Each year, our student leaders at Westwood Middle School in Spokane, WA, focus on one aspect of school culture and climate that they can improve upon. During the 2017–18 school year, they chose to address improving schoolwide attendance. So, how does a group of eight middle level student leaders take on chronic absenteeism?

With the help of our administrative team, our student leaders began their work by researching the effects of chronic absenteeism. They learned that children with poor attendance fall behind academically and are less likely to graduate on time than their peers with strong attendance. They also discovered some of the reasons why students frequently miss school, such as illness and responsibilities at home. Others are not comfortable in the school environment because of issues such as bullying and harassment, and they miss school in order to avoid these encounters. Then there are some students that don’t see school as valuable, so they stay away.

After researching, these eight students spent time discussing ways to encourage attendance and address the reasons students don’t want to attend school. To understand the full scope of the issue, they worked with our attendance administrator and attendance secretary to collect relevant data. They learned that 22 percent of our students had missed more than 18 days during the previous school year—and these are the students at high risk for dropping out of school. Next, they realized that they needed to raise awareness among the entire school community. Finally—and this is where the fun begins—students brainstormed ways to recognize and celebrate those students with strong attendance.

Here are the four actions our middle level student leaders took to improve student attendance:

  1. Communicated attendance facts to all of our families. At the start of the school year, every family received a fact sheet about the importance of attendance. The students called families every month through our school phone messaging system. The students used many facts from the website Attendance Works: Advancing Student Success by Reducing Chronic Absence (www.attendanceworks.org) to write their messages, and then they put a unique and cute spin on the messages.
  2. Shared monthly student and staff attendance data with the school community. With the help of our administrative team, the students collected data on both student and staff attendance. They made a display that showed this data and put it in our shared common area for all to see. In addition, student leaders communicated this information with our local community through phone messages, school newsletters, and in meetings with the school board and PTO.
  3. Recognized each student and staff member with perfect attendance each month. Using the attendance data, the students decided to publicly show those who had been to school every day the importance of their attendance so that others could be inspired to do the same. Wearing 1980s-inspired designer fanny packs, the student leaders personally delivered treats to students and staff with a note that said, “Thank you for being here every day this month.”
  4. Celebrated students as a group with a special school day event. To honor the group of students with perfect attendance, the leaders chose to host three daytime events, which they called “attenDance.” Students would leave their regular class for an hour and go to the gym for a party. Each party had a different theme. A DJ came to spin tunes while students shared their own music mixes at one event. They also had a glow-in-the-dark dance party with face paint and black lights. The last event of the year was a dance contest, where students received prizes for showing off their best moves.

Did the efforts of our student leaders work to raise attendance? Absolutely. Their commitment to raising awareness, collecting data, recognizing individuals, and celebrating success made a big impact on our school. In a single year, regular attendance increased by 7 percent, which equated to 88 more kids with regular attendance. Listening to my student leaders and letting them choose their goal, create the actions, and see them achieve this result inspired me. It should also inspire you to encourage more student leaders at your school to get involved.

What are your student leaders capable of?

Tami Skillingstad is the assistant principal and athletic director of Westwood Middle School in Spokane, WA.