Best Attendance

Sean C. Morgan

Barbi Riggs proudly carried the nearly unrecognizable Golden Shoe trophy out of the school district board room June 11 for the summer after her school posted the highest attendance rates across the district in all but one month of the school year.

Hawthorne Elementary, where Riggs just finished her first year as principal, improved from an attendance rate of 94.07 percent, second highest among district schools in 2016-17, to 94.42 percent, tops in the district, for 2018-19.

The Golden Shoe was already covered in yellow and black stripes and glitter from its previous visits to Hawthorne School throughout the year. Gone was the blue of Holley Elementary School, which was the only other school to win it this year – in January – after turning in the best attendance across the district in 2016-17.

Ex-Supt.’s Idea Lives On

The Golden Shoe was the brainchild of now-retired Supt. Keith Winslow, who introduced the concept during his two-year tenure when he took one of his old shoes, mounted it on a wooden pedestal and painted the whole thing gold. The shoe represented children’s school attendance.

Each month, the trophy returns to the superintendent, who awards it during the regular School Board meeting to the school with the highest attendance each month, a way to make a fun competition out of improving attendance.

Supt. Tom Yahraes retained the tradition when he arrived in the 2016-17 school year. Principals began decorating the shoe in their school colors whenever they took custody of the Golden Shoe.

“Good attendance is connected to better academic performance and graduation rates,” Yahraes said. “It’s a great tradition that I inherited from the previous superintendent. It’s a great metaphor.”

It honors the students, staff and parents, he said. “It’s spirited, great fun, and we’ve continued it. This year, Hawthorne really came together. Congratulations to the high school for being most improved. They did a good job.”

Sweet Home High School improved by more than a point, up from 86.57 percent to 87.65 percent, but still trailing the top grade schools.

All Sweet Home schools improved their attendance last year except for one, Holley, which fell from 94.22 percent in 2016-17 to 93.62 percent in 2017-18, still second highest among district schools.

The district has yet to finalize attendance figures for 2017-18, but as of the end of May, the district had an overall attendance rate of 91.73 percent, an increase of .73 percent from the 2016-17 school year.

Complete data, including June school days, will be sent to the Oregon Department of Education, Yahraes said. At press time, he did not have available attendance figures that included June attendance.

Around the district, Foster School gained nearly a full point, going from 92.27 percent to 93.26 percent.

Oak Heights nipped at Holley’s heels, going from 93.21 percent to 93.56 percent.

Sweet Home Junior High improved its attendance from 91.33 percent to 91.88 percent.

Sweet Home Charter School, which is operated by People Involved in Education, increased its attendance from 92.92 percent to 94.59 percent.

“Every school’s cumulative attendance rate went up, except Holley,” Yahraes said. He attributed those gains to the district-wide bump, noting that Holley set a high bar last year and held one of the highest rates again this year.

Foster and SHHS were both big highlights in the rates, he said.

“We have engaging programs,” Yahraes said, and they make the schools places where children want to be. Also, “all schools have their recognition incentive systems with their assistance.”

Incentives to Boost Attendance

Riggs and Holley Principal Todd Barrett both described incentive programs they run in their schools to encourage better attendance.

“If your students aren’t in the building, then they’re not there to learn,” Riggs said. “It’s hard to make up time if students miss. If you’re missing a foundation, it’s hard to build over that foundation.”

“If they’re not in their seats, they get behind,” Barrett said. Every bit of classroom instruction is a building block. When too many building blocks are missing, “some of these kids don’t get caught up.”

At Hawthorne, Riggs said, she is trying “to change the culture” in the building. The idea is to let students know that, like a family, they’re missed when they’re not there.

“I think our students know we care about them,” she said, while at the same time, rewarding achievements. For example, if a class holds an attendance rate of 98 percent or better for two weeks, they get a party or a themed dress-up day.

The school places value on attendance and academic success, Riggs said, and when the school finds success in those areas, the school celebrates it.

“We’re making learning fun,” she said. “We’re making learning exciting and engaging.”

The Golden Shoe contributes to that, she said. “It’s been kind of comical and kind of fun. It was an old ratty shoe. The kids love it.”

The students have been competitive about it, she said. When they win it, “the kids just cheer.”

With all its yellow and black, “we’ve made it something to be proud of,” Riggs said. “I like healthy competition.”

“We’re real competitive, as you saw throughout the year,” Barrett said. “I’d decorate it with school colors.” Holley also attached a stuffed hawk figure, but when Hawthorne got the shoe back in January, Riggs stuffed the Holley Hawk inside the shoe where it couldn’t be seen for the remainder of the year.

Barrett said it’s better for children when playful competition helps them to strive for better attendance and academic achievement.

Holley tried some new strategies this year, he said. It did not track weekly attendance rates and the school had a Universal Studios “Minions” theme to its incentive system that was perhaps less visible than the “Cootie” system – based on the “Cootie” game – the school used last year.

When a minion climbed high enough, students could earn parties, Barrett said. It wasn’t as visual or hands-on as the “Cootie,” which he intends to use again next year. With that one, students would add parts to a plastic bug for attendance achievements. Upon completing the bug, a classroom would bring it to the office to win its reward.

Holley also set attendance goals at 96 percent, Barrett said. That might have been too ambitious, and he thinks a figure like 95 percent might be more realistic.

His school also had a lot more students moving in and out of the school this year compared to last, Barrett said. All schools have it, but didn’t have as much last year.

Gains at SHHS

The high school made some dramatic gains in reducing tardiness after introducing tardy sweeps early in the year. Staff members rotate responsibility for sweeping the halls looking for students who are still wandering the halls instead of being in class.

“The focus on our tardies was a big thing,” said High School Principal Ralph Brown. “Our whole team is proud of the efforts we made this year, but none of us are happy with where we are now. It’s still not where we want it to be. Next year, we have a lot of work to do.”

The high school also implemented an employability score last year, Yahraes noted. Staff members rate students based on several factors, one of the most important being attendance. In discussions with industry leaders in Linn County, that’s something school administrators have heard repeatedly: send them employees who are willing to show up to work and show up on time.

Explaining that training employees is expensive, one told Yahraes how one out of every two people he hires is let go when they fail to show up to work.

The score helps provide students a real-world connection to attending school, Yahraes said. It says, “This is important because it relates to employment.”

Students can take their employability scores and show them to prospective employers if they like, Yahraes said, with good scores giving students an edge when they apply to a job.

“It’s our job to prepare students for the workforce,” Yahraes said. “Employers expect employees to show up to work and be on time.”

High school staff members are developing a plan to keep improving attendance rates next year, Yahraes said. The immediate goal is to improve attendance by another percentage point, and longer term, the district wants to see all attendance rates reach 92 percent or better.

“We’re not going to rest on this year’s laurels,” Yahraes said, noting that improving attendance to rates of 93 percent and higher is within the margins for illness and other legitimate reasons why students are absent.

Yahraes said the district doesn’t have data available yet to determine chronic absenteeism for 2017-18.

Students are considered chronic non-attenders when they miss more than 10 percent of their classes. That includes excused absences as well as unexcused absences, Brown said. That’s 16 to 18 days a year.

In 2016-17 the chronic absentee rate for Sweet Home High School was 40 percent.

“I know we can do better,” Brown said. The high school is working to address that problem, and it’s a problem even when it’s caused by school-sanctioned activities that result in excused absences, like sports.

Sisters also has an issue with chronic absenteeism, based on state definitions, Brown said, and school officials are talking within their leagues about ways to improve attendance by athletes.

“If they’re missing school, it’s still something we believe impacts academics,” he said.

There are some “very, very legitimate reasons” to miss school, but too many students are missing too much school.

Beyond athletes, who may be doing well in their classes, Brown said, SHHS has a staff person, a re-engagement specialist, former counselor Jim Kistner, dedicated to dropout prevention and finding out what’s getting in the way of school for other students and getting them back to school.

The school will create lists of students who are likely to have problems – credit deficiencies, attendance issues and other indicators, Yahraes said; and a team that includes the school resource officer, staff members and Measure 98 staff will look at ways to directly address their needs.

They’re going “to put a face to the numbers,” Yahraes said.

“We’re going to get more strategic next year. We’re going to get there.”