All educators know this: They can’t teach children anything if the students don’t show up for school.
Districts across the area strive to make school a place where students want to come to learn every day, but they’ve found that attendance incentives help, too.
A pizza party, perhaps. Extra gym time. Cellphone privileges.
One Jackson County superintendent spends $3,000 a year — from his own pocket — to give his students that extra motivation.
Administrators say research shows that the No. 1 factor in student achievement is attendance.
The state of Missouri backs this up by requiring school districts to get 90 percent of their students to school 90 percent of the time or lose points on a state rating system called the Annual Performance Report.
It is a “well-known fact” that students perform better when they attend school, said Jill Mullen, principal of South Valley Middle School in Liberty.
“It is our No. 1 priority to get them here,” she said. “Once they are here, it is (about) building a relationship with them so it’s a place where they want to continue to be and learn.”
Incentives in the Liberty district, she said, include certificates, food treats, free time in the gym and the opportunity to listen to music.
“Our attendance has always been very good — 95 to 96 percent,” she said.
So important is attendance to Center School District Superintendent David Leone that he raids his own wallet to provide $100 cash bonuses.
The superintendent started the incentive program last school year. Each semester, the name of any student in the district whose attendance is above 90 percent is placed in a box for a drawing. Fifteen names are drawn, and those students receive $100 each.
“It’s not that our (attendance) numbers were really bad. We just wanted the students to do better,” said Leone, who presides over a south Kansas City school district where 75 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program.
“It’s a challenging goal set by the state.”
In any low-income areas, Leone said, some students face “social challenges” that can affect their attendance.
“We have some kids who (stay home to) take care of their younger siblings. A lot of kids work jobs and work late so they can’t get up. There are a variety of reasons,” he said.
Leone said Center students want to be at school and love their teachers.
“We provide a safe, very caring environment for them,” he continued. “This is truly a safe place in their lives and they want to be here.”
Last year, the district had an 89.6 percent attendance rate, he said, which gave it 9.5 out of a possible 10 points toward its score on the state report card. This was up from 86 percent the previous year.
Center earned a 92.5 percent APR score last year, said Kelly Wachel, district public information officer.
“There is no doubt that our high attendance contributes to our high performance,” Wachel said.
Angela Castro, parent of a student who won one of the $100 incentives, described the money as a “nice bonus” for her son. He used it to pay for something for which he had been he saving.
Her son had perfect attendance “because that’s important to our family,” said Castro, who believes classroom instruction is as important as the assigned work.
“I do think the incentive has a value for students who have financial struggles in their family,” she said, adding she knows some students have single parents or live with their grandparents.
“For these families I do think the incentive is a good idea ... They feel as a student they are contributing to the household,” she said.
Jennifer Willard’s two children are students at Red Bridge Elementary School in the Center district.
She said the schools hold events and parties during the year to reward students for various achievements. A party for attendance would be just “one more party” and not stand out like a monetary reward.
“Attendance is an important life lesson,” Willard said. “It’s important for students who do not have the drive to go to school and whose parents do not put expectations on them to attend school regularly — it’s a great way to get those to go. For others, it is just a bonus.”
Center High School junior Cydney Slade said the incentive is “like a goal.”
“If you come to school every day, you are reaching that goal … The $100 is like icing on the cake.”
Christian Williams, a senior at Center High School, agreed that the incentive is a “cool bonus,” but one he doesn’t think is necessaruy.
“The teachers and parents are good at creating this sense of community,” Williams said. “I don’t think you should get a reward for something you’re supposed to do.”
Lee’s Summit is not among the districts that use cash incentives.
“Students can earn privileges and awards — not financial — based on attendance, academics and behavior through a wide variety of programs at various schools,” said district spokeswoman Janice Phelan.
In addition some principals have challenged students to meet specific school-wide goals by promising to participate in activities that would motivate the students.
“Examples have included a principal who allowed herself to be turned into a human sundae, a principal who kissed a mule, a principal and librarian who spent the night on the school roof, a principal who was duct- taped to a gym wall, etc.”
The Belton School District’s incentive programs vary from offering “special” parking places for high school students who have perfect attendance to, at the elementary level, Kansas City Royals game tickets through a partnership with the team — or an extra recess or lunch with the principal.
Belton Superintendent Andrew Underwood said, however, that the district didn’t want to mix grades with attendance incentives to “inflate” grades.
“We want grades to reflect academic performance,” Underwood said.
He said that last year attendance was one area where the district was “marked down” in its ratings. And it’s looking at incentive programs as one way to improve.
He said some students struggle to get to school for a variety of reasons, even homelessness.
“We still want to educate them and get them to school,” Underwood said. “We try to find (homeless students) a ride when they are living in a hotel — that is a struggle.”
Valerie Holmes, counselor at Harrisonville Middle School, said that district started an incentive program last year.
“We know attendance is important and we’re having issues with some chronic absences — 10 days or more,” Holmes said. “We feel it is hard to learn if you are not in school.”
Every quarter, students are eligible to participate in the Paws Pride Program, which rewards students for attendance, behavior and grades. The girls’ attendance rate the year before the program began was 83 percent. That increased last year to 89 percent.
Incentives include such activities as movie day or going to the gym to play games, she said. Students who meet the goal all four quarters get to go to the Worlds of Fun amusement park at the end of the year.
In the Raymore-Peculiar district of Cass County, seventh- and eighth-graders who have a 95 percent or higher attendance rate, no office referrals and no “D” or “F” grades qualify for incentives each semester, said Al Voelker, assistant superintendent of academic services
The incentives include eating outside, more social time and pizza parties. At the end of the year, students can qualify to go on a school field trip.
“The most important thing we can do is to have regular attendance, which leads to academic achievement — the more they are in class, the more they are able to learn,” he said.
The Raymore-Peculiar district has a “rather high attendance rate — something these incentives help to maintain,” he said.
That rate has hovered around the 95 percent mark in recent years. Even so, Voelker said, some students do not attend regularly.
“We have our counselors get in touch with the families to find out why their attendance is not where it needs to be,” he said. “Parents want their children to be successful and sometimes they need assistance in that area.”