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Empty Chairs Matter: Tackling Attendance in McDowell County Schools

By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor

WELCH, WV – While the school system pulls together to continue feeding children across McDowell County today, earlier this week the Board of Education learned about McDowell County Schools’ plan of action to address attendance, both in students and faculty. 

Title I Director Amanda Peyton gave a presentation, highlighting attendance data across the school system. 

“Attendance is in red for elementary, middle and high school, meaning does not meet standard,” said Peyton. “Attendance for elementary and middle schools are further along compared to high schools in improving attendance to get to the partially met standard.”

Attendance at Kimball Elementary had broken over into the next bracket, partially meeting standards while Fall River Elementary was very close to partially meeting standard. 

“I do want to add, that as a state, there were only a couple of districts that weren’t red for attendance,” said Superintendent Carolyn Falin. “Once they switched the data collection from average daily attendance to chronic absenteeism, it made a big difference in how it was reported. 

In the past, McDowell County Schools used a truancy system, measuring average daily attendance and relying on the court and legal systems to enforce attendance. 

“We counted only unexcused absences. If families had medical excuses or other excuses sent in with the child, we didn’t count them,” said Peyton. “We didn’t focus on the empty chairs and all of the learning that wasn’t taking place.” 

Chronic absenteeism measurement of attendance was put in place by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind during President Obama’s administration.

“In order to get federal money, we have to put in a student success indicator for attendance,” said Peyton. “Now we’re measuring chronic absenteeism, which is all absences, whether they’re excused, unexcused, suspensions, it doesn’t matter, there are empty chairs.”

The new way of measuring attendance emphasized the academic impact of missed days, according to Peyton. 

“If they’re not there, they’re not learning and it uses more of a positive strategy to really track students, monitor the data, look at barriers, make subgroups and try to support them in whatever they need to come to school,” said Peyton. 

Last Friday made 137 instructional days for the current school year, with ch ronic absenteeism being measured on a slide-scale basis, 10% of the current amount of instructional days. 

“So at 137 days, 13 days would be the amount of days required to be determined chronically absent,” said Peyton. “2 days of school out of 24 days would also be considered chronic absenteeism.”

Families can be so swept up in the busyness of life, that it can be hard to remember how many days were missed across the months. Switching to the new system showed just how much missing a day or two a month can add up across the school years. 

While average daily attendance was 89.4%, a number most people would assume to be good, 40.4% of students were chronically absent, missing 10% or more days, or over 13 days of school.

“Let’s take Iaeger Elementary School for example,” said Peyton. “They look good on average daily attendance, but if you look at their chronic absenteeism rate, they’re actually one of the highest at 41.34%.That just shows what we’ve been measuring for years. We’ve not been focusing on the empty seats.”

The data was alarming to most everyone in the room at Monday’s meeting. 

“We do have a problem, we know we have a problem, that’s why we’re on stage 1 improvement, working extremely hard,” said Peyton. 

In tracking total student data, children had: 22,480 excused absences and 27,683 unexcused absences, totaling 50,163 absences for less than 3,000 students. 

“5th grade across McDowell County Schools had the lowest rate of chronic absenteeism at 30.70%,” said Peyton. “Our highest group right now are our 10th graders at 48.06%. Usually kindergarteners and seniors are the worst, but when I pulled the data last night, it had changed to 10th grade.”

For 10th graders, 106 are chronically absent, but 73 are right behind them, getting ready to hit that 13th day.

“Which means there’s only 38 students in the entire district in 10th grade that are not chronically absent,” said Peyton. “3rd and 5th grade seem to be our lowest rates of chronic absence, looking at data trends. Fall River, Kimball, they stay in the 20s and never go into 30%. Southside K-8 is also lower.”

According to Peyton, Sandy River Middle School had the highest chronic absenteeism, fed into by Bradshaw and Iaeger Elementary Schools at 50% and 44% respectively. 

“Is Fall River doing something different than the others,” asked Board member Mike Vallo. 

“They monitor their data and have incentives for school wide data we were able to share as school teams,” said Peyton. 

“Since we’re down for a couple of weeks for sure, and I know you’ve got data on chronic absenteeism and their phone numbers, can we get counselors reaching out to them,” asked Mitchem. 

“They’re already doing that,” said Falin. 

“Everyone from classroom teachers, to administrators, counselors and CIS workers, we started work on that this past weekend,” said Peyton.  

Part of the demonstration also showed a student’s attendance rate from Kindergarten to now in the 4th grade. 

“In the current year, the child has missed 36 days but 23 of them were excused,” said Peyton. “But take a look at all the years. 316 absences between Kindergarten and 4th grade. When you take that into consideration, with 180 days of school, we’re missing years of school here.”

‘So this particular child is in the 4th grade and in one of our classrooms, that 4th grade teacher has to try to teach on grade level standard, and that child has missed 316 days of school. We can put an intervention for 45 minutes in but it’s impossible to go back and give all that work to catch them up.” 

Peyton also pulled staff attendance numbers for Monday’s presentation, covering counselors, school social workers, resource teachers, classroom teachers, Title 1 teachers and special education, with 1,876 absences.

“We broke this data down, following the same categories as our students, of no absence issues, needing attention or is chronic,” said Peyton. “We have some staff members that we need to reach out to, make a plan to support them and ask what they need, what’s going on and how can we help.”

Breaking down Mount View High School’s data, 10 teachers would be considered chronically absent with another 13 on the verge. This left 11 teachers with no absence issues. 

“If you add the needs attention group to the chronically absent, that means 67% need attention or have chronic absences,” said Peyton. “Of course we also have 75 teachers that have no attendance issues. Many in that category haven’t missed a day, maybe one or two.”

Peyton worked alongside Treasurer Leona Ketz to total costs for substitute teachers across all McDowell County Schools. 

“For Fiscal Year 2019, $1.1 million was spent to cover staff absences,” said Peyton. 

Peyton explained that principals keep calendars in office now to track who is absent and who is filling in for them. One principal’s calendar showed a problem with staff attendance on Fridays in particular. 

“Now what are we doing about it,” said Peyton.

After a recent MCS-led attendance conference at Glade Springs, an Attendance Team was formed at each school. 

“Schools like Fall River had been working toward that, but we had not established a team at all schools. Every school now has a team focusing on the data, determining and creating a tiered plan of approach,” said Peyton. “That will then be put into their Strategic Plan and we can then connect funding to that, like Title One or Title Two money for those teams to meet.”

The State Department of Education had also offered support, said Peyton, claiming they had visited weeks before and felt proud of the district.  

“We showed them all our tools, data tracking, how we reach out to families, that we’re doing some meaningful incentives,” said Peyton. “They were shocked and wondered where would be without all of these efforts. We told them we had contacted Attendance Works, It’s the National Leading group online, that will come out and do professional development for you. To be honest, they told us we were doing everything they had and would be a waste of money to have them do a professional development session for us.”

Peyton also credited home visiting projects, forming relationships with the parents of current students. Schools also would be shifting to improve recognition of both good and improving attendance rates.

“Not everyone is perfect so we’re really starting to think about good and improved recognition, for both students and staff,” said Peyton. “We want to create a support system for teachers to get recognition for improved or good attendance. Creating welcoming school and classroom environments while celebrating with families, by postcards or phone calls home about successful attendance improvement.”

When is a child to sick to come to school was also addressed, Peyton confirming that while attendance is important, staying home while sick is encouraged. 

Also at Monday’s Board of Education Meeting: 

– Gwen Lacy approached the Board of Education with teacher input on the upcoming School Calendar. 

“The Committee met twice and had gathered input. We did a staff vote for our calendar on the 11th and 12th. Calendar A, starting on August 12th received 128 votes while Calendar B received 233 votes, calling for an August 17th start date. I hope you will take into consideration the voice of the employees across the County and accept Calendar B as our start date of choice,” said Lacy.

Calendar B was approved, starting on August 17th. 

– Concrete pad foundation for new bleachers and work along the proposed walking track were approved for Mount View High School’s new football field project. 

– Student trip requests were approved despite current school closures. Some of these are scheduled for later or can be rescheduled. 

– Questions about the current school closure leading to makeup days for the school system arose, but Carolyn Falin said that so long as teachers could send lessons to students, the days would not have to be made up for later in the year. 

“Now if that changes and they have to close down schools entirely, then we’ll go from there,” said Falin.