Third grade reading task force stresses attendance

Kids can’t learn if they aren’t in school.

That’s why the Spread the Words – Read by 3rd campaign that earned Marshalltown the All-America City designation has devoted one of its three task forces to curbing chronic absence.

Although No Child Left Behind mandates stipulate that schools must have an average of 95 percent daily attendance, Marshalltown is taking it a step further. Locally, the school district defines chronic absence as missing 18 days of school a year.

“That might not sound like a lot,” said Randy Wetmore, chair of the attendance task force. “But when you are that age, everything builds day to day.”

After the campaign’s kickoff in January, the task force began taking a close look at attendance for grades K-3. It identified more than 100 children in the district who missed more than 18 days last year. In particular, the problem was endemic among kindergartners.

Lindsey Upah, Spread the Words – Read by Third coordinator, said children miss school for a variety of reasons, including transportation, but the No. 1 reason kids miss school is their health.

Health-related issues cause roughly 80 percent of absences, according to the report.

Each task force has a month devoted to it, and January was devoted to the attendance task force. Members made their way to schools rewarding kids for their attendance achievements. Each school chose whether to recognize perfect, near perfect or improved attendance.

Part of the task force’s job, Upah said, is striking a balance between providing incentives for kids to come to school and saturating them with assemblies to the point where they are no longer special. And since health concerns are the main reason children miss school, the task force aims to educate parents when they should keep children home from school.

“Of course we don’t want to send kids to school when they are sick,” she said. “Kids have to be healthy to learn.”

The task force draws on a wealth of information, including several online databases that show the impact of chronic absence on learning, Upah said. Ultimately, the task force needs to determine what will work for Marshalltown. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, she said, is sifting through information to see what data is relevant.

Most of the first year will continue to be spent analyzing attendance trends and establishing how best to correct chronic absence, Wetmore said.

“There is no perfect model we can pluck off some website,” Wetmore, who is also the city administrator, said. “Part of the fun for us is to try different things we are not trying crazy things.”

The task force hill hold more assemblies recognizing students for attendance milestones by awarding them with prizes. It has already begin outreach by providing information to parents at a variety of venues, including the Healthy Families Fair earlier this month.

Upah said all the task forces are still looking for volunteers. It’s important the task forces continue to get fresh perspectives on the effort to keep committee members passionate about each aspect of Spread the Words – Read by 3rd.

“This is about the future – not just about the future of Marshalltown, it’s about the future of America,” Wetmore said.

For more information or to become a volunteer, contact Lindsey Upah at 641-752-7162 ext. 155.