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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Marathons & Sprints - Our Race to Improve Student Attendance

Marathons & Sprints – Our Race to Improve Student Attendance

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Administration
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I recently had the pleasure of responding to a post on Twitter, and through some inspiring follow-up conversation with Assistant Principal Ernie Simpson of South Vermillion High School, I had the opportunity of sharing a few ideas on enhancing Student Attendance.  What’s particularly impressive about Mr. Simpson is his depth in understanding what’s really relevant in our attempts to encourage students to attend school each day – he knows what works and what doesn’t.  I enjoyed the talk!

As we agreed that the subject was one of both importance and urgency, I proposed that our profession’s race to improve student attendance has unearthed two metaphors, the notion of a “marathon” and that of a “sprint.”  Ideas that were important, yet took a bit longer to implement, were of the former category; those that could be enacted tomorrow with urgency, “policy allowing and leadership willing,” were of the latter.  This week’s post discusses the marathon, as many of us have, even with our best intentions, miles to go before winning the race.  In future weeks, I’ll discuss the sprint. 

Five integral components that I believe over time, will allow us to win the marathon of improving student attendance in school, are now presented for your thoughts, consideration, and feedback.  Please let us know if you agree, disagree, or more importantly, if you have any other ideas to share.

In order to improve student attendance …

(1) Hire More John Wooden’s

Legendary Coach John Wooden cared so much for the welfare of his players that he would even teach them how to put on their footwear in order to avoid blisters.  Wooden made doing the business of basketball more “do-able.” His players respected and adored him as a father figure.  They knew he cared.  How do your students feel about their teachers?  Conversely, to what length will your teachers go to help students succeed?  Would they go as far as John Wooden?  Do they make the business of school more “do-able” for students? If not, hire more John Wooden’s, as without those like him, children’s needs will not be met, and they will not want to come to school.  School will be hard on them (which is different and much worse than “hard for them”), and if so, motivation to attend will wane.  Think of this: Students are with their teachers, on any given day, for as much time or more than they are with their own parents.  Are we providing the positive parenting that is sorely needed?  Are we breathing heartfelt life into the notion of “In-Loco Parentis”?  Children hunger for it.  It’s part of the marathon.  How many John Wooden’s do you have on staff?

In order to improve student attendance …

(2) Train Your Front-Line Soldiers

We all want parents on our side, as quality partnerships help foster positive attendance.  Monumentally important to this are the positive one-on-one interactions parents and guardians have with faculty and staff.  Unfortunately, the most frequent contact parents receive is in the form of a “bad news” call by a teacher, who in many cases, is virtually untrained in telephone messaging.  Do your faculty members know how to use telephone strategies to uplift frustrated parents who have given up hope?  Do your faculty members know how to use telephone conversations to better meet the needs of disgruntled stakeholders who oftentimes feel backed against the wall and perceive a school “unfriendly,” much as they did the one they attended 15 to 25 years prior?  Do you spend professional development time on this topic? Yes, I’m really talking about “PD on Telephone Usage.” Quality training in communication and compassion is worth the investment and is an integral part of any effort to develop partnerships that will increase attendance-mindfulness.  It’s part of the marathon.

In order to improve student attendance …

(3) Serve-Up Rigor & Relevance

When interested and challenged in ways that are relevant, children perform. Consider the fact that many 2nd graders who struggle academically can still discern the intricacies of Bakugan Game Cards and regale the lineage of every Lego Ninjago figurine.  This is rigorous stuff, yet made relevant by a child’s interests, aptitudes, and abilities. In my day, children demonstrated their love for rigor through the spelling of every dinosaur’s names of by memorizing superhero origins, very relevant to those who wanted to grow up to be Batman or the Wonder Woman. For some of our most at-risk students, rigor and relevance manifest themselves in the artwork we see adorning trains at any given railroad crossing or the intricacies of the tangled webs they weave while simply trying to navigate life.  Not too many students, even those with low grades in school, are failing Driver’s Training, as another example, and even those with difficulties in the classroom are not experiencing too much hardship memorizing plays on the athletic field.  With examples abound of students’ stepping-up into their talent potential, we should take note of how we can replicate these experiences in the classroom. A good source of information on making academics both rigorous and relevant is published in the International Center for Leadership’s Education’s Rigor & Relevance Framework  materials (Daggett, 2004).  Consider accessing student  potential through rigor and relevance when running the marathon.  It will make school meaningful.

In order to improve student attendance …

(4) Supplant Membership with Membership

Kids seek out fun, freedom, love and belonging – their basic needs (Glasser, 1998).  When they do not have these needs met at home or school, they seek fulfillment elsewhere, either through inappropriate peer groups who do not identify positively with school or in the worst of circumstances, through gang membership.  Kids want to belong. Unfortunately, the availability of negative influences promoting membership opportunities is even more expansive nowadays as we consider the Internet. How can schools help?  By keeping children occupied positively, as children in classrooms nearly always do better than those who are not.  Great educators encourage membership in socially responsible ways; they fill voids and meet needs. Their positive membership supplants negative membership. They offer fun, freedom, love, and belonging. Great educators use what Sociologists refer to as “bonding,” fostering solidarity, with an expressed desire to offer “bridging,” bringing those who are diverse together with an appreciation of inclusiveness (Putnam, 2000). Are your educators savvy enough to understand the incredible importance of getting all children into every classroom, each day, and making them feel as if they belong? Creating membership opportunities is part of our marathon, as every child wants to be needed and needs to be wanted.  Will we provide it, or will we let students find membership, unbridled, with others very willing to fill a void.  This is a race to see who offers what first.

In order to improve student attendance …

(5) Unearth Unconditional Positive Regard

Unconditional positive regard for students, an incalculably powerful ingredient in successful teacher/student relationships, is integral to fostering a child’s connectedness with school (Dahlgren, 2007, 2008). It is true that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” (Dahlgren, quoting Madeline Hunter, 2008, p. 62). Sadly, some places have unconditional positive regard; others do not. Some schools try to institutionalize it through specific, research-based models of inclusive education; others do so through the art of simply hiring the right people and seeing the natural results.  Simply asked, does your school have it?  Kahler (2008) refers to it as an “I’m Ok; You’re OK” philosophy. Whatever one calls it, a leader cannot simply assume that educators are operating with it; unconditional positive regard must be reinforced through modeling, storytelling, and ongoing dialogue.  It must become part of the culture – the way we do things around here … and beyond our behaviors and beliefs, it must be part of our values and assumptions, so that we are not just paying lip service to what most educators profess that they possess. This is arguably the most important leg of the marathon toward better attendance: having the right mindset, the right heart, for kids.  Some folks are fit to run the race, and quite possibly, others are not. 

Which brings us back to the John Wooden thing …

To be continued.


Daggett, W. (2004). American’s most successful high schools – What makes them work.  Conference Proceedings Presentations and Conference information disseminated at the 2004 Model Schools Conference Proceedings, June 25-28, Hilton Washington and Towers, Washington, D.C.

Dahlgren, R., Malas, B., Faulk, J. & Lattimer, M. (2008). Time to teach! The source for classroom management. Hayden Lake, ID: Center For Teacher Effectiveness.

Dahlgren, R. & Hyatt, J. (2007).  Time to teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellent in every classroom.  Hayden Lake, ID: Center For Teacher Effectiveness.

Glasser, W. (1998). A quality school: Managing students without coercion.  New York: Harper Perennial.

Kahler, T. (2008).  The process therapy model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached for comment or conversation at (812) 237-8624 or at 

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