All the classes at Smith Elementary School in New Britain were sorted into the four houses of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the kids competed this school year for the chance to win a light-up golden snitch.
But instead of earning points for a spell well-done or a Quidditch match won, the students earned points, notably, for attendance.
Early in the pandemic, as COVID cases rose, school attendance dropped. And the issue lingered deep into this school year. Programs such as the one implemented in New Britain have aimed to incentivize attendance.
Teachers say they appear to have had an effect. One New Britain school reported seeing its chronic absenteeism rate drop from about 45% to about 36% this spring after a “March Madness” attendance challenge.
Statewide, chronic absenteeism increased from 12.2% in the 2019-20 school year to 19% in the 2020-21 school year. Students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness and English learners were likely to be absent more days, according to the state’s 2020-21 Condition of Education report.
As every school in the state opened up fully in person at the start of the 2021-22 school year, and with vaccines available to most K-12 students, the state still saw instances of chronic absenteeism, especially toward the end of last year and the start of this year, when there was a surge in COVID cases throughout the state.
Students are considered to be chronically absent if they miss 10% or more school days in an academic year. Both excused and unexcused absences count toward that number. Chronic absenteeism is included as an indicator in Connecticut’s Next Generation Accountability System, which the state uses to measure districts’ overall performance.
The state and local districts are implementing several programs and strategies to help keep kids in school, officials said.
“We don’t wait until someone misses 10 days of school to then mark them chronically absent and then investigate,” said John Frassinelli, bureau chief of health, nutrition, family services and adult education at the state Department of Education.
Students who are chronically absent tend to struggle with academic achievement, studies have shown. Chronic absenteeism has been an issue nationally as well, with parents keeping children home because of health risks, COVID-19 fears, mental health concerns and disruptions caused by financial or housing instability, among other reasons.
Nationwide, schools don’t measure or track chronic absenteeism in a uniform way, so it’s hard to compare data. But a report at the end of last year from consulting firm McKinsey and Company showed that 22% of parents said their kids were on track in the fall to be chronically absent this school year.
The idea to transfigure the New Britain elementary school into the magical castle of Hogwarts came to family school liaison Emily Sirois last summer while she was watching the Harry Potter films.
“I had just watched the movie over the summer, and I was like, ‘I think I’m going to turn my building into Hogwarts,’” Sirois said, referring to the school of magic at which most of J.K. Rowling’s seven-book children’s series is located. “What could possibly go wrong?”
So, with support from school administrators and district leaders, Sirois brought a little magic to Smith Elementary.
Because each grade level at Smith has four classrooms, each one is represented as a Hogwarts house, and points are only given, never taken away (unlike in the books). The class with the best attendance (most points) for the month gets a prize.
When the kids at Smith saw Sirois coming down the hall with the trophy snitch — a winged ball used in the magical game of Quidditch — every month, “it just sends them over the edge.”
“We give points for attendance, we give points for acts of kindness, things to tie in both academic and social-emotional so that kids can see that chart grow,” Sirois said. “They know they belong to this house. They know that banner is theirs, and they’re super excited.”
What’s happening statewide?
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to shut down in March 2020, one of the biggest concerns was whether school-aged children were going to remain engaged with online learning.
Those concerns were valid, as a quarter of students did not show up for or were minimally present during distance learning at the end of that academic year.
As time went on and schools slowly tried bringing kids back into classrooms throughout the 2020-21 academic year, 95% of enrolled students still didn’t attend full-time in-person classes through the beginning of 2021 due to the pandemic, either because of family hesitancy or districts not offering a full return at the time.
“In January, absenteeism was really high because it was sort of at the height of omicron, but things are starting to improve now,” Frassinelli said. “We anticipate that the May data will continue to show decreases in students who are chronically absent,” he added.
The May data wasn’t finalized as of last week.
The department works with school districts to ensure families whose children are absent get support early. Some of those supports may address emotional needs, transportation and housing, among other barriers, Frassinelli said.
“The idea is you start to see a pattern, you start to see a couple of absences, and then student assistance teams jump in … but the other thing that’s happening is we’re seeing chronic absence rates that are higher in small districts and charter schools,” he said.
District officials who oversee attendance also participate in what’s called “Talk Tuesday,” during which they gather virtually with the Department of Education to discuss strategies for engaging students and keeping them in school.
Smith elementary school students pose with the magic wands and Harry Potter glasses that they decorated as an award for their high attendance rates. YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
One of the “major programs” the state Department of Education implemented last year, Frassinelli said, was the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP.
This program is a partnership between the department and six Regional Education Service Centers to help 15 schools with the highest chronic absenteeism rates last year enroll students in summer programs and help families transition back into schools at the start of the school year.
The department hopes to continue the LEAP program through at least 2024. The state legislature’s budget bill included $7 million in fiscal year 2023 for the program.
“They’re not the old truancy officers who would show up at your house when you miss too much school and drag you to school or drag you to juvenile court. That is not what this is,” Frassinelli said. “This is talking with families, reaching out to them, meeting with them, asking them what they can do to assist.”
“We’re not talking about truancy, we’re not talking about criminalizing absence from school. There are some important changes that have happened over the last couple of years around working with families and students,” Frassinelli said, such as “offering engaging curriculum or offering them meals, so that kids want to come to school — rather than the old days of a truancy officer showing up at your house. That’s really critical when we talk about connecting families and students to learning.”
He said more than 200 home visitors have been trained to work in those districts, and they’ve conducted over 12,000 “family contacts,” meaning visits, phone calls or other contacts with families.
“We’re also creating a collection of supports and resources for families based on their needs so that home visitors have one place to go to find supports, whether it’s housing or other things that could be helpful for them,” said Kari Sullivan, education consultant for chronic absence, attendance and truancy at the state Department of Education.
Several districts are also offering summer enrichment programs to help keep kids engaged through the next few months until school starts again in the fall.
“We’ll be conducting the same work over the summer to connect those families to those opportunities for enrichment in their community,” Frassinelli said.
Sullivan of the state Department of Education said districts are getting innovative when it comes to improving attendance outcomes.
For example: Bristol recently got a community learning center grant to keep schools open until 6 p.m. so that families and students who are having attendance issues can come in for academic recovery. The district is also trying to find out why some students aren’t showing up.
“Some of the things that the districts are doing [are] kind of fun, and one of them was attendance Olympics during the Olympics — they had activities that were school or district-wide, where schools might compete against each other as an Olympic theme,” she said.
And for New Britain, one of the 15 districts in the state’s LEAP program, part of that innovation to get younger students reengaged was through Harry Potter.
Some of the prizes through the program included a “herbology” class, which was a salsa making lesson, at which students got to test their homemade salsa against store-bought brands.
February’s attendance winners were visited by the Riverside Reptiles for an hour-long petting zoo, which Sirois said was a nod to the dragons in the Harry Potter series.
After hearing about what Smith Elementary was doing, Sarah Montano, a family school liaison at Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain, also implemented a Harry Potter attendance competition at Lincoln.
Both Sirois and Montano said the goal of having activities or incentives like this was to get kids more involved and learn something new. Many of the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at their schools come up to them to share that they’re now reading the Harry Potter books because of these attendance activities.
“If [students] are miserable and don’t want to be here, what can you do? They’re not going to learn anything,” Sirois said. “But to have your teachers and your support staff in costumes and being goofy, and just giving them every reason to just manifest what they can be, they thankfully have run with it … we have great kids.”
Similar to what Sirois did at Smith Elementary, no points were taken away from classes at Lincoln. Montano found ways to make sure everyone felt included, especially the classes that were having more difficulties with attendance.
“Yes, I did the attendance, whichever house has the best attendance, but I also created those challenges so those teachers that felt that they might not always have attendance, they could still participate in some way to get their house points,” she said.
Sirois said there’s been a lot more excitement about being back in the building with these activities.
When Lincoln implemented a March Madness attendance challenge, for example, the rates started to change.
From March 3-11, the school’s average daily attendance was 90.47% and 45.14% of its students were considered chronically absent — having missed 10% or more of the total number of days enrolled during the school year for any reason, according to Ryan Langer, a spokesperson for the district.
After the competition began at the school in mid-March, Lincoln saw a change in attendance. From March 14-30, the average daily attendance increased to 91.42% and 26.98% of students were chronically absent.
And by the end of May, the average daily attendance for the entire school year was 90.97% with a chronic absenteeism rate of 36.57%.
“I think sometimes we are short-sighted … because we think, ‘Well, it’s almost over, so let’s just get back to business the way it was,’” said Nancy Sarra, superintendent of New Britain schools. “That’s not going to happen, and we need to realize that this is going to be years. It’s going to be years in recovery.”