In the news

Maybe school success comes down to showing up

The Sacramento Bee
By Symia Stigler
Special to The Bee: Soapbox
Posted October 24, 2015

Sacramento Bee: Attendance SuccessIsaiah Brumfield, 6, works on a math lesson at the Mustard Seed school for homeless children on Oct. 1, 2015, in Sacramento. All children have a wellspring of energy, enthusiasm and potential waiting to be tapped. The beginning of that path to success begins with showing up prepared, engaged and ready to learn each school day. (Photo Renée C. Byer,


Noise surrounding what is wrong with public education is jarring. Blog posts, news reports and studies focus on funding gaps, teacher quality and achievement inequity. Adults point fingers at all that is wrong while simultaneously waving in costly, mostly untested solutions.

What if, instead, we started the dialogue by simply stating the expectation that all students show up for school on time, every day, ready to learn?

It is a simple approach but one that attracted the interest of the White House, which this month announced a campaign to get schools and their communities to make attendance a priority and eliminate chronic absenteeism.

We frequently talk about preparing students to be college and career ready. Yet we seek definitions and a reliable path to get there. Our State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown struggle to construct the next iteration of an accountability system that will propel higher performance in this era of the Common Core.

What if instead of talking, we appeal to the aspiration in each student – the desire to become an inventor or a pilot, a teacher, a doctor, an electrician or a salon owner? All children have a wellspring of energy, enthusiasm and potential waiting to be tapped. The beginning of that path to success begins with showing up prepared, engaged and ready to learn each school day.

Attorney General Kamala Harris’ latest report, “In School + On Track 2015,” notes that 230,000 elementary students in California missed more than 18 days during the 2014-15 school year, classifying them as chronically absent. The same report says elementary truancy rates in Sacramento County increased from 26 percent in 2012-13 to 31 percent in 2013-14. That increase covers about 74,000 students.

The conclusion is indisputable. School attendance is a top indicator of academic success. A Grad Nation, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, and many other institutions have published extensive multiyear studies that report the critical role school attendance plays in academic career success.

Knowing what we know about school attendance, why isn’t the expectation that students arrive on time, every day better conveyed, without caveat or reservation to parents and students?

Absenteeism too often is set aside in favor of other educational functions that may or may not have an impact on performance goals.

We have been too quick to excuse and too willing to allow a child to fall behind, never to catch up. What if, instead of focusing on all the reasons students can’t, don’t and won’t show up, we focus on the maxim that you must be present and engaged to succeed in school and in life? What if we appealed to a student’s ambitions beyond the high school cap and gown?

There are innovative ways of collecting attendance and engagement data that can pinpoint when a student is at risk of falling off track. A goal of 100 percent perfect student attendance should be at the top of the list when administrators, school board members, parents and teachers meet to develop, adopt, update and fulfill the intention their district’s Local Control Accountability Plan.

Attendance alone will not solve all of our educational challenges, but it is a major factor in guaranteeing more children will thrive academically and become prepared to successfully graduate from high school and progress toward a bright future.

Symia Stigler is executive director of the Attendance Institute, sponsor of the #WhyIShowUp campaign, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that works with schools and communities to improve student attendance and family engagement.