The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Dena Martin
The Times 

Attendance Matters Program Aims to Keep Kids in the Classroom

Incentive program complements states Absenteeism Awareness Initiative


October 5, 2017

Dena Martin

Principal Stephanie Wooderchak (r) hands out certificates to Preston Hall students with perfect attendance in September. Students earned cupcakes, candy, a certificate and bracelets as part of the district's new Attendance Matters program.

WAITSBURG – Twenty-eight Preston Hall students received a $5 concession stand coupon, gobbled cupcakes, received a perfect attendance bracelet and had their name entered in an end-of-semester big prize giveaway during Preston Hall's first Perfect Attendance Party on Tuesday. The event was part of the district's new middle and high school Attendance Matters program, aimed at decreasing the chronic tardies and absences that have plagued the district.

Waitsburg is far from alone in its struggle with school attendance. In August the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) joined a nationwide effort to support Attendance Awareness Month in September, pledging to raise awareness about the value of regular attendance and to focus on reducing chronic absenteeism.

Absenteeism is considered chronic when a student misses 10 percent of the school year, approximately 18 days, for any reason. Nationally, five million to 7.5 million students miss nearly a month of school each year, with Washington currently ranking second worst in the nation, according to the OSPI website.

OSPI data shows over 16 percent of Washington students, one in every six students, was chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year. Some of the reasons for absenteeism include: lack of transportation, bullying, lack of engagement in school work, and mental or emotional conditions.

Waitsburg middle and high school Principal Stephanie Wooderchak told attendees at the district's September school board meeting that OSPI sent out a reminder regarding excused absences prior to the start of school.

Wooderchak said the memo reminded administrators that a Washington Administrative Code (WAC) clearly defines excused absences and limits them to eleven very specific reasons. Any absence not meeting one of the eleven criteria is unexcused, according to the code.

Wooderchak said that schools are also being required to reinstate truancy committees, which the district has not had for the last four or five years. The committee will meet monthly with students and parents/guardians of any student with more than five absences, either excused or unexcused, that month.

"It's not punitive. The idea is communication. We talk about why. It's a way for us to start dialogue. Does the family need assistance? Is there an issue with transportation? Are you having trouble with your alarm clock? Are mom and dad needing to get to work and you need help getting out of bed?" Wooderchak said.

While the truancy committee is not punitive, it does provide documentation, allowing the district to note patterns of behavior which may need to be reported to the truancy courts.

Wooderchak said that the district has become very lenient, basically excusing absences as long as a parent calls in. She said it has not been unusual for parents to seek excused absences for haircut appointments, prom dress shopping, dental appointments and the like.

"We try to honor parents. We have tradition of that going back at least ten years," Wooderchak said.

Wooderchak said the OSPI memo, listing the 11 specifics that qualify as excused absences was an eye opener.

"We can't say it's excused just because a parent calls. We had allowed ourselves to become complacent as opposed to other districts," Wooderchak said.

Unlike the state WAC, which is policy, the Attendance Matters program is a reward/incentive program, as opposed to a punitive program, and was in the process of being developed even prior to the OSPI reminder, according to Wooderchak.

High school teacher Roseann Groom presented the program, which is paid for through associated student body funds, to the school board. She explained that students are awarded monthly for perfect attendance and have their names entered in a drawing for a larger prize each semester. Students begin each month with a clean slate.

"The primary goal is to discourage non-emergency absences such as leaving early for vacation, going on vacation during off-peak times, family reunions, orthodontic appointments, or other appointments that could be made at some time other than the middle of the day," Groom said.

Board chair Ross Hamann said that, as a human resources professional, absenteeism is a societal problem and is common among adults and parents in the workplace.

"It feels good to see us doing something proactive as a district," Hamann said.

"We're hoping this turns out to be positive and that students appreciate the fact that we want them there and are, in a sense, thanking them for that," Wooderchak said.

In September, 19 high school students and 28 middle school students received the Attendance Matters award, meaning they were never absent or tardy during the month. Students attending SEA-Tech and Running start were not included in the program because of the difficulty in tracking their attendance, according to Wooderchak.

"We would like to thank the students, parents, and community for their support in helping us to send the message that school attendance is essential to a successful educational experience," Wooderchak said.


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