Like many schools, Gibson Elementary in St. Louis had big problems with attendance — many students were missing nearly a month of school a year.
Melody Gunn, who was the principal at Gibson last year, set out to visit homes and figure out why kids weren't showing up. Her biggest discovery? They didn't have clean uniforms to wear to school.
Many families, she found, didn't have washing machines in the home, and kids were embarrassed to show up at school wearing dirty clothes. The result was that often, they didn't come.
Gunn thought this was a problem she could fix. She called Whirlpool, which agreed to donate some washers and dryers. Gunn had them installed at the school and then opened the doors for parents to use the machines. If folks couldn't make it during the school day, the school would offer access to the laundry machines after hours.
It hasn't made every kid show up, but Principal Gunn says it's working.
Chronic absence — defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year (or just two days a month) — is one of the most destructive forces in a child's education. Yet more than 6 million students in the U.S. miss three weeks or more of school each year.
Research shows that such students are way more likely to fall behind and, eventually, drop out. Addressing the problem goes way beyond skipping school — a mix of truancy entangled with illnesses and family problems.
Getting kids to school is especially important at the beginning of the year. One study, from Baltimore, found that about half of students who missed two to four days in September went on to miss about a month of school for the whole year.
Identify the kids who aren't there
The most important thing a school can do is figure out which students aren't at their desks.
A few years ago, the Grand Rapids, Mich., school district undertook a big data project to identify kids who were chronically absent.
The data mining showed a big problem: Of 17,000 kids in the district, nearly 7,000 were missing a month or more of school a year. District officials were super transparent about the numbers — they put 8-foot poster boards in every school, so folks could see if their numbers improved.
This highly visible information on chronic absence helped schools and community organizations step in to start addressing why kids were missing.
Experts say an important component of any attendance program is talking to the adults at home. Parents understand that attendance is important, but when you get down to specifics — like how many days kids can or should miss — there are a lot of misconceptions. New research from the Ad Council found that nearly half of parents thought it was OK to miss three or more days of school a month, but experts say missing that many days is harmful to student achievement.
Another widely cited factor in improving attendance: Parents and students need to feel comfortable. I visited a school in Baltimore where the principal stands outside every morning — rain, shine, snow — and greets every kid and parent. They've seen attendance numbers shoot up.
The interesting thing that happened in St. Louis, at Gibson Elementary, is that when the school opened up for parents to wash clothes, those adults became more engaged. Parents could wander around the school, meet staff and get comfortable with the building.
"It was an unintended consequence. They saw we cared," Principal Gunn says.
Experts point to mentors as one of the most successful strategies: Pairing kids who are chronically absent with an adult in the community — a college student, a firefighter, a teacher.
So, washing machines may be a good idea at Gibson Elementary.
But it may not work everywhere. Research suggests that, in order to improve attendance long-term, schools should use many strategies together. Strategies that will get everyone involved: parents, community partners, teachers and principals, and the students.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Chronic absence is one of the most destructive forces in a child's education. Yet more than 6 million students in the U.S. miss three weeks or more of school each year. Now, as students go back to school, schools again face the challenge of keeping them there. In St. Louis, Mo., one principal resorted to extreme measures, installing washing machines and dryers in her school. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team joins us to explain. Good morning.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Washing machines - what is the thinking there?
NADWORNY: So kids at Gibson Elementary, they wear uniforms. And when those uniforms got dirty, a lot of families didn't have washing machines at home. And they were embarrassed to show up wearing dirty clothes, so they didn't. When Melody Gunn, who was the principal last year at Gibson, found this out, she called up Whirlpool to ask for washing machine donations, and they obliged. So the school basically invited parents to come in at night and use the washing machines. In exchange, there was kind of this volunteer set up so parents would start to get involved in the school, and that's kind of what really created this trust environment, and kids started to show up. You know, it didn't get every kid to come to school, but Principal Gunn says it's working.
MONTAGNE: Well, this principal is clearly trying to do anything she can, and a very innovative thing, to boost attendance because - what? - it's so important.
NADWORNY: Yeah. It's really important, especially now at the beginning of the school year. And there was one study in Baltimore that found that about half the kids who missed two to four days just in September went on to miss about a month of school for the whole year. There's a ton of research that says if kids miss this much school, about 10 percent of the school year, about a month of school, especially in elementary school, they're way more likely to fall behind academically and even drop out.
MONTAGNE: So beyond, you know, something like washing machines, what can schools do about it?
NADWORNY: So the most important thing here is figuring out who's not coming to school. So I spent some time in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the district did a big data project to try and identify what kids weren't in their seats. They were super transparent about the numbers. They made these big 8-foot poster boards that they put at the entrance of every school so folks could see where their numbers were improving.
MONTAGNE: And once they identify why kids are missing, who's at risk, what can schools do?
NADWORNY: A big part is talking to the adults at home. So parents get that attendance is important. But when you get down to specifics, like how many days they can miss each month, there's a lot of misconceptions. So new research says that about half of parents said it was OK to miss three or more days of school a month. And research says it's just not OK to miss that much school.
And then the other thing we know that works is mentors, so pairing kids who are chronically absent with a mentor in the community, like a firefighter, a teacher, a local college student. And people need to feel comfortable in the school. I visited a school in Baltimore where the principal stands outside every morning, whether it's raining or snowing, and he greets parents and kids by name. And they've seen a big bump in their attendance.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.
NADWORNY: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.