Nearly 27K RI students missed at least 10 days of school last year. How one district is trying to improve attendance.

Agnes B. Hennessey Elementary School

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – “Alert: Your child has missed 17 days. The average # days in our school is 2. Poor attendance impacts your child’s ability to read.”

That’s the type of text message parents of students at Agnes B. Hennessey Elementary School in East Providence might receive if their child is in danger of becoming chronically absent, which means missing at least 10% of school during the 180-day year.

Lindsey Reilly, the school’s principal, calls it a “nudge.” The idea is that parents don’t always realize how crucial it is for their children to attend school every day. But if Reilly can help them understand – in a non-threatening way – that most of their kid’s peers are missing fewer classes, she might be able to change habits and reduce absenteeism.

The results are already trending in the right direction. Only about 8% of Hennessey’s 285 students are chronically absent or at risk of becoming chronically absent during the current school year, a three percentage point decrease from last year, according to attendance data compiled by the state.

And Reilly has started another trend. On Friday, all of the other elementary and middle schools in the district will send their first nudge text messages to parents using the same attendance tracking dashboard, which was developed by the R.I. Department of Education. Parents also receive a letter that includes an attendance graph displaying how their child’s attendance compares with other students.

“I’ve been sending [the text messages] in the evening, when the building is quiet, and then the next morning the backpack letter gets placed with the student,” Reilly said. “And I think the visual has made an impact. And they realize their norm is not the norm.”

Absenteeism is not a problem that is exclusive to East Providence.

Nearly 27,000 public school students in Rhode Island – 19% of the K-12 population – missed at least 18 days of school during the 2016-17 year. At 48 schools, at least 30% of the students were chronically absent.

Experts say the reasons why students miss school vary from community to community and can range from health conditions like asthma to issues like weather. The worst-attended day of the school year at Hennessey so far, for example, was on a day with a two-hour snow delay. At the elementary school level, Reilly said, it’s rare to see kids skipping school.

The state education department has been trying to work with school districts to address absenteeism for many years with little success, but Education Commissioner Ken Wagner sees the attendance dashboard as a potential breakthrough. Aside from the text message alert system, the program provides real-time data to educators on individual student attendance. If a kid is at risk of falling off track, a teacher can call home. Or send a message.

Hennessey was the first school in Rhode Island to begin using the dashboard, which was developed by education department staffers Sarah Whiting and Derick Ariyam. Most of the schools in East Providence signed on after Reilly made a presentation to several principals, emphasizing how easy the program is to use.

Wagner said he doesn’t have any plans to make the dashboard mandatory, but Rhode Island is one of several states around the country that has made improving student and teacher attendance part of their federal accountability plan, a mandate that was included in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

He’s hopeful other districts will request to use the dashboard rather than see it as another requirement from the state. Kathryn Crowley, the superintendent of East Providence schools, said she supports taking a voluntary approach.

“It’s turned out to be highly successful for us,” she said.

Reilly stressed that Hennessey’s initial success can also be attributed to an overall focus on attendance in the building. She’s creating a culture where students and teachers talk about attendance. The dashboard includes leaderboards, so friendly competitions have emerged. Every month, the school recognizes students with the best attendance. And kids who come to school every day are entered into a raffle where they can win a bike, which is donated by a generous person from the neighborhood.

Now Reilly occasionally finds herself with a problem she never expected to have. Recently a parent reached out because their child was concerned about missing school.

“I was asked to get on the phone with the student to say it was OK to stay home sick,” she said.

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Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan