2017-10-05 / News

Biddeford schools take absenteeism by the horns

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/SACO – Biddeford School Department began the second year of an effort to reduce chronic absenteeism among students.

Biddeford implemented the Count ME In program in grades kindergarten through 12 last year. The program typically needs two full years of data before the impact can accurately be assessed, but Biddeford School Department officials remain hopeful and committed to keeping children in class. Chronic absenteeism is defined by Count ME In as missing 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days, for any reason.

Biddeford High School Principal Jeremie Sirois said he saw a 1 or 2 percent increase in attendance last year. Prior to that, the high school’s daily average attendance hovered around 90 percent. His ultimate goal for the high school is 95 percent average attendance.

“The premise of the program works,” Sirois said. “The more that we get families connected with the program and families used to the program, that’s when we’ll start to see the benefits more.”

Under Count ME In, a teacher or advisor calls a student’s home after three absences, excused or unexcused. The advisor’s goal is to build a rapport with the student’s family and express concern over the student’s absence from school. After the sixth absence the student is put on a watch list.

“Oftentimes when kids are absent, there are some things going on at home. We may not know what it is really about. We make that connection to assist families. So often the truancy protocol in Maine, when a kid is absent so many days it becomes a punitive thing. This program is not about trying to make it punitive. We turn absences into something more positive by trying to establish that connection,” Sirois said.

Under Maine law, a child’s parent or guardian may be fined up to $250 by district courts if a child has missed enough school days to be truant after receiving a written warning. Children below sixth grade are considered truant if they have seven unexcused absences from school in one year. That number jumps to 10 for students in seventh grade and up under the age of 17.

Sirois invites families to the high school after six absences to talk about what’s going on and what can be done to fix the situation. Often teachers will change a student’s schedule or adjust their workload and break it down into smaller sections. Giving children and teenagers a sense of accomplishment is a top priority for Sirois.

“In meetings I talk with families about how do we get their kid motivated to walk back into the building,” he said. “Anything I can do to help alleviate that phobia of what’s coming. Teens are no different than adults. When we’re working, if we let things go they pile up and we get overwhelmed.”

Sirois said success has been a mixed bag. Attendance fluctuates up and down but that doesn’t stop him from trying to help. He said some Biddeford students have to work to support their family and that can be difficult to deal with.

“I feel for our kids,” Sirois said. “They have to deal with things I personally didn’t have to deal with. We won’t stop trying, but it’s a battle.”

Even if the results from the program don’t evince themselves for another few years, Sirois believes the program is worthwhile. He has no plans to back off his goal of 95 percent attendance anytime soon.

“When I set goals, I want goals that are reachable but hard to get there,” Sirois said. “A goal that’s eventually reachable takes consistency with the program and consistency with what we do here in order to get there. Showing up is difficult but the first and most necessary step.”

Christopher Indorf, assistant superintendent of Biddeford schools, helped implement Count ME In almost two-and-a-half years ago after speaking with Program Director Susan Lieberman. Count ME In is a collaboration between businesses, schools and community organizations. It is affiliated with Attendance Works, a national initiative promoting awareness of chronic absenteeism. Indorf was attracted to the program because keeping track of students is one thing officials have control over.

“We can’t impact whether or not a mother reads to her kid at age 2,” Indorf said. “We can’t impact poverty, but we can be responsive and attentive to our students. For kids in Maine, 15 percent are chronically absent. Kids who miss school are less likely to read by third grade and more likely to dropout in high school. We can’t get 100 percent (attendance) but we work with our principals to make a point of emphasis to educate families about the importance.”

Reports of daily attendance for each grade are posted at the entrances of Biddeford schools, Indorf said, to remind parents of the initiative teachers and administrators have taken. Biddeford moved the start time of schools back last year, changing middle school from 7:30 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. and high school from 7:45 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, children between the ages of six and 12 need nine to 12 hours of sleep per 24 hours and teenagers ages 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours.

“Count ME In was commensurate with the start school later effort. It’s hard to say which is more impactful but together they are a powerful pair,” Indorf said.

The Biddeford School Department doesn’t receive funds from Count ME In, but the program provides schools with training modules and data analysis. Count ME In also hosts regional meetings throughout Maine for educators to connect and share information. The next regional meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 17 at Unum in Portland.

“Whenever someone from the community thinks something could be done better, we are all ears,” Indorf said. “I would be remiss if we didn’t express our gratitude.”

Count ME In was founded four years ago in Maine after it was discovered that 1,000 elementary aged students were chronically absent in Cumberland County. Lieberman, Count ME In’s director, also wanted to focus on all absences, not just those that went unexcused, and the impact it had on learning. She emphasized that attendance was critical for the success of students later in life, because employers need people who can read, write and show up on time. Her continued strategy is to foster a positive school climate.

“It is positive messaging and positive engagement,” Lieberman said. “It is building on relationships students have with staff. It is creating a team that’s monitoring attendance and looking at data driven strategies. We found that chronic absenteeism can be reduced when schools, families and communities work together in a comprehensive approach.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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