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SPRINGDALE -- Three Northwest Arkansas schools are among eight in the state to get grants to fight chronic absenteeism.

More than 12 percent of Arkansas students in kindergarten through third grade were chronically absent during the 2014-15 school year, meaning they missed at least 18 days of school, according to a news release from the Arkansas Community Foundation.

Research by the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading shows students who are chronically absent in the early grades are more likely to struggle with reading and less likely to graduate from high school than students who attend regularly.

Jones and Monitor elementary schools and Central Junior High School in Springdale received $1,000 each through the Make Every Day Count grant program, which is a joint initiative of the foundation and the campaign.

Jones Elementary School will use the money to help reduce the school's chronic absenteeism rate from 10 percent to 8 percent, Principal Melissa Fink said.

The school last year established an attendance committee made up of the school counselor, the nurse, the assistant principal, the attendance secretary and a teacher. They track students who are chronically absent and figure out what to do to get those students to school, Fink said.

She mentioned how administrators got the family of a student to fully understand the importance of his attending school each day.

"He has made leaps and bounds in his learning," Fink said. "He's in school on a regular basis and he has taken off with reading. And he loves to read."

It's important to get students reading on grade level by the third grade, she said. A 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found the likelihood of a student graduating from high school is profoundly affected by that student's reading level at the end of third grade.

Jones has a diverse population and a high rate of poverty, which presents problems for some families getting their kids to school. For example, some students walk because their families don't have a car. When it rains or it's very cold, those students skip school, Fink said.

Staff members are aggressive about getting outside the school and bringing in kids who are absent. Fink said in one instance, a parent called to notify the school she couldn't get her child out of bed. The assistant principal went to the house and told the kid to get up and get to school. It worked.

Jones will put some of its grant money toward bicycles that will be awarded to students through a drawing. Students qualify for the drawing if they have perfect attendance.

Maribel Childress, principal of Monitor Elementary School, said there's an "endless" number of reasons families may have trouble getting their kids to school on time or at all. The parents' work schedule, a family medical issue or a child's anxiety about school are just a few examples.

The school does everything it can to connect with those families to understand those reasons, then set them up with resources or support to overcome their issues, Childress said.

Monitor will use its grant money to help parents pay for doctor visits and immunizations, particularly for kindergarten students who need to be vaccinated before they start school, Childress said.

The money might also go toward buying something simple. Parents can't know their child has a fever without a thermometer, and some Monitor families don't have the money for that, Childress said.

This is the first time the Community Foundation and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading have teamed up to offer this type of grant. They've distributed $7,877 to eight schools, said Jessica Szenher, a communications consultant to the foundation.

The Arkansas Department of Education will begin tracking chronic absence as a school and district accountability measure next school year, according to Angela Duran, campaign director with the Grade-Level Reading group.

"What these eight schools learn as they test their strategies will help schools around the state as they begin to implement the new measure," Duran said in the foundation's news release.

Central Junior High School was the only non-elementary school to receive a grant. Paul Griep, the principal, said his school's Be Cool at School program is aimed at reducing absenteeism among about 20 students who have missed at least six days this year.

One component of the program is building relationships with the kids. Griep said he'll sit down with them weekly to build rapport.

The other component is identifying and overcoming barriers those students have to making it to school. That might be as simple as providing a calendar so a student can keep track of assignments and tests so he doesn't fall behind, Griep said.

Griep formerly served as principal at the Archer Learning Center, the Springdale School District's secondary alternative learning environment. Many students are at Archer because they have fallen behind in the traditional school environment.

"If we can provide these interventions now, they're less likely to drop out of school," he said.

Schools in Booneville, Greenbrier, Foreman, Valley Springs and Yellville also received Make Every Day Count grants. Only the 43 school districts that participated in Make Every Day Count training, provided by the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, were eligible for the grants. Those districts included 13 in Northwest Arkansas.

Metro on 11/25/2017

Print Headline: Grants aim to battle student absenteeism

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