On January 27, summer program leaders explored best practices to increase student attendance. Three programs with historically high attendance rates shared their proven strategies, and break-out groups discussed methods for improving attendance at different grade levels.
Katie Tosh, Boston Beyond’s Director of Measurement, started off the workshop by presenting attendance data from past summers. Data collected from Summer 2015 and Summer 2016 support two main conclusions: First, while average attendance for the Boston Summer Learning Community overall is high (about 85%), there is a wide range between program providers. Second, the data comparing 2015 to 2016 demonstrate that improvement in attendance rates is possible, if we use attendance data to inform program changes.
Why is it so important to track and improve attendance? A recent report by the RAND Corporation finds that students who attend summer programs at high rates earn clear academic advantages. Students deemed “high attenders” (20 days or more) gain math, English language arts, and social-emotional skills comparable to 20-25% of what students learn in a typical school year. Therefore, the report includes recommendations for programs on how to maximize attendance, such as providing exciting and engaging programming and involving families in attendance policies.
Aligned with these recommendations, the workshop focused on three themes:
- Setting clear goals around consistent attendance – with students, families, and staff
- Developing a warm, caring program climate that intertwines fun, learning, and positive relationships
- Implementing a culture of high expectations among staff, students, and families
The three programs highlighted – Achieve, Camp Harbor View, and IBA – all implement intentional practices to increase student attendance rates. For example, Achieve (a three-year program serving middle school students) implements an attendance contract, which is discussed and signed at the program’s orientation, where parents have an opportunity to ask questions. Staff members at Achieve also always follow up with families when students are absent.
At Camp Harbor View, which provides a leadership program for students 15-17 years old, the focus is on making sure kids actually want to come. Staff members help teens set goals regularly, and students are continually engaged in meaningful work where others will notice their absence if they miss a day. The camp’s representative emphasized the importance of building a strong and pervasive positive culture of high expectations.
IBA serves rising second and third grade students, with a focus on English Language Learners. The program prioritizes communication with families about their attendance expectations, as well as providing incentives for students (a prize every Friday) who have perfect attendance for the week. IBA uses a model of project-based learning, so students know that attendance will affect their ability to complete projects that they are proud of.
In the second half of the workshop, participants split into groups affiliated with grade levels: elementary, middle, and high school. Each group discussed efforts their programs are making – or areas for growth – with respect to attendance and the three themes. The elementary school group discussed ways to communicate the value of attendance and how to engage families at all times. The middle school group talked about parental engagement, and also about the capacity of their staff to motivate students, promote daily rituals that encourage attendance, and celebrate students who exemplify the program’s values. The high school group focused on the importance of communicating the program’s core values, and the need for these values to be omnipresent and intentional. In all three groups, program leaders recognized the importance of setting clear expectations around attendance and creating a culture such that students enjoy attending.
Some attendance-related difficulties were also discussed. Transportation, for example, is a big barrier for some programs and some families. Other programs serve students who often have family emergencies, or need to prioritize working for pay or caring for younger siblings over their summer activities. Creating an engaging culture is difficult for programs where enrollment is required, such as for remedial coursework. However, program leaders were able to collaborate and brainstorm ways to ameliorate these problems. While programs should have high expectations for attendance, it is important to be reasonable and understanding. It is also important to recognize and reverse negative implicit values in one’s program, which may have an effect on attendance.
Please see a summary of workshop takeaways for some concrete steps that programs can take to maximize their attendance, and see the attendance page on our Insight Center for more ideas. Programs are also encouraged to examine what they should keep doing, what they should change, and what they should start doing in the following areas:
- Student and family engagement
- Staff training, preparation, and supervision
- Program content and delivery
Each of these areas can affect a program’s ability to achieve consistent student attendance, develop a caring program climate, and implement a culture of high expectations.