Champion Attendees: Holley students end school year with best getting-to-school rate after tight race

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

Holley Elementary School finished the past school year with the highest annual attendance rate among Sweet Home schools in a year that saw attendance improve across the school district.

“We are experiencing a three-year upward district trend toward attendance improvement,” said Supt. Tom Yahraes in an end-of-the-year report on attendance during the regular School Board meeting Monday evening.

“Elementary attendance is trending upward over the last three years. High school attendance is at a three-year high. Over the last three years, high school attendance has made the most significant increases. We have enough data to show a probable relationship between our practices and positive results.”

The board has made attendance a priority by recognizing schoolwide attendance, Yahraes said. The board has made increasing instructional time a priority as well, increasing the school year from 147 to 171 days.

Each school is offering incentives and recognition for attendance, Yahraes said, and they’re prioritizing programs that are engaging for students, “a place and instructional environment (where) students feel welcome.”

Instructional staff members have refined and enhanced their engagement strategies for the classroom through the use of professional development on early release Wednesdays, Yahraes said. Beyond academics, the district continually promotes thriving citizenship, asking students to be involved in athletics, activities and citizenship initiatives as part of the district’s five-year Strategic Plan.

All schools have also become more strategic at identifying at-risk students and finding solutions or interventions to support attendance and care teams, such as the ninth-grade tracking at the high school, Yahraes said.

Yahraes specifically recognized Holley for having the district’s highest attendance rate, Oak Heights for a strong surge in the last half of the year and an improvement of more than 2 percent over three school years at the high school.

Around the district, Holley Elementary finished the year with a district-high 94.51 percent attendance rate. Hawthorne Elementary, which tag-teamed with Holley throughout the year for control of the monthly Golden Shoe attendance award, finished with an attendance rate of 94.18 percent.

Edging them out was Sweet Home Charter School, operated by the nonprofit People Involved in Education, with 94.74 percent attendance.

Oak Heights Elementary finished the year with an attendance rate of 93.9 percent after snagging the Golden Shoe two months in a row late in the year.

Foster Elementary had an attendance rate of 92.69 percent.

As a group, Sweet Home ele-mentary schools have increased from 93.44 percent to 93.82 during the past three years.

Sweet Home Junior High was at 91.78 percent by the end of the year. That is a slight reduction for the junior high, from 91.86 in 2017-18 but an improvement from 91.21 percent in 2016-17.

Sweet Home High School edged up by nearly a point to 88.28 percent. The school improved by more than two points during the past three years, from 86.12 in 2016-17 to 87.46 in 2017-18.

As a whole, Sweet Home students had an overall annual attendance rate of 91.85 percent, a slight improvement from 91.69 percent in 2017-18 and up from 90.87 percent in 2016-17.

“Pretty proud of that,” said Holley Principal Todd Barrett of his school’s attendance. “We did a better job of reminding kids with how we were standing at Monday meetings.”

The school has promoted attendance by directly informing the students of the monthly contest for the Golden Shoe, which was originally created by retired Supt. Keith Winslow when he painted one of his own shoes gold and mounted it on a pedestal, representing the worn shoe leather of students going to school.

That Golden Shoe was unrecognizable by the end of last school year as Holley and Hawthorne covered it with an ever-increasing pile of decorations, so Supt. Tom Yahraes replaced it at the beginning of the year with one of his own shoes and a new pedestal.

Last year, Hawthorne had the best annual attendance rate.

Principal Todd Barrett said Holley had previously had classes building Mr. Potato Heads based on achievements in attendance, but they didn’t run that incentive program last year.

Hawthorne ended up taking the trophy for 2017-18.

This year, Holley brought the incentive back, and classes built “Star Wars” Mr. Potato Heads; and winning classrooms, those with the highest attendance, had their class photos taken and displayed.

While the competition is for fun, the stakes are serious.

“If the kids aren’t in the seat, they’re not learning,” Barrett said. Missing two days may mean missing an entire concept.

“There’s a lot of science to support that,” he said. A lot of research has shown the importance of seat time.

Barrett said he’s going to take his plans to Oak Heights, where he will serve as principal next year. Oak Heights already exceeds the state’s target for attendance, 92 percent, which is the point at which graduation rates improve, according to research.

“They’re going in the right direction,” Barrett said. “They’ve laid the groundwork.”

Oak Heights will make it a bigger focus, he said, with a team created to look at attendance and offer support when students are absent. It’s a step he had planned to take at Holley before his position change.

“I want to see more improvement,” Barrett said. “My goal is to challenge all elementary schools to reach 95 percent and get the high school consistently above 90 percent.”

With her mind on the serious stakes, Hawthorne Principal Barbi Riggs said she is happy Holley took the prize for the year.

That means other schools have their eyes on the prize, she said, and all of Sweet Home’s students are “our kids.”

Riggs said the district was able to provide money to assist in improving attendance in each school. At Hawthorne staff members used the funds to purchase incentives. The school bought exercise balls the students could use when their classes attended school the whole week.

It’s just for fun, Riggs said. “Kids like incentives.”

At the same time, the school continued offering “great teaching and engaging lessons and just letting the kids know we’re happy they’re there,” Riggs said. “When somebody’s not at school, we miss them, and we let them know that.”

“We were up about half a percent, almost a whole percent,” said Oak Heights Principal Josh Dargis. During the year, the school did the same kinds of things the other schools are doing, with teachers building relationships with their students and focusing on chronic absenteeism with the office staff.

“We had some great successes,” Dargis said. In the second month of the peak in Oak Heights attendance, the PTC put in a Gaga Ball pit. Gaga Ball is a form of dodge ball played in an octagonal area.

Dargis said he came across it while visiting Pennsylvania years ago.

“Ever since then, I’ve wanted one at whatever school I’ve been at,” he said. “I brought it up a few years ago.”

The PTC put it together this year, and it’s been a huge hit with the kids, Dargis said, and he knows students who were on the fence about school attendance did come to school as a result.

The pit constantly draws a huge crowd and is part of the “fun, good culture at the school,” Dargis said. “They loved it.”

Dargis said the community has been a big help too. The school is fortunate to have a good truancy officer, and Sweet Home Municipal Court Judge Larry Blake has been key to addressing students with chronic absence.

When students’ attendance gets “really chronic,” Dargis said, he talks to the parents about the importance of having the kids in school.

Blake has had successes, and he paid a visit to Oak Heights to celebrate and personally give prizes to one girl who improved her attendance.

SHHS Principal Ralph Brown said his school’s attendance rates have improved, based on the efforts his staff have made in response to poor grades.

His school’s attendance rate improved by a percentage point in 2017-18 and by another point in 2018-19, he said. “We were pleased. We’ve still got a ways to go.

When staff members check grades, they also pay attention to the attendance piece, Brown said. The school will use punitive measures at times, but “that only works to an extent.”

The staff tracks them and works with them at school, he said, and they contact and try to work together with parents to keep students in school.

“The kids that are struggling with classes and grades also are struggling with attendance,” Brown said. “We’re hitting it hard, checking kids on their grades.”

At the request of board member Chanz Keeney, Yahraes said he would compile attendance statistics that would exclude absences for sports and excused absences.

Yahraes said that sports trips and attendance are competing goals, and the trips do impact the attendance rate at the junior high and high school.