On time and ready to learn.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Because students only benefit from instruction that they actually receive, being on time and ready to learn is the first requirement for success in school. Compass High School, a client of TGS Educational Consulting, recently took action to improve their students’ attendance rate, and their results inform how schools and nonprofits anywhere can engage those they serve directly, efficiently and with care.

Step 1: Decide that you want your students at school.

Compass High School is an alternative charter school. It is common for students to come to Compass after unsuccessful experiences at other schools. Struggles adjusting to online learning created unexpected barriers for many students and families. Nevertheless, on any given day this year, as many as 20% of Compass students did not attend a single period of school. Pandemic or not, this was not acceptable. Compass High School not only decided that they wanted all their students in school—they committed to taking action to reengage their most vulnerable students first.

Step 2: Ask “What if…?”

Like many schools, Compass High School sends out automated phone calls and emails to families when their student is marked absent. Like many families (including me, if I’m being honest), most of the robocalls from school go to voicemail and the emails get archived.

By looking at their attendance data, the team already knew that the current approach would not shift attendance upward. Also true, if they had a different, better plan, they would have done something else weeks ago. Often, asking “What if…?” is a powerful way to generate new thinking. Right then, the question to answer was “What if we could do anything to ensure that more students were on time and ready to learn each and every day?”

I asked the team to come up with five ideas, and to make at least one of the ideas unreasonable. In about 10 minutes, we generated 40 ideas. After condensing similar strategies, we had 25 new ideas to work with.

In about 10 minutes, we generated about 40 ideas. After combining similar strategies, we had 25 to work with.

Step 3: Don’t stop now. Pick one.

Often, brainstorming sessions end with participants leaving the meeting excited about great ideas that languish on sticky notes on the whiteboard.

Instead, Kerk, Rick, and Kelly knew that taking action right then was the difference between success and wasted time. However, even though we were excited by the ideas on the board, the team understood that implementing all of them would be tricky. To select which action to take, we used two criteria:

  • Effective: “If we took this action, would more students attend school?”
  • Efficient: “Can we take this action? Do we even want to?”

For examples of ideas that the team decided were either ineffective or inefficient, scroll to the end of the article.

After 45 minutes of sorting through each idea, the team decided that the most effective and efficient strategy to support student attendance would be:

Make a list of chronically absent students. Arrange the list from greatest absences to least absences. Call the 20% of the families on the list with the greatest amount of absences and say “We miss [student’s name] and hope everything is ok. Is there anything we can do to help [student’s name] come to class more often?”

For examples of ideas that the team decided were either ineffective or inefficient, scroll to the end of the article.

Step 4: Do it now.

As more time passes from decision to action, urgency to do something inevitably decays. The team insisted on getting started right away. 

Rick volunteered to create the student roster. He identified which students were most frequently absent, focusing first on the top 20% of students with the most absences. Then, Rick provided each student’s advisor a roster of students to call.

Kelly reviewed the script for phone calls with all advisors during their regular staff meeting. Furthermore, staff were able to clarify what they were supposed to do if no one answered, and who to bring in when families asked for support. Most importantly, Kelly made sure that teachers had time to make phone calls during department meetings happening the next day.

Compass’ leadership team made sure that everyone understood that they were making calls to students with the most absences in order to increase their attendance. And, instead of expecting teachers to figure out which students to call, Compass leaders made sure all teachers had a script, roster and phone numbers. Finally, providing time for teachers to complete the task removed any excuses for not making the calls.

So, each teacher called each family on their list, and this is what happened:

Staff phone calls began 2.11.21. Both pre- and post-intervention trendiness include equal data points.

The blue trend line shows student attendance before Compass High School took action. Not much change, which is understandable because nothing new had happened at that point. The orange trend line on the right shows how attendance increased dramatically once the phone calls started. Anecdotally, teachers report seeing more students present in class, and through the phone conversations with families, teachers and support staff have uncovered completely solvable problems that have reengaged students and families with learning. In short, it worked. 

Step 5: Celebrate.

In a few days, teachers had reengaged students and dramatically increased student attendance. As of now, teachers are on spring break. When they come back, the plan is to celebrate their work and the outcomes they achieved for their students.

Leaders of caring organizations are often admonished not to focus on issues outside of their control. This is wise. However, sometimes problems feel outside of our control only because we haven’t found an effective, efficient answer. Often, the simplest interventions are the best solutions. In this case, all teachers needed was a roster, a phone, and time. 

Use this modified brainstorming process to engage a big issue your team is facing. I’m eager to know how it works.

Ideas that the team considered and decided not to implement and why

One idea was to create in-person options for families for whom online school isn’t a good learning option for their student. The team decided that, while this would be a highly effective strategy, the staffing to do this effectively did not exist. Effective, inefficient.

Another idea (one of the unreasonable ones that we came up with) was to fine parents of chronically absent students. The team knew that this clearly wouldn’t work. Families who already felt pushed out of the school community due to online learning were not going to reengage with school through a bill. And, tracking absences, calculating fines, and mailing invoices that no one would ever pay would only increase effort while driving away the families that the school was trying to reach. Ineffective, inefficient.

An example an idea that would be efficient to implement yet unlikely to work prompted considerable discussion. The idea was to recognize students who were already on time and ready to learn for their contribution to the school. As an educator and as someone who tries to be a good human being, I believe that students have a right to know about the good that they bring to our school. However, the reason to recognize and celebrate our students must not be to influence the behavior of others. The team decided that while to recognize students with good attendance would be an easy (and likely a good thing to do), it would not be an effective strategy for the goal of increasing overall attendance because it did not address the needs of students who were missing.

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