This story is the first part of Accounted For, a project from St. Louis Public Radio with an assist from KRCU that explores the connection between chronic absenteeism - defined as missing three and a half weeks or more of school - and classroom success.
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon roamed the halls of Glasgow Elementary School. On a recent morning the former minor league baseball player turned educator greets students like players entering a dugout.
“Hey, how are you this morning? Did you do your reading last night?” he asked.
Each yes is greeted with a high-five.
Classroom assignments that have earned high marks are taped all over the hallways, visual aids in Spurgeon’s sprint to upgrade academic achievement in the unaccredited school district in north St. Louis County.
But before he could use new teaching styles and community engagement as springboards for classroom success, Spurgeon had to scrub clean a corrosive problem: Too many students are missing too much school.
A little more than three out of 10 Riverview Gardens students missed 10 percent, or three and a half weeks, of school last year. That’s enough to make them considered chronically absent. Research shows that missing that much time in class can set students up for challenges down the road — and place a massive hurdle in the district’s effort to earn back its state accreditation.
“It was probably the first and foremost message I came out with,” Spurgeon said. “For your child to do better, we have to have them here at school.”
‘We have a lot of kids who are not attending school’
It’s hardly a revolutionary idea: To do well in school, you have to go to school. But until recently, the scope of chronic absenteeism in Riverview Gardens and districts across Missouri has been buried in the numbers.
For years, attendance data were evaluated as a building total, or average daily attendance. It’s a sturdy equation that figures the total percentage of students in class. While a straightforward and reliable measure of school accountability, the method has one huge blind spot: It doesn’t account for individual students missing an excessive amount of school.
Under a new statewide standard called 90-90, Missouri schools are striving to have at least 90 percent of the students in school 90 percent or more of the time.
Last year the new measurement was rolled into the latest version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5, which is used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine a district’s accreditation.
“The 90-90 changed the game,” Spurgeon said. “It literally made an about face and turned it. In MSIP4, the students who were here all the time always made up for those students who had chronic absenteeism issues. You could still work out to have a 92 to a 95 percent over the period of the year. But with 90-90, it literally looks at each individual child.”
The shift toward tracking individual students slid back the curtain on attendance problems.
“We found out that attendance for certain students had been masked,” said Margie Vandeven, deputy commissioner of learning services for DESE. “We have a lot of kids who are not attending school.”
Slightly more than 12 percent, or roughly 108,000 students in Missouri missed enough school to be considered chronically absent last year. On the whole, urban districts had the hardest time meeting the state’s new standard, but the data show it’s not an isolated challenge.
For example, St. Louis Public Schools with a total enrollment of more than 25,000 last year had virtually the exact same score as Raymondville R-VII in south central Missouri, total enrollment 145. Both districts had a little more than 20 percent of their students who missed more than three and a half weeks of school.
“When a student is chronically absent they have to continue to catch up on their own work,” Vandeven said. “But it also slows down the whole class. You play a lot of catch up when students are absent.” The effects of chronic absenteeism build over time. Vandeven said bad habits can stick around long after a student has left school.
“That work ethic that students do come to the school prepared to learn, that’s something that you carry over to the work force,” Vandeven said.
It would be a mistake to think of chronic absenteeism as students missing large chunks of school. Often it sneaks up on kids, families and schools. That has districts across the state hustling to prevent an absence here and an absence there from adding up to a major problem.
In Riverview Gardens, some of the district's approaches are simple.
For example, students used to be required to show their school ID badges when they get on the bus. But sometimes students forgot to bring their badges and so were sent home. Spurgeon said many of them would end up staying home. So, the policy was changed and now students can check in at the front office if they forget their ID badge in the morning.
Some approaches are far more sophisticated, weaving data into a giant safety net to catch students before they hit the academic floor.
More eyes on empty desks
Tina Adams-Turnipseed flipped open a laptop. On the screen were three columns with student data — the left column is green, the middle column is yellow and the right column is red.
Students in the green column were on track to meet 90-90 this year, students in the yellow column were on the edge and students in the red column had no chance of meeting attendance standards this year.
The idea is for administrators to spot quickly students sliding into the yellow column, get to them early, and steer them back into the green column. Constantly sifting through attendance numbers is at the heart of Riverview Gardens’ new efforts to make sure kids not only get to school but stay in school.
“We’ve gone up drastically because we’re focused on it,” said Adams-Turnipseed, who monitors attendance data for Riverview Gardens. “We look at the data every day. I send out reports every day to every school letting them know, you have students who have missed three, five, eight, 10 days, you need to look at those students.”
That data are then fed to principals and teachers. Each time a student isn’t in class, an automated call is sent to parents and guardians, and it often triggers outreach efforts on the part of administrators to see if a student needs resources that can help them get to class.
At first, Adams-Turnipseed said that some administrators weren’t so keen on the extra scrutiny.
“In the beginning, it was, ‘oh great, more stuff on my plate,’” Adams-Turnipseed said. “But now as they see how important attendance is they are happy to get it. When I send it out, they immediately jump on it and start talking to the student.”
Homing in on what research has shown to be a key indicator of student success appears to have begun the cracks a student can slip through.
The school year isn't over, but right now the district projects the number of chronically absent students will be reduced by between 10 to 13 percent as compared to last year’s numbers.
Impact of poverty on attendance
Adams-Turnipseed is a numbers person who likes to double check attendance data after she gets home at night. But she doesn’t spend all of her time behind a screen. During this year’s brutally cold winter she and other district staff spent their mornings driving through the district, handing out donated winter clothing to shivering students on their way to school.
In a district where roughly 60 percent of children walk to class every day, Adams-Turnipseed said parents and guardians of students without adequate clothing face the choice of keeping a child home or sending him or her out into frigid temperatures.
“Sometimes we don’t have the resources for our students,” Adams-Turnipseed said. “They don’t have coats, they don’t have gloves. They can’t be out in the weather.”
Riverview Gardens continues to stagger after the bruising recession and housing crisis. Property values have buckled under the weight of foreclosures, dropping 24 percent between 2010 and 2012, the biggest decline seen by any district in St. Louis County.
Last year, 797 students, or more than one in seven, were considered homeless. It’s a number that’s tripled since the 2007-08 school year, when Riverview Gardens first began operating as an unaccredited district. Administrators make a point to refer to them as “students in transition” with the hopes of removing the stigma of homelessness and helping social workers connect with families stuck in a what can seem an endless cycle of couch hoping.
Day after day, Michelle Shumpert sees families worn thin from constantly jumping in and out of crisis. As Riverview Gardens Students in Transition Coordinator, she has worked with more than 500 homeless students this year alone.
Shumpert laid out a common scenario facing a homeless family in which attending school becomes a secondary concern.
“I have to have somewhere for my child to lay their head at night that’s safe,” Shumpert said. “I have to have food and water. The basic needs come first.”
Shumpert said frequently families become homeless due to economic hardship and students feel the pressure to go to work, instead of school, to help cover the bills.
Maintaining a connection with those families is critical, and she relies heavily on faith-based groups to get them help.
“I try to have a relationship with all of my parents,” Shumpert said. “So, that when they do come out and realize these things in order, I’m going to call Mrs. Shumpert to see where I can get X, Y and Z. They do reach out to me when they have those basic needs met."
But when students start missing school because of housing instability it leaves gaps in the relationship. And when addresses are fluid and cell phone bills go unpaid, that connection just gets weaker and weaker.