12 area middle schools to participate in attendance program

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 23, 2013 

Twelve middle schools and 9,700 students will participate in a new program aimed at improving school attendance in the Mid-Columbia beginning next fall.

The Community Solutions Committee of the United Way of Benton & Franklin County announced its Attendance Matters campaign during the organization's annual Live United Celebration on Tuesday.

Kennewick Schools Superintendent Dave Bond and Bruce Hawkins, superintendent for Educational Service District 123, said it's critical students miss as little time in the classroom as possible.

"Attendance matters because students who develop habits in school take them out to the workplace," Hawkins said during the launch event.

TV commercials promoting school attendance, paid for by a $25,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, already are airing in the region as part of the campaign.

But officials said success at reducing absences will take more than commercials and marking which students aren't at their desks. They said they'll be looking for support from businesses and others in the community to make sure more time is spent in the classroom.

The attendance initiative is the latest project for the committee's Prepared by 20 educational efforts and will involve the 10 public middle schools in the Tri-Cities. Kiona-Benton City and Columbia middle schools also will participate.

Students miss school for a variety of reasons, some excusable, such as illness. But Bond and Hawkins said a study conducted by school officials in Spokane found middle school students who miss class frequently are less likely to graduate from high school.

Local data indicated middle school students miss an average of 11 school days a year, and those absences do have consequences, officials said. "A" students typically miss five or fewer days per year. Failing students miss 10 or more.

Bond said that when he was a high school administrator, he had lots of conversations with students and their families about poor attendance, or had students taken to court for truancy. He said those experiences have convinced him of the need to be more proactive.

"By the time you're taking a kid to court, it's too late to change attendance patterns," he said.

The initiative will use a variety of methods to remind students of the importance of being in school and motivate them to not be absent. That could include promotional lanyards and other items provided as prizes, to certificates honoring students for not having absences or improving their attendance record. Officials said they plan to ask businesses to sponsor these efforts.

"Even small things, even trinkets, can be motivational," Bond said.

Officials also will target the students' parents, such as providing bumper stickers for their vehicles and asking employers to help make sure their workers have time off to attend parent-teacher conferences.

The goal is to reduce the average number of absences to nine days per student per year. That's more than 19,000 school days for the middle school students targeted for the initiative, Bond and Hawkins said.

Josee Lewis, a seventh-grader at Carmichael Middle School in Richland, received an iPad for a poster she designed for the campaign. While noting the irony she was missing school to accept her award, she said she knows from experience the importance of missing as little time in class as possible.

"I don't know how it is at other people's schools, but at mine you have more work if you miss school," she said.

Hawkins and Bond said results from the initiative likely won't be available for more than a year, as they'll want a full school year's worth of data to analyze. But they're hopeful strong community support for the program will ensure success.

"From here forward, it's rounding up the resources," Bond said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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