A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
The 20-day attendance challenge
FCUSD launches initiative to address attendance concerns in the first few weeks of school
By Scott Meyer and Maggie Cunin | November | December 2023
Student attendance is inextricably linked to learning success. This statement is one that we could all agree on with very little contest. However, when it comes to leveraging site teams and district leaders to do the work required to heal the root cause of students’ attendance challenges, there is often a disconnect. Between IEP meetings, student discipline, parent phone calls, and the many other tasks that go into making a school day successful, often attendance can be seen as the “least urgent” task.
That student is not chronically absent — yet.
That student has passing grades — for now.
That family has started attending less and less — but it will be dealt with when it becomes a problem.
We all hear this frequently. However, what is often missed is that attendance is urgent — right then and there. Attendance is one of the most critical indicators of a student’s sense of belonging at school that we have within our districts, and it is often treated as an afterthought. Without early intervention to correct poor attendance trends, it is much more challenging to get a student on a better path for their education.
With this concern in mind, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District (enrollment: 22,121) started an Attendance Task Force in the fall of 2021. The goal of the Attendance Task Force was to bring together key influencers and interested parties in student attendance (27 members representing classified staff, certificated staff, district board members, labor groups, city officials and county office of education personnel) and answer the question of how our district could begin to improve attendance following the catastrophic learning loss that we saw because of the pandemic. The outcome of the Attendance Task Force committee meetings was a two-year districtwide attendance and engagement plan that results in rebuilding daily attendance habits, increasing enrollment and building confidence in our community that our schools are safe places for their children.
During these task force conversations, the First 5 California initiative was discussed as a successful model to emulate, and it raised the question of why we were not doing a similar early-intervention campaign for all students during the first 20 days of school. We created an Attendance Specialist position who was charged with putting our two-year plan into action.
The concept itself is simple — The 20 Day Attendance Challenge is an all-hands-on-deck initiative to call families whose students are absent during the first 20 days of school to encourage them to build positive attendance routines for the school year. The initiative is also repeated in January upon the students’ return from winter break. This required cooperation cross-departmentally on each campus and in our district office. A key to this operation’s success included training all employees, including yard supervisors, food service workers, front office clerks and principals, in positive family engagement. Teachers are not the only adults on campus to build relationships with students and make them feel welcome; it could be anyone. We worked with our bilingual instructional assistants throughout the district in order to reach our families in their home language and also utilized other bilingual staff to assist in making this personal connection. Families with phone numbers that were out of service received emails or home visits in order to verify their updated contact information. To kick off this campaign with our staff, we held a training focused on understanding the impact of attendance on student learning and mental and emotional health, and building capacity with staff to ensure all team members are providing attendance support and feel confident navigating attendance conversations with families, recognize barriers that families encounter, and emphasize the importance of strength-based language.
As a result of this training, we saw the benefits of staff who may have never considered their role being important to a student’s attendance take on a new sense of responsibility. By involving support staff in the planning and training, we were able to create some of the staff buy-in we were lacking before. For example, one student had not attended school for most of the 20-Day Challenge. Upon further communication via a bilingual instructional assistant, the parent admitted to being visually impaired and feared her son was facing the same degenerative struggles. In partnership with the student’s teachers, counselors and school nurse, we were able to schedule eye doctor appointments not just for this student, but the entire family. Every call revealed new information about the students, families and community we serve.
Attendance is one of the most critical indicators of a student’s sense of belonging at school that we have within our districts, and it is often treated as an afterthought.
We also created a districtwide shareable tracking grid to track the calls that were being made home in real time. We asked that all calls would be completed by 10:30 a.m. at each site, and that any calls that ended in voicemail were attempted once more in the afternoon. Our initial 20-Day Challenge campaign ran from our first day of school, Aug. 9 through Sept. 6, 2022. As a result of this campaign, over 5,600 personal attendance calls from site teams went out to families regarding support for unexcused absence, our districtwide attendance rate increased 0.9 percent compared to the first 20 days of the previous year, and Title I sites saw an attendance increase of 2.7 percent compared to the year prior.
We repeated this “challenge” in January and ended the school year with districtwide attendance up 1.2 percent. For the 2023-24 school year, we’re adding income verification as part of our personalized outreach to families, incentives for students in the form of various fun challenges at their school sites, and increasing communication for staff and families. As the 20-Day Challenge evolved, we recognize and appreciate that staff shifted their focus from “clearing absences” to building trust and relationships. We emphasized “better late than never” and changed how office staff welcome students who were late to school. With the focus shifted from a punitive approach, staff discovered that there is a responsibility to recognize community needs and that, no matter the role, they could be the most important person in a student’s life at school. Attendance can quickly become numbers on a screen or data points on a graph, but it is crucial to recognize that each student who is absent has a story, a reason for the absence, and a call to be seen. As educators and leaders, it is our obligation to make sure that all students are connected and seen at school. The 20-Day Attendance Challenge proved to be a valuable tool to capture student connectedness right at the very beginning of the school year. Scott Meyer is the director of Behavior Intervention and Student Support Services at Folsom Cordova Unified School District. Maggie Cunin is attendance specialist with Folsom Cordova Unified School District.