Can a cartoon sloth help improve slumping student attendance?

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 9/13/23

Can a cartoon sloth emblazoned on a t-shirt highlighting the phrase “School Attendance Matters” really make a difference in lowering the number of chronically absent students that attend …

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Can a cartoon sloth help improve slumping student attendance?


Can a cartoon sloth emblazoned on a t-shirt highlighting the phrase “School Attendance Matters” really make a difference in lowering the number of chronically absent students that attend Hugh Cole Elementary School?

By itself, probably not. But as part of a coordinated, multi-tiered strategy to educate and support families who may need a little extra help? That approach has been deemed worthy of a trial run.

The School Attendance Matters (SAM) initiative was born out of concern for the skyrocketing rates of chronic absenteeism seen nationally across all grade levels in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. A child is deemed chronically absent from school when they miss 10% or more of the total school year due to absences, whether they are for legitimate reasons or otherwise. That amounts to around 18 total days, or an average of two absences per month.

For context, the national average rate of chronic absenteeism across all schools was 16% in 2019, but it more than doubled to an estimated 33% in 2022. Schools in Bristol Warren have all seen increases since Covid as well, with Guiteras the lowest at 14% during the 2022-23 school year, and Mt. Hope High School seeing the highest rate at 28%. Hugh Cole is at the higher end, and the highest of all elementary schools in the district, at 26%.

Data for Hugh Cole rates of chronic absenteeism show a clear upward trend since the pandemic began in the latter half of the 2019-20 school year. The year prior (2018-19), the rate was 11%. The year of the pandemic’s beginning, it climbed to 17%. The first year fully embroiled by Covid it reached 25%, and the peak occurred in the 2021-22 school year, where 34% of the Hugh Cole student body (184 of 541 kids) was chronically absent.

Why is chronic absenteeism a problem?
Emily Spence is in charge of overseeing the SAM initiative, which is being piloted this year at Hugh Cole to see if it can make a noticeable difference in attendance. She has been the Family Outreach Coordinator for the district for two years, and is now in her 25th year as the manager of the Parents as Teachers (PAT) program, which provides free information, resources, and guidance to new parents in order to get their child primed for success before they enter school. She is also the co-founder of Thrive by Five and Beyond, a network of professionals working directly with parents and their children.

So if there is anyone who understands deeply the complex nature surrounding school attendance issues, especially in light of an historic period of disruption and trauma brought on by Covid, it’s Spence.

“There's a ton of reasons why [this is happening]. Covid is one of the reasons, the stressors that families are confronting is another reason. Socioeconomic issues, the mental health of students, it's hard to untangle all the reasons,” she said. “The big picture is that the negative effects of chronic absenteeism translates into students having more issues later.”

Spence said chronic absenteeism often translates into increased difficulty with reading and maintaining focus during lessons, and that it is a problem that compounds on itself — particularly if good attendance habits aren’t formed early in the child’s academic career.

“A lot of families might think kindergarten, that’s nothing, it's just play time. It's not. It is so important. The curriculum is so rigorous now that if children don't attend school every day, they quickly fall behind. And then their self-esteem suffers because they know that they've missed something, the work is hard, their peers may be ahead of them, and so then it snowballs from there,” she said. “And then they don't want to go to school the next day because they know it's hard for them to catch up, and so it becomes an even bigger problem, which will last.”

This doesn’t just affect the student’s own performance and future potential, either. Spence recently talked with the East Bay Chamber of Commerce about how the impacts of chronic absenteeism can be felt many years later as a drain on the local workforce, as chronic absenteeism directly correlates to a greater high school dropout rate. Combined with the loss of the soft skills that are normally gained during early development while attending school, it translates into a young adult who is not prepared for employment.

“I wanted the businesses to also realize that this is an issue that effects everybody,” she said. “So it's not just, ‘Okay, That's the school's problem. They can deal with it.’ It’s an issue that affects the whole community, and the more we can all get around this cause, the better.”

What will the SAM initiative do?
Stripped away to its basic parts, the SAM initiative is the educational outreach piece of a larger initiative aimed at improving attendance. It was made possible by donations from two local businesses — Warren-based M. Hughes CPA & Company LLC, and Bristol-based DeVine & Associates LLC — and a third donation from Stone Coast Community Church in Warren.

The donations will allow for the purchasing of 110 t-shirts featuring Sam the Sloth, a character that originated out of the East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP)’s Middletown office as part of their Head Start program.

“They had a stuffed animal named Sam The Sloth that would go and visit a classroom that had really good attendance,” explained Spence. “They noticed that was really successful and they decided to implement this t-shirt campaign and have all the staff wear t-shirts to try to convey to families the importance of school attendance.”

Hearing of the success of that campaign, Spence brought the idea to Hugh Cole principal Colin Grimsey, who loved the idea. The school will outfit all of its teachers and support staff with the t-shirts during the school’s open house on Thursday, Sept. 21 to further drive home the importance of attendance.

That said, Spence agreed that simply asking parents to be more aware of striving for good attendance is not a realistic means to improve outcomes, particularly in cases where other factors might contribute to a student missing large amounts of school. Reaching out to families who may be in need of additional resources is another crucial part of the campaign.

“A lot of our agencies will be at the open house to give information on resources to help families,” she said, mentioning Head Start, the state’s Family Care Community Partnership (a branch of DCYF), and Lighthouse Counseling Associates to address mental health issues. “It’s part of a multi-pronged approach.”

Spence is also hopeful the business community will do its part through the placement of posters featuring Sam the Sloth along their storefront windows.

“If they’re helping spread the word and people are seeing it as they're out shopping, you know, it can only strengthen the approach to have more awareness on the issue,” she said.

While the pilot program is only occurring at Hugh Cole, Spence is hopeful it will lead to actionable data and be replicated throughout the district.

“Hopefully it expands…and other other communities try it out if it's successful.”

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