their attendance in a public way so that others could be inspired to be in school each day. Wearing designer fanny packs from the 1980s, the student leaders would personally deliver treats to students and staff with a note that said, “Thank you for being here every day this month.”
  • Celebrated students as a group with a special school day event. In addition to the individual recognition, the student leaders wanted to gather together the students with perfect attendance. To honor these students, the leaders chose to host three daytime events, which they called “attenDance.” Students would leave their regular class for an hour and go to the gym for a party. Each party had a different theme. A DJ came to spin tunes while students shared their own music mixes at one event. We also had a glow-in-the-dark dance party with glow sticks, face paint, black lights, and glow limbo. The last event of the year was a dance contest, where students followed along with YouTube Just Dance videos and received prizes for the best moves.

Did the efforts of our middle school student leaders work to raise attendance? Absolutely. Their commitment to raising awareness, collecting data, recognizing individuals, and celebrating success made a big impact on our school. In one single year regular attendance increased by 7 percent, which equated to 88 more kids with regular attendance and on track to graduate. Listening to my student leaders and letting them choose their goal, create the actions and see them achieve this result inspired me. It should also inspire you to encourage more student leaders at your school to get involved in addressing school climate and culture issues.

What are your student leaders capable of?

Tami Skillingstad is the assistant principal and athletic director of Westwood Middle School in the Cheney School District. Previously, she served as a math and science coordinator and high school teacher. She is the 2018 Washington State Assistant Principal of the Year.

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