Consistent good attendance is an important part of helping kids to excel at school. That’s why Northwest Elementary, one of Lebanon County’s two Community Schools, is working to improve attendance rates for students, even during a pandemic.
At the start of the 2019-2020 School year, United Way of Lebanon County invested in the first Community Schools in Lebanon County at Northwest Elementary School and Lebanon Middle School. The program is managed by Communities in Schools of Pennsylvania (CISPA), a nonprofit that specializes in integrated Community School programs. United Way’s investment supports two Community School Coordinators, Christina Tinoco and Guillermo Barroso, who were hired by CISPA to help address barriers to education and ensure that children have access to the resources they need to succeed at school.
The Community Schools program in Lebanon County is being piloted in the Lebanon School District with the hope of expanding to other school districts in the coming years.
At each school, the Community School Coordinators conducted a needs assessment to help them build a strategic plan, which would help the schools better support students and families. At Northwest Elementary School, the key priorities identified were improving attendance, improving behavior and school climate, improving academic performance, and increasing parent engagement. With these goals in mind, CISPA and the Northwest Community School Coordinator, Christina, set to work to build out a School Improvement Plan.
The defined strategies in the School Improvement Plan utilize a variety of tiered supports, including general programs for the entire school population, small group supports and individual case management. The Community Schools Coordinators also work with outside organizations when possible to help meet their defined goals.
As plans developed for the School Improvement Plan, improving attendance quickly became a priority. To move the needle on attendance rates, CISPA focused on building key relationships with the Northwest Elementary Student Attendance Improvement Plan (SAIP) Coordinator and the Northwest Elementary Attendance Secretary. This was done by assisting the SAIP Coordinator and Attendance Secretary with telephone calls home and engaging the parents of chronically absent students. Parents were quickly made aware that CISPA would be connecting parents to community resources so attendance could be improved. CISPA also held an attendance focus group during the 3rd marking period for students who did not make improvements to their chronic absences.
When the pandemic closed schools in the spring of 2020, it was clear that there would be new complications to addressing attendance issues. Students and teaching staff had to quickly pivot to online learning, and parents’ internet literacy was a major barrier to students’ learning.
Communities in Schools assisted parents via phone and online meetings with navigating online educational programs. In September when schools reopened, Northwest tech specialists and Communities in Schools held a “Technology Training for Parents”. This included a walk-through and a hands-on demonstration of the educational programs, resulting in parents requesting more connectivity to the school. During the first few months of school, Northwest School Counselor and CISPA provided a shared system to all teachers so that they could flag students who were having chronic attendance patterns. After many unsuccessful attempts at getting connected to students and parents, Northwest School Counselor and the Community Schools Coordinator began making home visits to connect to Parents. Many parents became aware that students who were online learners at the time were not excelling or being marked as absent. Online students were then changed to be hybrid students- 2 days in person, 3 days online. Students’ attendance improved as result because they learned how to adequately submit the requested schoolwork and how to be marked present each day.
Northwest Elementary Administration and CISPA created “Importance of Attendance” videos and shared them with parents via Facebook and a virtual newsletter created by Assistant Principal, Mrs. Nordall. Videos were in both English and Spanish.
Now that all hybrid students come to school five days a week, attendance has slowly been improving. Parents who have students with consistent chronic absences are contacted by the Community School Coordinator regularly via phone calls and motivated to find a way to improve. During the remaining school months, CISPA will kick-off attendance initiative, NBA (Never Been Absent). The grade level with the highest average daily attendance at the end of the month will receive a classroom celebration. This will be the first time that average daily attendance will be celebrated, and Northwest Elementary hopes it will motivate students to come to school and change the narrative around attending school.
Through the work and planning of the Community School, Children and Families at Northwest elementary school are getting personalized support to help improve attendance patterns for online, in-person and hybrid learners.