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#12 Blog 2023

April 13, 2023

Attendance Awareness: Looking Behind the Scenes

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It was our second lap around the hallways of the eighth-grade floor of the inner-city middle school. It had become a habit of mine to keep an eye out for Ellis* during passing periods to ensure he made it to class. The school’s policies weren’t the most forgiving, and three tardies a semester resulted in being sent directly to in-school suspension (ISS). Ellis always eventually made it to class, but it often was a few minutes after the bell, and he had already spent a fair share of time in ISS, causing him to fall behind in his schoolwork.

Today, I saw him having an animated discussion with some students before his next class, and when the bell rang to signal the end of the passing period, instead of making his way into the classroom, he zipped around the corner of the hallway. I sped down the hallway until I caught up to him. His face was all scrunched up, and he was clearly distressed. I matched his pace and fell into line next to him as he continued his march down the halls. I just walked with him for a moment before gently asking, “What’s going on, Ellis?” Words immediately began pouring out of him about how some of his classmates were saying things about him that weren’t true, and how he was so upset that people would believe those things about him. I listened until he was finished. Our second lap around the hallways was almost over at this point. I finally spoke and reminded him that he knew who he was, and the people who cared about him knew who he was; that was what really mattered. And I told him I knew those things weren’t true, and gave him words of affirmation. We continued in silence until we were near to ending our third lap around the halls. Ellis’ face was no longer scrunched up, and he seemed calmer. He turned to me and said he was ready to go to class now. I escorted him to class and told the teacher he had been with me, and he was admitted into his second period class. The rest of the day went on with Ellis attending all his classes, and he seemed to be in a good mood and engaged during his fifth period class with me.

Ellis wasn’t walking the halls because he didn’t care about the school rules or class... He was walking the halls because he knew that it was the best way to regulate his emotions in a safe and healthy way.

When I first approached Ellis, it would have been easy to start lecturing him about missing class and send him to ISS myself; but instead, I chose to approach Ellis from a place of caring and a willingness to understand him. When I did that, I was able to learn that Ellis wasn’t walking the halls because he didn’t care about the school rules or class. He was walking the halls because he was angry and upset. He knew he needed to work through those feelings before going to class so that he wouldn’t be disruptive and so that he would be in an OK place to participate in the class. He was walking the halls because he knew that it was the best way to regulate his emotions in a safe and healthy way.

The next time Ellis was sent to ISS, I wasn’t there to intervene. He refused to go to ISS, so the vice principal said Ellis would have out-of-school suspension (OSS) instead. I found him in the front office where he was waiting for his mom to come pick him up. The vice principal told me that if I could get Ellis to serve his one day in ISS, then he would still let that happen, but otherwise he would serve the week of OSS instead. I tried to talk to Ellis there in the front office and, I admit, pleaded with him to just go to ISS and that I would work with him there. He had already made a firm decision though. He refused to go to ISS. He said that whenever he was in there, he didn’t learn anything and it felt like a prison cell. He wouldn’t say anything else after that, and shortly his mom came and picked him up.

I think back on that moment a lot—mostly about how I should have tried to do more. Honestly, though, I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to return to that ISS room. He was a good, smart kid who was tired of being made to feel like he was a bad kid.

I tell this story because I think it is a good example of how some students are literally forced out of school. But I think it also serves as a story that can lead to reflection on what kind of environment a school is fostering—and if it is an environment where students are made to feel supported, understood and empowered.

Are the school policies and environment leading to students being pushed out of the school? According to Girls Inc., “Pushout refers to the punitive discipline practices schools use, which exclude students from class and too often push them out of school altogether. These practices affect all students, but they disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQIA students.”

Research shows that suspensions, instead of deterring negative behavior, increase the likelihood of repeated behavior and suspensions. Suspensions traditionally serve as a punitive response that does not include the necessary rehabilitative practices (Allman & Slate, 2011; Morris & Howard, 2003). Suspensions lead to students missing out on important academic content, which leads them to fall behind and struggle to catch up when re-entering the classroom. And with suspensions, the likelihood of a student falling into the school-to-prison pipeline increases (Zeff, 2015).

Girls Inc. states that to help keep students in schools: “Instead of using zero tolerance policies, schools can implement restorative justice practices that focus on the root cause of ‘misbehavior’ instead of just the punishment.”

Check out this webinar to help you look behind the scenes of students’ behavior and approach situations with restorative practices: Countering PUSHOUT: Skills to Support Black Girls.

countering pushout

Part of creating a good, healthy school environment is also making sure it is safe and welcoming to all students. When students do not feel safe or welcome, then the likelihood of absences increases. These resources can help:

And we must all remember: Family engagement is also essential. Working on creating a great school environment for students can go a long way toward keeping kids in school, but there also may be a lot of other things going on behind the scenes that keep students from school; and working with parents can be crucial in addressing those challenges. Are students out of school because they do not have transportation? Are they having to look after younger siblings? Are they or a family member dealing with physical health problems? Are they dealing with trauma and struggling with their mental health? Or is it something else? This family engagement collection will help you build and maintain effective relationships with parents and guardians so that you can work together to help get students back in school. Additionally, learn how community schools help support students and families’ needs with this collection: Building Successful Community Schools: Resources and Lesson Plans

Family Engagement Resources

When it comes to trauma and mental health support, these two collections can help you in addressing students’ needs:

A lot of situations can lead to student absenteeism, but, luckily, the resources mentioned above can help reduce absences. For more guidance on increasing student attendance, be sure to visit Attendance Works and dive into its Count Us In! toolkit 2023.

*Note: The student’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Sources:

Allman, K., & Slate J. (2011). School Discipline in Public Education: A Brief Review of Current Practices. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 6(2). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ973838.pdf
Morris, R., & Howard, A. (2003). Designing an Effective In-School Suspension Program. The Clearing House, 76(3), 156-159.
Zeff, Sam (2015). Missouri Leads Nation In Suspension Rates For Black Elementary School Students. KCUR. http://www.kcur.org/post/missouri-leads-nation-suspension-rates-black-elementary-school-students#stream/0
Megan Ortmeyer

Megan Ortmeyer is an SML Team Member and has worked in the AFT Educational Issues Department since fall 2018. She received her M.A. in education policy studies in May 2020 from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.

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