How to entice students to show up for class every day? How about paying them $100?
This year, the Hickman Mills School District will reward perfect attendance with a hundred bucks to one student every month at each of its four secondary schools. Some students might walk a few miles, uphill, in snow up to their knees for that.
“We have been working on this for five years,” said Carl Skinner, deputy superintendent for student services. “Students can’t learn if they are not in school. It’s a nationwide problem.”
Here’s how his incentive program works:
Every week, students with perfect attendance at Ruskin High, the Freshman Center, Smith-Hale Middle School and the Crittenton Center will get their names tossed into a monthly drawing at each school. A student can earn up to four entries each month. The winners’ names will be drawn at the end of every month.
Skinner said the winning students are announced over the public address system, called down to the office and handed “a crisp, brand new $100 bill.” He said parents are contacted first to find out if they want their student to bring the money home or if they want to pick it up themselves.
“The students are really excited about it and the parents love it,” Skinner said. “It helps them to realize that attendance is important, and there is a bonus.”
The $400 a month in prize money comes from the district’s educational foundation, an independent funding arm for school programs.
At the elementary schools, winning students will receive a $50 Visa gift card each month. At the end of the year, those with perfect attendance will get a chance to win a new bike. That portion of the program is paid for through school fundraisers.
Before, Skinner said, the district tried to boost attendance through a punitive program, where parents and students were cited for truancy after the child missed seven days without explanation.
“We found different reasons why students were not in school,” Skinner said. Some missed to work and help their family pay bills. Some stayed home to take care of younger children while their parents worked. So the district began looking for different approaches.
The district still has a truancy program. Parents are called and letters are sent home when a student has missed three to five days. School counselors meet with students and parents to try to remedy the situation before it escalates.
In addition, every school posts an attendance board showing the percentage of students attending that day. Each elementary classroom has an attendance board hanging outside the door.
Classrooms and schools compete to get the highest attendance for the day, Skinner said.
“If there is one thing that students do like, it’s competition,” he said. “We want our students to be here. Its about caring about our students. And now there is a lens on attendance that wasn’t there before.”
The effort comes as schools nationwide face a growing absentee problem.
An estimated 8 million K-12 students were “chronically absent” in the 2015-16 academic year — the most recent year for which national data is available — representing a 10 percent jump over the prior academic year, according to a new report from Attendance Works, a national advocacy and research organization based in San Francisco.
Improving school attendance is important for districts because beginning this December, the U.S. Department of Education will require all states to track student absenteeism. The results would be available to the public online in the schools’ annual federal report cards.
In Missouri, school attendance rates are a high-stakes number that could make or break a district’s Annual Performance Report, which determines state accreditation. Districts can be penalized if 90 percent of students are not in class 90 percent of the time. With a school year of 174 days, that would equate to a student missing 17 days.
Five years ago, Hickman Mills’ attendance rate was just above 70 percent. Last year, after a concentrated effort, the rate increase to 81.1 percent. This year’s goal is 84 percent.
Boosting attendance also has a financial factor attached, since state funding is determined by average daily attendance. Missouri districts lose an average of about $30 a day for every day a child is absent.
Elsewhere, Fort Worth, Texas, public schools recently created a $1.5 million attendance incentive fund and are giving away iPods and hoodies to students with good attendance.
For the past two school years, Raytown and Raytown South high schools each gave away a new car to a student who maintained an average 95 percent or better attendance throughout the year. The schools will do it again this school year. The Raytown program mirrors one started several years ago in Los Angeles.
Raytown’s middle school students have the chance to win new bikes.
The research on whether incentives work to prod students to improve attendance, behavior or grades is mixed. Experts say success depends on whether the student has some control in the choice to improve.
The “key to making incentives work is getting inside your students’ heads and figuring out what they really want,” Allan Markley, Raytown superintendent, told Education Week last year. “A lot of kids are working to support their family, a lot of them are homeless. What can we do to entice kids to come to school? They are dealing with a lot, and coming to school may not be their number one priority. So, what does every 16-year-old dream of? Something with four wheels, maybe?”
District data show Raytown saw a small increase in attendance at its high schools in the first year of the program. Last school year it saw a slight decrease. District leaders attribute the drop to “a large-scale school threat” on social media, after which a lot of students stayed away. In addition, Missouri had a high number of flu cases.
The Kansas City Public School District said last year that poor student attendance, as well as high student mobility, were big factors in a drop in its Annual Performance Report.
This year, to attack absenteeism, “we are giving schools extra funds for attendance incentives, are doing weekly attendance meetings at the school level, we have an intervention plan in place for our students with attendance challenges,” said Natalie Allen, district spokeswoman. Kansas City is not giving out cold cash to students, but the district has brought in extra help to knock on doors and talk with parents about getting students to school more regularly.
National education experts have defined chronic absenteeism as missing 18 days of the school year. The Attendance Works national study concludes that “poverty is a key driver of whether students are likely to be chronically absent, much more so than whether they attend a rural, urban, or suburban school.” It also says that “about 4 in 10 high schools have high or extreme levels of chronically absent students.”