School & District Management Opinion

Strong Attendance Systems Are the Product of Ordinary Solutions

By Contributing Blogger — May 09, 2016 8 min read
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This post is by Susan Fairchild, Vice President of Knowledge Management and Chief-of-Staff, New Visions for Public Schools, and Steffon Isaac, Systems Analyst, New Visions for Public Schools.

Improving an attendance system is not about radical interventions or fancy technologies--rather, it is the product of ordinary solutions combined with accurate, timely data and disciplined practice. Under the leadership of Principal Stacey King, New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II (AMS II) is improving their students’ attendance patterns simply by paying close attention to their current system, evaluating the breakdowns, re-designing the workflow, and using data to evaluate the impact of each small change. In parts one and two of a multi-part blog series we highlighted the hidden complexity of attendance in high need urban high schools, the consequences of not managing the complexity well in the first place, and AMS II’s continuous improvement strategy. In this blog post, we document how AMS II’s improvement strategy facilitated common sense changes Principal King and her staff have made over the course of this last year and the promising signs of improved attendance.

Re-Designing An Attendance System

Before staff in a school can improve a system, they have to understand it. From November 2015 to May 2016 we made four visits to AMS II, located in the Bronx, and analyzed time spent collecting and acting on attendance data. Our first analysis, conducted in November, highlighted a number of inefficiencies. The majority of the process was managed by one person who sat in the main office--one of the more disruptive spaces in a school. She was interrupted 42 times; a process that only takes 70 minutes without interruptions ended up taking 190.5 with interruptions. Second, the attendance coordinator was manually reconciling 11 different daily attendance data sources. Third, there were no systems that tracked whether the attendance interventions were actually occurring.

With a clear sense of the problem, Principal King and her staff began to systematically redesign the attendance system based on our analysis. Through our observations, we determined that the attendance process at AMS II is comprised of six essential tasks: 1) organizing the mechanical components of the attendance system (e.g., getting set up for the day, making sure teachers have their first period attendance bubble sheets, setting up the student entry system); 2) student entry into school (e.g., logging students as they enter school throughout the day); 3) attendance verification (e.g., reconciling the data generated throughout the day to determine daily attendance); 4) data processing (e.g., uploading the data into New York City’s Department of Education data systems, retrieving attendance files); 5) data reporting (e.g., communicating attendance patterns to staff and posting daily attendance throughout the school); and, 6) calling parents and documenting that the call was made.

Ordinary Solution No. 1

Principal King and her staff began by defining the standard work processes for each of those six essential tasks and re-allocating resources to each of those tasks. In other words, her first, relatively simple solution was to rethink the workflow. For instance, the Director of School Operations now preps the attendance materials for the day. The Attendance Coordinator oversees student entry in the morning by manning the machine where students log in when they enter the school. The attendance coordinator also verifies the attendance data as they are generated throughout the day and calls the parents of all students who are absent. One school aide is responsible for the late log and inputting information into the system, while another school aide is responsible for period attendance and cutting. She inputs cutting data into the system and alerts the deans as to students who may be cutting class.

Ordinary Solution No. 2

On New Visions’ end, we built out a simple Daily Attendance Verification tool that helps the attendance coordinator reconcile 11 different sources of daily attendance throughout the day. Now all attendance data that documents when students enter school, when they are late, and when they transfer between periods is captured in a centralized Google spreadsheet. And all four of the staff who are overseeing the different parts of the process are looking at the same data. We also implemented New Visions’ Attendance Heat Map and calibrated the tool to align to the school’s attendance protocol. For instance, when a student misses school two days in a row, an email is automatically generated and sent to the school’s attendance team as well as the student’s mentor.

Ordinary Solution No. 3

Principal King moved the attendance coordinator from the main office to another floor, where there are far fewer distractions while she verifies the attendance data and makes outreach to parents.

Ordinary Solution No. 4

Principal King relocated the Student Entry Station-the place students log in when they arrive to school every morning. Originally, the Student Entry Station was outside of the Main Office--approximately 90 feet from the front door. In Figure 1, the red box represents the student entry station. The white arrows represent the multiple ways students would bypass the station.

Figure 1. Student Entry Station Previous Location

In February, Principal King relocated the Student Entry Station within 11.5 feet of the school’s only entrance (Figure 2). Now, no student enters school without signing in. She also extended the time that the Student Entry Station was manned by an extra thirty minutes--to increase the accuracy of the attendance data.

Figure 2. Student Entry Station Current Location

Disciplined Practice and Constant Iteration

But simple changes to a system will only get AMS II so far. It is the relentless, disciplined practice Principal King and her staff have devoted to their attendance system that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. The interactive visual embedded below (created by our colleague Andrew Garcia Phillips) captures the iterations Principal King and her staff have made to their attendance system over the course of our four school visits--and the efficiencies they have gained as a result.

First, interruptions were reduced noticeably over the last several months. At Visit 1, interruptions constituted 1 hour and 37 minutes of the school day. By Visit 4, interruptions were reduced to 35 minutes. The attendance verification process, even the more automated version, still takes time--90 minutes on average. The most important change is the amount of time allocated to parent outreach. Before any system redesign, the coordinator was only able to allocate six minutes at Visit 1 to calling the parents of students who were absent. By Visit 4, the process had changed so dramatically that the attendance coordinator was able to spend 81 minutes not only calling parents but also logging the calls into the system. In fact, by Visit 4 the attendance coordinator knows the routine so well, she is able to double up on tasks. She not only calls parents, she immediately logs her outreach. She continued to fine-tune this process after our third visit, when she performed both tasks separately over 141 minutes, and reached this newfound efficiency by May. By combining those two tasks, she made space to support the expansion of the attendance system. Now she has time to populate a Senior Student Tracker with attendance data that helps staff keep a closer eye on their graduating cohort. She also populates a Counselor Attendance Tracker for those students who need more intensive interventions. This is where we see important dividends of systems building begin to unfold. AMS II’s current attendance system is not only more efficient, the skills required to build it are portable to other school systems.

The data confirm that the changes Principal King made to the workflow have increased the likelihood that the school’s primary attendance intervention, calling home, happens. During the month of November, when Visit 1 occurred, the school had 494 absences but only 83 calls to parents (17 percent). By February, the number of absences increased to 657 -- a 33 percent increase from November. But the calls home still lagged far behind--parents were called only 17 percent of the time. By March the absences increased to 971--a 97 percent increase from November; and, calls home increased too--parents were called 40 percent of the time. By the end of April, not only had absences decreased from March (971 absences to 690 absences) the calls to parents had substantially increased with the attendance coordinator calling the parents of absent students 85 percent of the time.

The Impact

So what does all of this mean for students? Thus far we are seeing early signs that attendance is improving for class of 2016 students, and increasing slightly for class of 2017. Classes 2018 and 2019 continue to have attendance rates around 95 percent (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Monthly Attendance by Cohort

For the students in class of 2016 who have not yet met their graduation requirements, we see noticeable improvement. In February this group hit a low of 71 percent monthly daily attendance. By the end of April, this had improved to 85 percent (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Monthly Attendance by Off Track Students in Class of 2016


For the next few months, we will continue to document the evolution of AMS II’s attendance system. In addition, we will focus on the less visible costs of absenteeism at AMS II, particularly the impact of lost instructional time. To date AMS II has 4,821 absences, which translates to 31,227 hours of lost instructional time. How do staff perceive the impact of these costs on students? This will be the subject of our next blog post. Stay tuned.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.