SALT LAKE CITY — With a smile on his face, Robert Alfredo Deanda struts to the front of his school's auditorium to get his perfect attendance certificate.
It's one of the last days of school, but Deanda has been working on this award all year.
"A couple days I was sleepy or tired or felt lazy, but I didn't want to be one of the kids who didn't get perfect attendance," the 12-year-old says just moments after the assembly where 40 other students from Jackson Elementary also got perfect attendance certificates — a kind of record at the school.
Schools across the country have celebrated perfect attendance in recent weeks — giving out certificates, trophies, bikes and even cars. And while some have complained about perfect attendance awards — calling the awards unrealistic goals that push kids to go to school even when they are sick — the awards do encourage students like Deanda to make school a priority. This is his third year of getting perfect attendance.
Research shows that attendance is an important predictor of achievement in school — even for kindergartners. Some parents, like American Fork mom Heidi Alldredge, believe absences are becoming more of a problem in the fast-paced world.
Nationally, about one in 10 kindergartners is chronically absent or misses 18 or more days in a school year, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national initiative to advance student achievement by reducing chronic absence. A study in California released last month showed that students chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade only had a 17 percent chance of reaching their targeted reading level at the end of third grade, the point at which researchers say if students aren't on track, they may never be, Chang explained.
And by ninth grade, school attendance is a better predictor of graduation than eighth-grade test scores, according to a study conducted by the University of Chicago in 2007.
"This is a universal issue in our society," Chang said, adding that by middle school, students of all backgrounds are affected equally by chronic absence.
Schools are starting to catch on and have come up with new ways to recognize attendance. In recent years, for example, schools have begun rewarding perfect attendance in smaller doses — like if a student is at school every day for a semester, a month or even a week straight.
Fremont Elementary principal Diane Ramsey said her school had a sixth-grade boy who was absent a lot at the beginning of the school year, but after offering him a small reward — a can of soda — every consecutive week he made it to school, his attendance improved 100 percent.
Over the last couple of years, Jackson Elementary, a Title I school, calls home any time a child is not in school to find out why and to reiterate the importance of attendance. This year, students who had perfect attendance during each trimester were able to attend a special activity.
"Attendance in school is a predictive factor to success later in life," explains Maggie Laun, a counselor at the school who is known as the "queen of attendance." The school's attendance push even has one third-grader, Riley Hackford-Peer, pledging that he'll have perfect attendance "even in college."
Yet in spite of the recent push for students to come to school, Laun said there are still between one and two students in every class at her school that are chronically absent. She also said it is harder to enforce attendance on kindergartners since kindergarten is not a required grade in Utah.
But not all schools keep such close track of chronic absences — even Laun's school only recently started cracking down on truancy and chronic absences. Districts also have different ways of deciding whether chronic absences are a problem at their school or not.
Many districts rely on schools to keep track of which students are missing school and decide when this becomes a problem, said Cal Evans, compliance officer with Jordan School District, who said he would like to see some changes in the way districts report absences to the state.
Currently, school districts report the number of students who have several unexcused absences, called truancy rates, but districts keep track of the numbers in different ways. For instance, some districts report when a student has 10 or more unexcused absences and other districts only report the truant students they refer to court. This makes it hard to compare truancy rates in districts across the state. Granite, for example, reported nearly 4,200 truant students last year while similarly sized districts Alpine and Davis reported 33 and 8 respectively.
Verne Larsen, safe and drug-free coordinator for the state, hopes to come up with a clear definition for schools, ready to be implemented this next school year.
Only a couple of states keep a public record of all their schools' chronic absences (or students who miss 10 percent or more of school whether it's excused or unexcused), Chang said. These include states like Maryland and Georgia. But a few more, including Utah, may be on their way.
In the next couple of weeks, the Utah Education Policy Center will start collecting data on how many days of school students miss — both excused and unexcused absences — to see which, if any, schools have a problem with chronic absences, said Cori Groth, associate director of the center.
"We think chronic absences is one of the key indicators we should be tracking," said Groth, who hopes to make the information available by the end of the summer. "I think everything from state policy to school level policy can benefit from using this chronic absence indicator to support students."
She said it has only been over the last few years that researchers have become aware of how important it is for schools to track attendance.
Some schools, Chang said, have realized after tracking chronic absences that elementary students were not getting to school every day because of parents' work schedules. These schools were able to find ways to help parents get their children to school either through arranging rides or having an early drop-off option.
In other schools, she found that many students were missing school because of asthma, and in another, Chang found a mold problem at the school was causing students to get sick more often.
Administrators in Portland, Ore., didn't think they had a problem with chronic absences but found after tracking it that about 25 percent of their kindergartners were missing 10 percent or more of the school year.
"It may be that a school does not have an engaging curriculum or that there is not a lot of family support or it may be a transportation or a safety issue," Chang said. "But first schools have to realize it's a factor to be addressed."
Currently schools do track average daily attendance as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, but Chang explained that even if a school has a 95 percent attendance rate, it could still have a 20 percent chronic absent rate because a large portion of the population could be missing several days every month.
Yet tracking absences and having high-stakes testing has pushed some schools, like Franklin Elementary, to focus more on attendance.
"We noticed the test scores showed that the kids who were here everyday and ready to study did a lot better than those who were not here," said Cristina Watson, secretary at the school. "And a lot of parents thought attendance didn't matter."
Over the last two years, each class in her school has been working on getting perfect attendance as a whole and tracks this by having a word to spell each month. When the students are all present, the class gets to cross out one of the letters to words like "super," "hooray," "fantastic" and "phenomenal." Parents are even scheduling doctors appointments after school so their children are there all day, Watson said.
"Any time a child misses, it puts them behind, and once they are behind, it is harder for them to catch up," Watson explains. "When the kids are here, they are learning and they are happy."
Chang said rather than blaming parents or students, everyone should work together to solve the problem.
"I suspect the level of chronic absence have gotten worse over the years," Chang said. "We should use this as an early warning sign that something isn't happening that should be but not immediately jump to conclusions that parents and kids are doing something wrong. It's a mistake to assume that families don't care. All families want their kids to do well, but we may not all have resources to get our students there, nor do we all know how important it is for schools."