Berkeley, Calif. • School day wake-up calls recorded by celebrities. Weekend makeup classes. Contests with laptop computers, private concerts and cars as prizes.
Educators across the nation are using creative strategies as another school year gets under way to convince students and parents that regular attendance matters and not just for grades and achievement.
New research suggests missing as little as two weeks of school can put young children behind their peers, burden overworked teachers, cost districts state dollars and undermine mandates to raise standardized test scores. So many public school districts have launched campaigns to reduce all absences, not just those serious enough to warrant a home visit from a truant officer.
"Students who are getting a 'B' and are OK with a 'B,' they think it's in their rights to skip school now and then," said Berkeley High School Attendance Dean Daniel Roose, who offered a movie night to the grade-level boasting the best attendance last semester. "I've tried to challenge those kids and their families to change the mindset that you aren't impacting anyone but yourself when you skip."
The rewards are designed to supplement courts, mentors and other interventions for addressing serious truancy. They direct attention to what education experts call "chronic absenteeism," which applies to students who miss 10 percent of their classes for any reason and may even have parental permission to be out of school.
To counter slumping attendance that tends to worsen as adolescents get older, about 200 middle and high schools in 17 states will be competing this fall in a challenge organized by Get Schooled, a New York-based nonprofit that uses computer games, weekly wake-up recordings from popular singers and actors, and social media messages to get students to show up in the name of school spirit.
The winner of last year's seven-week competition, a Seattle middle school, received a private concert from R&B performer Ne-Yo, who also served as principal for a day to recognize the 3.7 percent jump in the school's average daily attendance rate of 89 percent.
"The issue of attendance, if you look at the evidence, there are many things that drive it, but one of those is engagement and feeling part of a school community," said Get Schooled Executive Director Marie Groark. "A friendly competition motivates people. It motivates students, all of us."
Elk Grove Unified School District outside Sacramento has made rewards a hallmark of its school attendance strategy for six years. As part of the "No Excuses Go to School" campaign, middle and high schoolers with a month's worth of perfect attendance have been entered into raffles for laptops, while elementary schoolers with the same records have for bicycles. Local businesses donate the prizes.
The program has been so successful the district changed the rules for winning the grand prize a $20,000 voucher for the local auto mall, which also agreed to pay taxes and licenses on the winner's new car. To be eligible, high school seniors used to need one month of perfect attendance over the school year. Starting last year, the criterion was raised to five months.
The attendance push has been particularly strong in California, New York, Texas and other states where schools funding is based on how many children are in their seats each day, rather than enrollment. Several California districts have made a back-to-school ritual of reminding parents that schools lose money whenever kids are out.
Some have asked families with children who missed school for avoidable reasons such as family trips to reimburse schools the $30-$50 a day the absence cost in lost funding, or at least consider having a child with the sniffles or a stomach ache show up for the first part of the day so he or she can be counted before going home sick.
"If a child is not at school for any reason at all, including sickness, the district does not collect revenue," the Spreckels Unified School District in Salinas, Calif., wrote in a pledge form issued this month asking parents to take vacations and to schedule routine doctor's appointments when classes are not in session.
Under pressure from the local district attorney and others to improve its attendance rate, officials in Berkeley last year got much stricter about demanding meetings with parents of students with three unexcused absences and conducting midday "sweeps" of local teen hangouts to identify ditchers. By June, the district had made $1.4 million more for the current school year and avoided laying off 148 teachers, said student services director Susan Craig.
The Pomona Unified School District in Southern California last year launched a voluntary four-hour Saturday school on alternate weekends to help recoup some of the money it was losing due to student absences. A few parents initially objected to infringing on traditional family time, but most warmed up to the idea of kids having a way to get caught up, Superintendent Richard Martinez said.
One-third of the district's 30,032 students attended at least one Saturday session, earning the school system an additional $1 million in state funding. "It made people feel like there is a financial benefit to this whole notion of responsible behavior and establishing good habits," Martinez said.
Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that studies chronic absenteeism, said that while it may seem evident that children will not learn when they are not around to be taught, schools only recently have begun to examine their rolls for students who are falling behind due to excessive excused and unexcused absences.
"If you have a parent who calls in and says my kid is sick, the kid might be sick. Sometimes, they can have transportation issues, or if there is a lot of bullying or separation anxiety for a kid going to school, it will come out as sick," Chang said. "If it continues as a habit, someone needs to notice and talk to the kid and the family ... so you can nip it before it becomes a big problem."
When it comes to devising strategies for getting kids to school, the approaches do not need to be flashy, according to Ken Seeley, president of the National Center for School Engagement in Denver. In Martinez, Calif., teachers had their classes write letters to absent students with at least three unexcused absences to let them know they were missed. And some parents created a "walking school bus" that picked up students who had had a hard time making it to class.
"We give away a lot of alarm clocks," Seeley added.