Rethinking Attendance with Early Warning Systems

Access to High-Quality Schools, College & Career Readiness, Ninth Grade Success | 09/23/2020

Claire Bresnahan
State Operations Coordinator

Judith Martinez, Colorado Director for the Center for High School Success (CHSS), has 20+ years of experience dedicated to education, civic engagement, and the well-being of children, families, and communities. Her early work focused on school attendance, homeless education, and program evaluation.  Most recently, she led the Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement at the Colorado Department of Education and served as the state’s attendance officer.  As Stand's Colorado CHSS Director, Judith embraces the opportunity to accelerate progress so that all students have the opportunities and resources they need to reach their full potential. 

She weighed in on Attendance Awareness Month and the importance of Early Warning Systems to support students and families in an interview below.  

Learn more from Judith and other education experts at our online event, Rethinking Attendance: Supporting Participation in Remote Learning Tuesday, September 29, 3-4pm. Learn more and register here.   

What are Early Warning Systems?  

Judith: Early Warning Systems are designed to track predictive indicators to identify when a student is on a  path to dropping out of school. Research done by Johns Hopkins points to three primary indicators known as the A-B-C's; “A” is around attendance. “B” is around behavior and “C” is around course performance. When these indicators are identified, schools can intervene early and provide support to prevent a student from dropping out of school.  

Why are Early Warning Systems important in this inconsistent, uncertain learning environment?  

Judith: School leaders and experts across the country are very concerned by the school disruption and high student mobility occurring due to COVID-19. Research on school mobility of students in foster care and students experiencing homelessness details how school disruption often leads to students disengaging from school, and ultimately dropping out. In this environment of dramatic school disruption, it's critical we make extra efforts to listen to the A-B-C indicators that are predictive of students dropping out. 

How should schools be approaching attendance this school year?  

Judith: Approaches to school attendance generally reflect federal and state laws around compulsory attendance, school funding and reporting on truancy and chronic absenteeism.  Local attendance policies tend to focus on complying with regulations, such as defining unexcused absences and truancy and educational processes to meet the required number of hours required in a school year. Last year, several rules and regulations were waived due to the national emergency move to remote learning, but this year the state is asking districts to look at their attendance policies and protocols in terms of how students are counted and responses to non-attendance.  There is an opportunity for district and school leaders to not only comply with legislative mandates but elevate attention to student engagement, which is directly linked to attendance and positive school outcomes. In fact, in the state’s accountability system, attendance is an indicator used to measure student engagement. When students are not participating in the remote school environment, we need to treat it as an early warning of a barrier – a first sign that something may not be working for the student. At this time, it is critical to have systems in place to account for all students, regularly reach out to build positive relationships, provide opportunities to help students when they fall behind, and increase two-way communication with student and families. To guide this work, school leaders, students and families will need more consistent and relevant information on attendance and student engagement.  During Attendance Awareness month several states are working to provide this type of guidance.  In addition, the state is seeking funding proposal to support educational innovation to address COVID-19 impacts. 

What are schools doing to track attendance and support student engagement?  

Judith: High schools in the CHSS network are paying close attention to tracking attendance indicators that reflect student engagement. Several schools are looking at indicators of participation - Are students logging in? Are students attending check-ins with teachers?  

Schools are also tracking effort. For example, this means tracking the percent of completed assignments- How many assignments did a student have for a particular course and what's their progress in completing those assignments.  

Schools are also increasing efforts to partner with students and families. The intent is for each student to have a point of contact at the school to provide consistent communication and support when needed. For example, school attendance advocates are playing a key role in connecting with families, especially in remote and hybrid learning environments.  At some CHSS schools, a student who misses a synchronous class and has not responded to outreach from their teacher and/or has not logged in, they can be referred to an attendance advocate, who will connect with the family to identify barriers and intervene as appropriate. Some schools are doing virtual home visits to build these connections. Schools are also being proactive in building important relationships with students and families to promote regular attendance and engagement.  For example, Adams City High School hosts virtual “Coffee with the Principal” during the week and weekends, which are conducted in English and Spanish. These coffees not only provide school updates but provide a space for school leaders to hear from families about what’s important to them. 

What should school leaders and experts keep in mind as it relates to attendance and Early Warning Systems as we navigate this uncertain school year?  

Judith: This is an opportunity to not only re-examine how we tier our interventions to respond to early warnings signs and the unique needs and challenges of these times, but we can answer the call to create truly equitable systems that intentionally meet the needs of students who are highly impacted and historically underserved. If we set plans to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students, we will support all students in meeting their full potential.  

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