Since COVID-19, school attendance has still not returned to pre-pandemic figures. According to AXIOS, chronic absenteeism is currently at 30%, with the percentage going as high as 69% for students from high poverty backgrounds. The average was at about 6% previous to the pandemic. But Hobgood Elementary is attempting to change this initiative with the creation of the Rocket Store.
“[The goal is for the store is to] encourage attendance and students being on time,” said Carolyn Outland, a team leader at Belle Aire Baptist Church’s BA Loves the Boro program. “It is the only one in this area and is patterned from one in inner city Nashville. Students earn a point for each day they are present and on time, which benefits their education. Once a month, points are redeemed by parents for necessities such as cleaning supplies, personal hygiene articles and clothing. Community donations stock the store.”
Hobgood Elementary School aims to ignite in each child a passion for lifelong learning and global citizenship through the program according to their website.
“By encouraging democracy in the classroom,” says the website, “the students will become curious and engaged critical thinkers of tomorrow.”
As defined by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDE), chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 10 percent or more instructional school days for any reason — including excused absences and out-of-school suspensions. Excessive absences from school represent lost instructional time for a student.
Since attendance is a major issue in high poverty schools, Hobgood is a good place to employ such a program as the school has the highest poverty level in Murfreesboro at 91%, as well as being the most ethnically and racially diverse. One of the most stark increases in absenteeism has occurred in elementary schools. And the school has virtually no parental involvement, having no PTO or other such organization to get them involved in the school and their childrens’ education. Plus, the majority of homeless students in the city are zoned into Hobgood.
Belle Aire Baptist Church’s BA Loves the Boro program partners with the school because, according to their website, “Most students [there]are emotionally and spiritually needy, and teachers need encouragement.”
“Olive Branch Church and Belle Aire Baptist Church partner in providing volunteers to work in the store and assist the parents as they redeem the points,” explained Outland. “This partnership is a picture of racial unity and donations from the community illustrates the desire to see children succeed in their education.”
“In order to be successful in addressing chronic absenteeism, it is important that we view attendance as more than a legal or compliance issue and try to understand what factors may be contributing to a student’s absences,” says the TDE website. “Furthermore, we can best serve students by viewing attendance as an opportunity to learn and chronic absences as an indication of barriers or conditions that are limiting that opportunity.”
AXIOS notes a number of reasons for chronic absenteeism, including:
- Chronic and acute illness
- Family responsibilities
- Need to work to help support family
- Housing and food insecurities
- Struggling academically
- Struggling socially
- Undiagnosed disability
- Feeling attendance means nothing to students/parents
Hobgood’s program is built to incentivize attendance for both the child and their parents.
Heady Nai-Lin Chang, the founder and Executive Director of Attendance Works, told AXIOS that chronic absenteeism widens educational inequities. Students who miss school are less likely to be able to read by the end of third grade, and are more likely to have academic and behavioral challenges in middle school. And they are more likely to drop out of high school.
Existing attendance and truancy practices are woefully inadequate given today’s unprecedented levels of chronic absenteeism. Chang has found that the most successful incentive programs address “using a positive, problem-solving approach grounded in an understanding of educational inequities.”
Other things Belle Aire Baptist Church does to help the school, its students and teachers is offer High Five Fridays welcoming students with a smile, encouraging students at Rocket Run Day, reading to classes, providing small gifts and/or refreshments for teachers, serving a meal to teachers at the church for Teacher Appreciation Day, and reading with and encouraging individual students.