Teacher’s Desk: Attendance & Motivation

Colorado High School Charter, where I teach, has an amazing culture, says a former teacher who came back as our discipline coach (called dean or advisor in some schools). We have an at-risk designation at our charter school. Our students are parents or are returning drop-outs or don’t fit into regular district schools or have been expelled elsewhere or have a relationship with the juvenile justice system or are English language learners or special education students and almost all qualify for free and reduced lunch. Like many urban high schools, large and small, we had a growing problem last year with student attendance. By the end of the school year, most days, we had only about 25 students attending out of 165.

Yikes! The School Improvement Committee got busy! We came up with a plan that placed high expectations, personal responsibility, adult follow-through, and consequences in place. “Ditching” school becomes an irresistible elixir, and like the alcoholic trying to quit “cold turkey,” it is just as difficult for students not used to attending class regularly, or anyone really caring if he or she is missing, to come to every class every day.

This year we instituted a new attendance policy. When a student first enters our school, he or she is required to attend 80% of his or her classes. We all have a group of students we mentor and see daily in “homeroom.” The mentors check the student’s attendance regularly and keep each student informed of his attendance status and advocate for the student if there is a family illness or death that prevents the student from attending classes.

If after the student’s six week period (called a “block"), the student has more missing classes than allowed, the student is placed on attendance probation for another block. Most of the time, this second six-week period helps the student change a poor behavior and gain a positive replacement behavior: acceptable, regular attendance.

However, if a student still cannot commit to coming to class daily, we place them on our waiting list for two blocks and ask them to look for another school that may be a better fit, GED program, straighten out personal problems, or get a job the student can commit to. If the student returns, we require them to have read a book (250 pages or greater) and write a five page book report. After handing in the report, the student thoughtfully discusses what he learned while he was not at our school. Only if the student commits to graduating by attending every day, do we ask the student to join us again.

When our returning teacher noticed a change in the culture, what he saw was students committed to attending class, following the rules, and committed to earning a high school diploma.

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator with an M.A. in educational leadership and a former candidate to the Colorado State Board of Education.