Getting accurate information on who’s actually showing up for remote schooling can be troublesome and even misleading, given that many households lack the technology and resources to attend classes virtually. Students who otherwise showed up for class regularly are now unable to.
At Hickman Mills C-1 School District, in Kansas City, Mo., school officials still try to take attendance. But they recognize it doesn’t fully capture the full picture. So they’ve added a new criteria, according to its deputy superintendent for student services, Dr. Carl Skinner (who is also serving as the interim superintendent): prioritizing engagement and making regular contact with each of the roughly 5,600 students in its district.
So far, they’ve managed to successfully reach 97 percent of them, according to Skinner. And he gives some credit to a new attendance tracking tool, AllHere, that the district adopted last April. The company works with K-12 school districts to offer research-based intervention and family-outreach strategies, and to keep track of which ones are effective in getting students to show up.
Founded in 2015, the Boston-based startup recently closed $3.5 million in seed funding to accelerate its efforts, at a time when the meaning of school attendance has been thrown into flux. Leading the investment is Rethink Education, joined by AT&T, Potencia, Gratitude Railroad, Boston Impact Initiative and The Impact Seat. AllHere has raised $4.1 million to date.
AllHere was created largely based on the experiences of its founder and CEO, Joanna Smith, who was previously a school family engagement director at Excel Academy Charter Schools in Boston. There, she recalls being “stymied with countless paper forms and long, reactive processes” when it came to reaching out to students and parents.
There’s also a prevailing assumption that most kids who miss school simply don’t care, and are ditching on purpose, Smith tells EdSurge. But her work and research has uncovered that there are other environmental factors in place, including difficulties with housing, food and transportation.
“Most families tend to underestimate the number of days that their kids miss, and how that impacts student achievement,” she adds. Existing research has consistently associated chronic absences with lower academic performance.
AllHere works with each district to implement customized intervention strategies to improve student attendance. That entails sending text and email surveys to families, asking about challenges in home environments and personal situations, and organizing that information for district officials.
The company also works with districts to create plans for family engagement, so that the parents of a student who is absent for prolonged periods may receive texts and emails with supportive messages about the importance of attendance.
“My hope for the future of attendance is that we deal with the deeper barriers and challenges that are root causes, and which have been often explained away as simply a lack of student motivation,” says Smith.
For Skinner, the adoption of AllHere at Hickman Mills coincided with a “shift from a punitive strategy” to a “more caring approach.” That means, instead of threatening and sending students to truancy court, which he estimates happened to about 80 pupils last school year, district officials are sending personal notes to parents. It means connecting families in need with local community resources for assistance to everything from food to cleaning supplies and help with paying utilities bills.
The district is also working with Attendance Works, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing chronic absenteeism, to implement other strategies to boost student and family engagement.
State attendance targets for Missouri school districts is based on the 90/90 rule, referring to the goal of having 90 percent of students show up for school for 90 percent of the school year.
At Hickman Mills, just 77 percent of the schools across the district met that target in January 2020. A strategic plan recently published by the district noted that 20 percent of the student body were chronically absent.
Across all U.S. K-12 schools, 16 percent of the U.S. K-12 students missed at least 15 school days during the 2015-16 school year, according to data published by the federal education department.
Because the district only adopted the tool during the current school year—which has now been disrupted—Skinner hesitates to claim any success. But at the very least, he says that “approaching this problem with a caring, respectful attitude rather than a punitive one” has proven more effective at staying in touch with families. It works better than truancy court threats and impersonal robo-calls, which the district had relied on.
AllHere currently works with about 1,100 schools concentrated on the eastern seaboard, according to Smith. The company has had to adjust its plans in response to the school closures. Among the new tools it recently added is a map showing local meal distribution sites, and a communication app to let schools and families reach one another.
Funding from the seed round will help expand the company’s team of 15, Smith adds, and prepare new features specific to helping school officials manage absenteeism intervention remotely.
“We foresee that post-COVID, the scale of this problem will increase dramatically,” she says. “We envision a world in which nearly every student will need some kind of assistance to re-engage in brick and mortar learning.”