Keeping Attendance Up

Principals all over the city grapple with the same question: How do you get students to come to school every day? Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sets a goal of 96 percent attendance, and principals go to great lengths to meet that goal. We spoke to some successful principals to get their thoughts on attendance – why it is important, how to remove barriers and how to get students excited about attending school.

Hitting the 96 percent goal is cause for celebration. “Last year our attendance was 96.1 percent. It was a big deal — I was like, ‘hallelujah!’” said Principal Elizabeth Jamison-Dunn from Catalyst Circle Rock, an elementary school in the Austin neighborhood. “One day we had only three students absent. I got on the microphone and made an announcement, ‘Everybody stop learning! Stand up and do the nae nae! We’ve got 99 percent attendance!’”

Some principals say that the key to high attendance is to have motivated students who are excited about school. Principal Bill Hook at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences keeps students motivated by giving them opportunities to “take ownership of their education.” Once students feel that they can’t miss a day, they “catch the attendance bug,” he said.

Other principals get creative about removing the typical excuses for why students can’t come to school. Wendell Smith Elementary Principal Tiffany Brown doesn’t let barriers like dirty uniforms or lack of transportation get in the way of students’ learning. “Between the clerk, my security guard, and myself, we will come to your house and pick you up. If you don’t have a clean uniform, we have a washing machine and dryer at the school,” she said.

Principal Javier Arriola-Lopez of Rachel Carson Elementary School brings in a traveling clinic to do physicals for students every year. “We have organizations come and do vision and dental checks,” he said, noting that students usually have to miss an entire day for an appointment. “We make things easy for parents because we want our students to be here at school.”

Principals understand that barriers to attendance sometimes start in the home. “It’s very hard, especially when you have large families, because when one kid is sick, the whole family stays home,” Tiffany said. Principal Femi Skanes of Al Raby High School will call parents personally: “What can we do to help you? What gets you here?” she asks. Femi knows that attendance is improved when both parents and students feel motivated and supported. “Attendance is not just about the operational procedures. It is about giving students a place they want to come to every day.”

To give an added incentive, many principals raffle off prizes for perfect attendance. “We ask students what they want,” Tiffany said. “It’s always the silliest things like small toys, pencils and silly putty.” In addition to a raffle, Elizabeth invites students with perfect attendance for the quarter to attend a special breakfast with their parents.

“It’s very simple; if your child is not here, they’re not learning,” said Javier. That’s why the principals of Chicago’s public schools work tirelessly to ensure that their schools are packed with students ready to learn.