WEST VALLEY CITY — There's peer pressure at Monroe Elementary to go to class, so much so that the school has been recognized by the Granite School District for its gains in average daily attendance.
Here's the carrot. Classes that maintain high levels of attendance are rewarded with unconventional incentives such as riding wiggle scooters down the school hallways. The kids have so much fun that students urge one other to regularly attend school, said Kysa Osborne, a licensed clinical social worker at the school.
Monroe Elementary School also tracks attendance on a Candy Land-like game board that allows "teachers" to advance as their respective classes meet attendance goals. Winning classes receive other rewards under the "Every Day Counts!" initiative.
Students so value their time at school that Principal Natalie Hansen encountered an unusual dilemma at the end of the school year last June. Students didn't want to go home for the summer.
"Kids want to be here. They know they need to be here," Hansen said. "We really try to stress, if we want to learn, if we want to get to our end goal of going to college, getting a great job, you’ve got to be here at school."
Osborne said students also want to come to school because teachers go to great lengths to make sure they feel welcomed and valued.
"We have great teachers that are giving every kid a high-five or some other welcome when they walk through the door in the morning," she said.
Improvement in average daily attendance has resulted in gains in standardized test scores. On recent SAGE results, the school's scores in language arts improved by 3 percentage points, and there was slight improvement in math in a year-to-year comparison.
"I was just looking at our SAGE results compared to like schools, and we're in the top three of like schools" with a similar poverty rate, a highly diverse student body and a high percentage of English language learners, Hansen said.
While educators have long understood the connection between regular school attendance and academic success, a new state report indicates school attendance rates of Utah children in intergenerational poverty falls far below their peers statewide.
Rates of chronic absenteeism for children in grades K-3 who are experiencing intergenerational poverty are at least two times higher than their peers statewide. Among children in cycles of poverty, rates of school absenteeism in early elementary school are rising, according to the fourth-annual Report on Intergenerational Poverty, Welfare Dependency and the Use of Public Assistance.
"The thing I worry about most when students are chronically absent is that they are missing out on an opportunity to learn. Specifically for children living in poverty, it perpetuates that cycle of poverty if they miss school in those early years," said Sydnee Dickson, state deputy superintendent of public instruction.
Causes of chronic absenteeism are complex and can include frequent moves due to a lack of affordable housing, limited access to transportation or health issues.
The highest rates of chronic absenteeism — across all incomes levels — occur in kindergarten.
"Kindergarten provides children with a good, solid foundation in preparation for reading and mathematics. We feel it is a critical grade," Dickson said.
Some parents perceive that kindergarten hasn't changed much since their childhoods, when it was centered on play and learning to work in groups.
"But in today’s schools, kindergarten is really focused on academics and early learning. Without that foundation, kids are set up for failure if they don’t come to school ready to learn," Dickson said.
In Utah, attending kindergarten is optional. However, about 90 percent of Utah children enroll in kindergarten, the vast majority of whom attend half-day programs, according to the report.
A commission of top state department heads is recommending a different tack: Schools that serve 10 percent or more students in intergenerational poverty should establish extended-day kindergarten options.
"The Utah State Office of Education has found that full-day kindergarten leads to improved academic outcomes. Despite this finding, 30 percent of the schools serving 10 percent or more of students experiencing intergenerational poverty lack an extended-day kindergarten program," the commission's report states.
The group also recommends that elementary schools that serve high concentrations of students living in cycles of poverty establish a high-quality preschool classroom able to serve 50 percent of students at risk of remaining in poverty.
The commission also recommends establishing 529 educational savings plans for children entering school at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level using "publicly seeded funds."
"Designated children’s savings accounts for education increases educational attainment and long-term financial stability for children," the commission's recommendation's state.
The state's report on intergenerational poverty determined the number of Utah children experiencing intergenerational poverty fell by 5 percent between 2011 and 2014, yet more than 48,000 kids fit that profile and are at risk of becoming impoverished adults.
"Until adults experiencing intergenerational poverty simultaneously improve their individual situations with respect to education and economic stability, any improvement for these families is likely temporary," the report says.
The report found that the average annual wage for adults in intergenerational poverty increased by 8 percent to $11,506.
Intergenerational poverty is defined as two or more generations living in poverty, with intergenerational welfare recipients defined as people who received more than 12 months of public assistance as children and more than 12 months of assistance as adults.
Most households experiencing intergenerational poverty are in Salt Lake, Utah and Weber counties. However, there are children in jeopardy of remaining in poverty in every county in the state.
Utah children living in intergenerational poverty are also at substantially higher risk of abuse and neglect, according to the state report. Among children in intergenerational poverty, 26 percent to 35 percent have been victims of abuse or neglect, compared with 1.2 percent statewide, according to 2014 figures.
Abuse and neglect can negatively impact brain development, the developing nervous system and the immune system, the report says.
"This early damage continues as these children become adults, often leading to alcoholism, depression, drug abuse, high-risk behaviors, and in some cases deviant criminal behavior. These conditions often make it difficult for adults to complete formal education, maintain employment or engage in healthy parenting when they have children," the report says.
The majority of children experiencing intergenerational poverty grow up in single-parent households. Typically, an adult experiencing intergenerational poverty is female, age 35 and under and has children. Eighty-eight percent of the children are under age 13.
This is the fourth report prepared by the Department of Workforce Services studying intergenerational poverty in Utah, which is required under legislation passed in 2012.
Other initiatives are underway with the goal of ending cycles of poverty in Utah families, including the Next Generation Kids program. Participants work with family success coaches who help steer them into classes and programs that help them and their children build a firm foundation for the next steps in their lives.
Some of the programs teach parenting skills, personal finance and even cooking classes to help families prepare nutritionally balanced meals on a budget.
The inaugural Next Generation Kids program was based at James Madison Elementary School in Ogden. Placing the program at a school helps to encourage parental involvement and places an emphasis on children's educational achievement, caseworkers say.