A New School Year Brings Renewed Focus On Attendance : NPR Ed As students head back to school, districts are faced with the age-old problem of making sure they show up. A principal in St. Louis resorted to extreme measures: installing washers and dryers.

A New School Year Brings Renewed Focus On Attendance

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Chronic absence is one of the most destructive forces in a child's education. Yet more than 6 million students in the U.S. miss three weeks or more of school each year. Now, as students go back to school, schools again face the challenge of keeping them there. In St. Louis, Mo., one principal resorted to extreme measures, installing washing machines and dryers in her school. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team joins us to explain. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Washing machines - what is the thinking there?

NADWORNY: So kids at Gibson Elementary, they wear uniforms. And when those uniforms got dirty, a lot of families didn't have washing machines at home. And they were embarrassed to show up wearing dirty clothes, so they didn't. When Melody Gunn, who was the principal last year at Gibson, found this out, she called up Whirlpool to ask for washing machine donations, and they obliged. So the school basically invited parents to come in at night and use the washing machines. In exchange, there was kind of this volunteer set up so parents would start to get involved in the school, and that's kind of what really created this trust environment, and kids started to show up. You know, it didn't get every kid to come to school, but Principal Gunn says it's working.

MONTAGNE: Well, this principal is clearly trying to do anything she can, and a very innovative thing, to boost attendance because - what? - it's so important.

NADWORNY: Yeah. It's really important, especially now at the beginning of the school year. And there was one study in Baltimore that found that about half the kids who missed two to four days just in September went on to miss about a month of school for the whole year. There's a ton of research that says if kids miss this much school, about 10 percent of the school year, about a month of school, especially in elementary school, they're way more likely to fall behind academically and even drop out.

MONTAGNE: So beyond, you know, something like washing machines, what can schools do about it?

NADWORNY: So the most important thing here is figuring out who's not coming to school. So I spent some time in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the district did a big data project to try and identify what kids weren't in their seats. They were super transparent about the numbers. They made these big 8-foot poster boards that they put at the entrance of every school so folks could see where their numbers were improving.

MONTAGNE: And once they identify why kids are missing, who's at risk, what can schools do?

NADWORNY: A big part is talking to the adults at home. So parents get that attendance is important. But when you get down to specifics, like how many days they can miss each month, there's a lot of misconceptions. So new research says that about half of parents said it was OK to miss three or more days of school a month. And research says it's just not OK to miss that much school.

And then the other thing we know that works is mentors, so pairing kids who are chronically absent with a mentor in the community, like a firefighter, a teacher, a local college student. And people need to feel comfortable in the school. I visited a school in Baltimore where the principal stands outside every morning, whether it's raining or snowing, and he greets parents and kids by name. And they've seen a big bump in their attendance.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team.

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