My seven years of experience with the WSESU School Attendance Council is a great exercise in population-level Results-Based Accountability work. WSESU stands for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, the largest school district in southern Vermont. The WSESU School Superintendent, Ron Stahley, originally convened the Council to emphasize truancy as a community issue, rather than a problem schools need to address on their own. In 2007, a WSESU School Attendance Protocol was endorsed by the school district, the Windham County State’s Attorney and the Vermont Department for Children & Families (DCF). Implementing this protocol is the backbone of the Council’s work. Similar protocols have been adopted by the other three Windham County supervisory unions. There is a heartfelt recognition among School Attendance Council members of the impact of chronic absence on a child’s life: we all acknowledge the strong connection between school attendance and student achievement. This awareness led to a commitment to collaboration and tailoring a strategy to fit our community’s challenges.
The School Attendance Council membership portrays a cross-sector partnership among K-12 public schools, Youth Services of Windham County, the Windham County State’s Attorney, DCF, and United Way. Regularly attending school representatives include School Superintendent Ron Stahley, Curriculum Coordinator Lyle Holiday, school counsellors and attendance monitors. Collectively Council members decided to target the families of the most truant students, those who are experiencing 15 or more absences in a school year. The task is to use a strength-based approach to help these families understand their responsibility to their children regarding school attendance. The Windham County Family Court Judge is regularly updated and sees herself as an advocate for student rights to attend school regularly, using court hearings when necessary to influence the most difficult families. In addition, Council leadership has worked with law enforcement to develop an efficient referral process for truant students.
As facilitator, I frame the Council meeting agendas using RBA, and find that this approach compliments WSESU school-based initiatives such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS). The population-level outcome endorsed by the Council is: “Children K-8 arrive at school on time every school day”. As we were beginning to work with RBA, each member considered the performance level seven questions in light of our outcome. In responding to the question “What Works?” schools and community partners have been inspired by the Attendance Works website (http://www.attendanceworks.org/). Council agendas rely on members sharing their responses to the RBA questions How Much, How Well?, Is Anyone Better Off?, and considering new approaches to What Works. Difficult challenges such as parent engagement and bus behavior are approached through schools constructing performance grids (see attached examples).
Using the performance grid, here are key strategies for impacting chronic truancy which have evolved over the years which the Council is implementing:
Riding the bus is a positive experience
Students with15+ absences receive attention and support from school EST Teams
Family Resource Team: DCF and other social service representatives meet monthly with school counsellors to problem-solve challenges with the families of students with 15+ absences
The Youth Services BARJ (Balanced & Restorative Justice) Family Liaison develops long-term relationship with families of students who are close to dropping out, supporting them to take responsibilities to reduce truancy.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters assigns a “Big” who is fully trained responding to truancy issues to students who are chronically absent.
Windham County Family Court sets conditions with families of the most truant students with the active advocacy of the Deputy State’s Attorney.
The work is data driven. First on every Council agenda is the monthly data report both for tardiness and absences. How are we doing? Have we turned the curve? When the Council first convened in 2008, tracking attendance was in data development mode. Today, we receive monthly data reports on absences and tardies, and can track slow but sure improvement over the past five years. (see attached “Turn the Curve “ charts for 2009-2014). Improving attendance is a daunting challenge and even preventing the situation from worsening is an accomplishment. Council members acknowledge that “turning the curve” a long term commitment.
Indeed I am inspired by my work with the committed membership of the WSESU Attendance Council. Here is an example of a school district using performance measures to link to a common outcome and indicator. There is a team atmosphere in our meetings: schools are not isolated but instead have key partners with designated roles to support regular school attendance. The Council’s selected strategies approach the difficult challenge of truancy from a variety of angles. These actions are realistic, measureable, and within their circle of influence. RBA has given them a structure to realize successes, small but sure, and to prevent burnout.