Here at Eagle Pass Independent School District, we’re right on the border of the United States and Mexico. Approximately 95 percent of our students are Hispanic, and most of them speak Spanish. Ours is a tight-knit community where many people live next door to family members, which is wonderful, but it also brought some challenges during the pandemic.
COVID just kept cycling through the community over and over again, and it was common to hear people talking about how they’d had it a half dozen times. The number of people who died in our community was heartbreaking, and it scared a lot of people. The New York Times even published a story in August of 2020 about the high rate of new infections here.
When we returned to completely in-person schooling, families didn’t want to send their students back to school. They were scared, and they didn’t understand why we couldn’t do another year of virtual school.
Before the pandemic we had excellent attendance. We’re a Title I district, so many students counted on the free breakfast and lunch they’d receive for attending. But during the pandemic, our attendance was frighteningly low. At its lowest point, attendance was approximately 5 percent, which put our funding in jeopardy. Even after our schools reopened, attendance only reached the 70-73 percent range.
By communicating frequently with families and offering incentives for attendance with the help of our community, we were able to bring our attendance rates back to normal levels. Here’s how we did it.
Taking a new approach
We adopted a new platform, Remind, in August of 2020 to streamline communications within our district. My supervisor asked me how families were responding to it. Because we were virtual for the entire first year we used it, the response was pretty good. We used it to send out messages letting people know when and where drive-by pick-ups for free breakfast and lunch were, or where to come pick up their Chromebooks or other tools their students needed, so families were motivated to get the app and use it.
Later, we decided to leverage the wide adoption of Remind to send families notifications about attendance. Our technology director hooked it up to our student information system so that it would automatically send personalized notifications, including the student’s name, to family members whenever their student was absent. Because so many of our students’ families speak Spanish, the automatic translation into their preferred language was really helpful. In the past, I used Google Translate because I am not fluent in Spanish, and it led to a few embarrassing miscommunications.
For elementary school and early childhood students who were absent, we decided to send a single message home every morning at 11:20. Students in those grades are with the same teacher all day and have already missed three hours by 11:00.
We already knew that sending a single message home didn’t work for junior high and high school students, and if we waited until after 11:00, they’d have already missed multiple subjects. We decided to send a message home after every period they missed throughout the day. Our junior high students attend eight periods a day, so if they missed a whole school day, their parents received eight personalized messages letting them know their student missed a class. Our high school uses an accelerated block schedule with five periods, so their families would receive five notifications if their student missed the whole day.
The community pitches in
Being consistent in reminding our families when their students were absent was the core of our strategy. If all the notifications and incentives and other reminders didn’t work, families would have to meet with our attendance and admissions officer, who would explain that if their student didn’t show up, they might be fined.
Laying out the consequences was important, but offering incentives for attending was also key. Our biggest community partner was Peter Piper Pizza. The general manager at our local restaurant was incredibly supportive, providing free kids packs, which included a free pizza, drink, and game coins, for students who had perfect attendance for six weeks. They even gave coupons to teachers whose classes had excellent attendance.
Our principals each had a budget to provide their own incentives as well, and they did things like buying chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes from our local bakery. We also held a raffle with tickets given out for attendance. The more tickets students collected, the better chance they had to win prizes like televisions, Chromebooks, and AirPods.
At the classroom level, some teachers even took it into their own hands and encouraged students to show up by offering movie Fridays or nacho parties for meeting attendance goals. Several of them put charts on their classroom doors showing progress toward their class rewards to share their success and encourage students to keep it up. Sometimes all it takes is making students feel involved.
We also stressed the importance of attendance at family engagement meetings and events like “coffee with the principal,” and distributed flyers all over the district.
Pushback, acceptance, and results
We did get some pushback from parents, particularly those who received notifications several times a day. Some of them plainly told us, “I know my kid’s not going to school. Just stop messaging me.”
The first time it happened, I received a phone call and the parent was irate. They said we were implying that they didn’t know where their child was and said they had told them to stay at home. I learned that sometimes you just have to let them talk and express their feelings before they are ready to hear you. After listening, I would tell them that not every child who’s out of school is sick at home like theirs. I would explain the attendance troubles we’d faced, why it was so important to address it, and why we decided to message for every period a student missed.
Most of the time that resolved the issue, but sometimes I had to tell a family member exactly what I didn’t want to and explain to them how to shut off notifications. That would send everything to email, including any messages from teachers, for example, which were also sent to family members via Remind.
Despite those few complaints, we saw a 20 percent increase in attendance, which we considered tremendous growth in attendance using this approach. It really saved us.
And much of the feedback from parents was positive. I had one mother ask me to fix her account because she knew her daughter was skipping, but she wasn’t getting the notifications. It turned out that her student had turned notifications off inside the app, so I explained how to turn them back on and she began receiving notifications again. I also heard from another parent who said she appreciated the personalization of the messages. She had two students in the district, and the messages told her which one was absent, whereas in the past she would just know that one of them had missed class.
Family engagement, and communication in general, has really improved as a result of our attendance push. It’s easier to connect with families who prefer a language other than English, and consolidating onto a single platform has made it easier to communicate issues such as delays to after-school activities buses. The students seem to like it as well. My sister is an AP teacher in the district, and when we have dinner together, her Apple watch is always buzzing with alerts from her students asking questions about their homework.
People in our community were genuinely afraid to send their children back to school after COVID traumatized us all. Persistent messaging and a community that pulled together to make a difference brought our students back to the classroom, and maybe even made our district a little stronger for whatever challenges lay ahead.
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