2016-12-03 / Front Page

Biddeford schools tackle attendance, absenteeism

By ALAN BENNETT
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — Attendance is the focus of several new initiatives by the Biddeford School Department, as schools work to bring more students into classrooms each day.

The department has joined Count ME In, a partnership of schools, families and community organizations that seeks to increase attendance in Maine schools.

School Superintendent Jeremy Ray said Thursday that attendance in the district’s schools has taken a hit since September, and, as part of the program, principals from across the district will be submitting incentive plans to get kids back to school.

“We’re just really trying to focus here in Biddeford because sometimes attendance can be pretty spotty,” Ray said. “Chronic absenteeism is a problem for a lot of students. If you miss 18 days, that’s 10 percent of the school year.”

Ray said that in teaming up with Count ME In, a representative from the partnership regularly looks at the department's data and counsels school officials on the best practices for student and family outreach. 

“One of the things we know is really important is the relationship that exists between teacher and parent, and reaching out to a parent and student, saying, ‘We missed you in school today. We want you to attend,” Ray said. 

Ray said district-wide student attendance typically hovers around 93 percent. Currently, school administrators are setting goals to raise average daily attendance by at least 1 percent by the end of the school year.

“We’re trying to put a high level of accountability on administrators for making sure kids are coming,” Ray said.

“We do have some truancy, so we’re trying to come up with ways to celebrate the kids who are doing the right thing all the time,” said Debra Kenney, principal of Biddeford Intermediate School. 

On Tuesday, BIS hosted an awards breakfast to honor 189 students boasting either perfect, excellent or most-improved attendance. The breakfast was just one of several incentives the school will be offering students in the coming months.

Kenney said there could possibly be a field day, or future breakfast as the school year goes on to recognize that attendance is important and necessary for a well-rounded education.

“They miss reading and math if they don’t come to school,” she said. “We have conversations about why it’s so important to come to school. This is their job right now, to come.”

Kenney said attendance at BIS has increased to around 97 percent, up 2 percent since September, in part because teachers are more frequently reaching out to students and their parents. 

According to Count ME In, students who are chronically absent are less likely to read proficiently by third grade and more likely to drop out of school. The organization also says that, in each of the last two years, 15 percent of all Maine students were chronically absent.

Schools across Biddeford are also working on solving chronic tardiness, which Kenney said is an issue at BIS.

Tardies are down at Biddeford High School, however. Principal Jeremie Sirois said this is likely due to the school’s day beginning an hour later than in past years.

Sirois also said attendance is about 1 percent up from last year, at about 92.61 percent. 

“Attendance is a little bit up from last year — not a whole lot up, not as much as I’d like it to be, but an improvement,” he said Thursday.

Sirois said his incentive plans include giving out gift cards, which he said are donated, to students with good attendance. He also wants to hold a celebration with ice cream for students with zero absences or tardies in November.

But it’s hard with high-schoolers, he said, because they have more free will than younger students. Attendance takes a dip when the weather begins to get colder, Sirois said, although he hopes it will stabilize soon.

“I think in the high school years, kids start to make up their minds, and if they’re not here and they fall behind, it makes up their mind for them if they can continue with school,” he said. “You get so far behind as you're getting older, and it makes it harder to come.”

That’s a problem because, he said, graduating high school is the gateway to a successful adult life. But with good attendance, students are more likely to be graduate and be successful.

“A high school diploma is a pretty solid first into deciding what you want to do, because it at least gives you options. A high school diploma is that foundation,” he said. “Very seldom do you have a situation where a kid shows up consistently and doesn’t graduate high school.” 

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com. 

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