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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Marathons & Sprints - Our Race to Improve School Attendance, Part II

Marathons & Sprint – Our Race to Improve School Attendance, Part II

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


Last week, we shared information on running THE MARATHON toward enhancing school attendance for students.  This week, we concentrate on THE SPRINT – “What leaders and schools can do more quickly to increase attendance mindfulness, motivation and accountability.”  As some of these ideas involve intervention beyond what is typically offered by school leaders, please consult your School Board Policy, Superintendent, Insurance Carrier, and School Attorney before racing to implement.  Some are sticks; some are carrots, and some are just strategies we can use to enhance communication.  All have the possibility of making a positive difference; a few bring risk.  Use your own discretion and local circumstance in considering implementation.

Assemble and Advertise

Who tells your schools’ stories? Who advertises the value, and the values, of school? Hopefully, as a leader, it is you.  Storytelling helps articulate what the institution values, and by meeting regularly for purposes of rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, and communication, a leader can awaken all to the value of positive school attendance.  I suggest doing so in a Whole-School Meeting once per week. In considering what we celebrate during these events, please consider offering “those trending” with better attendance a pat on the back for a job well done, as well as those who operate successfully in our criterion-referenced world of “Perfect Attendance”?  When leadership values “what’s trending now,” they value the positive directionality in students that in some cases is more effortful than maintaining star performance. Select your language carefully, as students have mentioned that “Most Improved” language can appear to some as a title given to those who are “sucking up” or to those who were “losers prior.” This may not be the case in your school, but it is something to consider. Celebrating “Students of the Week” for classroom performance is also a nice idea during these events, done even better if each teacher can select one, each week (without veto from others), so that more students are celebrated. Students who feel that they “matter” are more positive in their perspectives on school attendance. Certificates for each celebrant and recognition in in whole-school meetings make for nice pats on the back.  “Mattering Matters.”

Create Fun through Chance and Incentive

Purchase a roll of raffle tickets, numbered in duplicate.  At times when attendance tends to wane (Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, as examples), wander into classrooms and offer tickets to those in attendance.  Divide this responsibility among your leadership team if the school is quite large. For those who arrive for your whole-school assemblies, offer them tickets as well.  This way, all in attendance at the assembly will have a chance at winning, and all who have been “caught being present” over the course of the given week prior will have an even greater chance.  Pull randomly from a bin as part of your celebration, and distribute prizes accordingly.  Ask local members of the Chamber of Commerce and business community to donate prizes. Hopefully, you have been busy building your social capital here. Other ideas for incentives include handing out makeshift dollar bills (sometimes with your picture as Principal on them), allowing students to collect these over time and purchase flex scheduling opportunities or items from the school store.  I even designed fictitious “paychecks” for the same purpose, in line with a “School is One’s Most Important job,” theme, mentioned later in this post. The key here is creating fun through chance and incentive for positive attendance and earned performance.

Walk Up and Knock

Every once in a while, we need to have a frank conversation with parents who may not be doing their jobs getting their children to school.  When we do so, are we on their turf?  Parents may need to share, in confidence, why their children are not engaged in school. A leader’s initiation of these conversations via telephone calls only increases the possibility of defense mechanisms. Meetings in our offices can be intimidating.  Thus, meetings at home are a viable alternative. During home visits, and while opening up meaningful dialogue, our eyes have the ability to scan left and right, unearthing a few of the reasons behind lackluster attendance, as much is revealed in the privacy of one’s home.  As home intervention brings with it a certain degree of potential risk and liability, ensure that your visits are smartly conducted, safety executed, and authorized by your Policy, Administrative Regulations, Superintendent, Insurance Carrier, and School Attorney.

Flex Schedules & Tear Down Walls

Education for some may work well during school hours; for others it may not. In rare occasions, it may work better at home than at school. As a leader you can flex schedules and tear down walls. Why not issue inexpensive laptops to those with attendance problems, if they are willing to work from home as part of their school day? Why not allow some students to Skype into class? It is unorthodox and incurs costs, of course, so offer it with discretion to students who seem to value the opportunity.  With the newest technology, it will become easier to flex each year. You may find that some at-risk students rise to the challenge and prove that they can learn and succeed in a different medium. Consider the proliferation of on-demand, anytime education for adults in this 21st century; students struggling with attendance are in many cases, no different than adults who need non-traditional options for bettering their lives through education.

Offer Curbside Service

Load the Frisbees; grab the footballs.  Stock the bottled water, and start your engines. Some schools have initiated road trips to awaken students nestled all snugly in beds.  Of course, one should smartly work this out with parents ahead of time, usually the same morning with a telephone call (and a great relationship prior).  Arriving at the residence, school leaders would first ask that the students be brought to the door.  Imagine if your principal was sitting out front, and you were sleeping-in?!? Leaders may even, if asked, go one step further and follow the parents/guardians to the students' rooms, inviting said students into the vehicle, patiently waiting as the weary (and often angry) students ready themselves for the day. As the excursions proceed, students can toss the Frisbee or football while leaders are otherwise occupied. Yes, this also one is good for sharing with your Superintendent, Insurance Carrier, and School Attorney.  Oh … and keep it gender-specific – same gendered staff member does the wake-up call to the same-gendered student. The other leader waits down the hall, but always inside.  Only consider this option if you have the parents as partners and if trusted relationships are already fostered and if sound and researched Board Policy supports you.

Shout, “School Quality is Job One!”

How many of our students at the high school level are working outside of school and consider their jobs at the fast food restaurants or car washes their 1st careers, as opposed to considering school their most important job?  Well, in many states, children under the age of 18 years of age have restrictions on how often and under what conditions they can work.  They need Work Permits.  Have you looked at the fine print lately to see if a school official must sign-off on these permissions?  If so, why not declare them null and void from time to time for non-attendance?  After all, why would we let students attend their less-important jobs if they’re not attending school? Word will certainly spread after you pull the trigger. Parents at times will even help advertise your actions as they arrive at school to boldly express their discontent. It’s all about realigning paradigms – Once one understands what the most important career is for a two-career teen, then work permits become much easier to keep.  School Quality is Job One.

Play Catch Each Morning

Are you as a school leader on the front porch, each and every morning, greeting students and waving to parents as they arrive?  When I was at my best in K-12 education, I certainly was doing so. That’s why I implore school leaders never to open their e-mails when they arrive at school in the morning; other items need their attention.  Kids need you on the doorstep.  There is no better location than a school’s outside entrance to diagnose what’s coming in the door and promote positive attendance.  Many of our struggling students will come to school, just so that you notice their need for intervention. It is one of your most important roles each day.

Hold Staff Accountable & Mean It

Teachers need reminders that a leader is aware of who is not attending their classes and that failure or disengagement may impact students’ decisions to attend school. An idea that gets attention is to pin the faces of all struggling students on a bulletin board at a staff meeting after report cards are issued.  Divide another bulletin board with teachers’ faces in designated areas.  Then ask staff members to go to the student bulletin board and transfer students’ faces (those whom they decide to “adopt or shepherd”) aside those of the teachers, so that all can see who wants to pay special attention to whom the next semester. This does not supplant a formal advisory program, of course; it is simply another strategy for adults’ taking informal responsibility to create meaningful relationships with students.  At the end of the next report card period, revisit the bulletin board of the teachers and celebrate the steps staff members have taken to make those students feel more productive. 
Another strategy has to do with staffing, as someone in your organization needs to be on the payroll each morning for the expressed purpose of calling parents and guardians of students who are not in school. Yes, each morning. A suggestion would be to hire this person is a brand new, part-time, hourly employee, one who would monitor attendance and confirm the validity of student absences and more importantly, to see to it that those students who are able, arrive the same day. The job could be envisioned as nearly one of “commission," or at least one of "incentive."  Hiring two part-time interventionists, offering more days per week to the one who is the most effective, is a nice way of create a friendly competition that gets results.  Again, check with your Superintendent and School Attorney to ensure that your employment and evaluation practices allow for this arrangement. 


A well-rounded team running the race toward increased student attendance needs more than carrots, sticks, and increased communication – i.e. THE SPRINT – to make it happen.  As Assistant Principal Ernie Simpson and I discussed last week, incalculably important to any effort is THE MARATHON, as deeper endurance through comprehensive school support and service delivery must be in play in order to tackle the demands of today’s student audience and a society that has become increasingly challenged with their individual circumstances. 

Best to you on your way to “the win.”



Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached for comment and debate at or at (812) 237-8624.  He encourages you to offer your own perspective on the practicality of ideas noted in this Blog or to extend with meaningful ideas of your own as a leader in K-12 education.


  1. One might be mindful of the unintended consequences of recruiting unwilling students to be at school. At least, it seems that a push for better attendance implies targeting those students who typically find ways of not showing up. I dare argue that these students would exhibit an academic profile subordinate to the normal student; to include both GPA and discipline.

    Thus, as we dip our net into the pool of less-than-desirable students, and coerce them to attend, we have lowered the GPA of the whole student body, not to mention raised the potential for disruptions to learning.

    Be careful what you ask for.

    1. Hi dr.steveg -- If we fail to act because of your pragmatically accurate contentions (albeit those that may raise the ire of those cautioning us against political incorrectness), then wouldn't any aversion to those that are our "true projects" result in an eventual lowering the metaphorical GPA of the entire U.S. economy over time, and thus shoot the forest in the foot in sparing us from the undesirable trees? I very much agree with you that in doing such things as coercion results in undesirable consequences, yet isn't the true fault with those who have created a systemic disincentive to help those who are the most marginalized in our society? Am I off-base? If so, please let me know. Thanks, Ryan Donlan