Jefferson Township Middle School (2019)

Oak Ridge , NJ

Closing the Gap


*While we failed to specify which questions on our survey were targeting attitudes, knowledge, and skills, they were created with all in mind. Please note the change, also indicated in the Perception Data section of the template below, to reflect that Questions 1 and 2 measured attitudes and Question 3 measured knowledge and skills. Additionally, in a follow-up conversation with our lead reviewer, the feedback was that the rubric does not require that a pre/post survey that collects perception data include items on the survey that assess all three - attitudes, knowledge and skills.*

Our principal encouraged us to improve attendance as part of our school improvement plan, and attendance reports helped us hone in on students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We disaggregated data by grade, lunch status, race, and failures. We found a strong correlation between poor attendance and both failing grades (59% of Fs went to students with chronic absenteeism, though they accounted for only 10% of the school population) and free/reduced lunch status (these students averaging 33% more absences than full price lunch students).

Researching attendance, we followed the ASCA webinar: “Improving Attendance, Attitude and Achievement for At-risk Students.” We incorporated her five essential research-based elements into activities and lesson plans. To “provide feedback that leads to self-monitoring”, students charted their attendance in agenda books and answered surveys on school refusal. The student who scored high for school refusal had follow-up individual counseling, and a parent phone conference to discuss specific attendance strategies. To “build trusting relationships”, we led small groups to forge ties with our students. To “promote academic and behavioral engagement”, we distributed PBSIS Rappers and led responsibility role plays. To “increase student motivation”, with administrative and PTA support, we offered a bagel breakfast and raffled gift cards. To “connect school and home”, we spoke with the students’ parents about our program and goals. Our school’s multi-tiered attendance policy already involved interventions for all students, including counselors and administrators calling and sending letters to parents about attendance and legal action taken at 10 unexcused absences.

We saw an increase in unexcused absences among our targeted 8th-graders, multiple 8th-graders refused to attend the bagel breakfast, and two expressed embarrassment at being grouped with younger students. Due to this, we are planning a separate 8th-grade pizza party and will select higher value gift cards for them as an 8th-grade privilege. We will offer them individual counseling instead of small group counseling, which some indicated was less stigmatizing. We will start the group earlier in the school year, to prevent as many absences as possible, and we will research ways to make our presentations more engaging and build greater rapport.

We saw no improvements from pre to post-survey on our question about postsecondary learning: “I need to continue school and learning after high school to have a successful career.” Either the question was poorly-worded, or the message was poorly chosen or executed for its audience. Some of these students are unenthusiastic with unlikely career goals, so a focus on college or trade school may have been too much to expect in this first attempt at improving attendance. It is good to see where we fail to connect with our students so that we can improve the next time. We plan to reword this question for 6th and possibly 7th-graders in the future to the less pointed: “to get better at any job, I need to continue to learn my whole life.”

For reasons mentioned above, especially for 8th-graders, we plan to replace Mindset M 4, with Mindset M 6, “Positive attitude toward work and learning”. Our new focus will be more grounded in helping the students see their current school lives as positive and enjoyable. Our failure to improve their view of postsecondary education has shown us that we need to focus on the fun of middle school.

Sixth-grade interventions were met with a 35% reduction in absences. Next year we will start sooner for all grades. We saw a 21% improvement with 7th-graders, though perhaps absences will decrease more with a change from M 4, postsecondary education, to M 6, positive attitude. For 8th-grade, we will change the mindset: M 6, a separate pizza party, more highly valued incentives, individual counseling instead of small groups, and add a career lesson that would let them research the likelihood of earning a living as a professional skateboarder or youtuber. Data analysis makes these insights and future improvements possible.

Goal: By the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the number of absences of identified students with 10 or more absences will decrease by 25% from baseline: 538 to target: 404.

Target Group: Students grades 6-8 with 10 or more unexcused absences in 2016-2017

Data Used to Identify Students: Realtime attendance reports

School Counselor(s): Siobhan Carroll, Kari Ellingsen, Oksana Rusynko

ASCA Domain, Mindsets & Behaviors Standard(s): B-SMS 1, B-SMS 8, M 4

Type of Activities to be Delivered in What Manner?: Lessons on the importance of good attendance, problem-solving, taking responsibility by planning ahead for good attendance, school rules and state laws about attendance and the positive effects of good attendance on school and careers delivered in Small Group Counseling Sessions. Individual Counseling Sessions focusing on rapport-building, individual questions, and strategies for success. Collaboration with parents, administrators, stakeholders and students.

Process Data (Number of students affected): Grade 6: 19 students were invited to participate, two students’ parents declined, and two students moved out of district before the year ended for a total of 15 fully participating students. Grade 7: twelve students were invited and participated. Grade 8: ten students were invited and participated, but one student moved out of district before the end of the school year, leaving 9 participating students. Each grade had two small groups, with a total number of students participating at 36. Each group met for five weekly sessions from January 8 to February 12, 2018. 15 students attended all five sessions, six attended four, three attended three, ten attended two,and two attended one and zero attended zero.

Perception Data (Surveys or assessments used): *REVISED* Likert scale pre- and post-tests Questions on the Pre- and Post-Survey, with possible answers of “Strongly Disagree” (1 pt), “Disagree” (2 pts), “Agree” (3 pts) and “Strongly Agree” (4 pts). Question 1: “I know that I am responsible for being in school every day.” Pre-survey average score was 2.61/4, post-survey average score was 2.81/4, 5% increase in attitudes. Question 2: “I need to continue school and learning after high school to have a successful career.” Pre-survey average score was 2.58/4, post-survey average score was 2.58/4, 0% increase in attitudes. Question 3: “I know how to balance school, home life and my other activities.” Pre-survey average score was 2.69/4, post-survey average score was 2.92/4, 6% increase in knowledge and skills. Overall average increase pre-survey to post survey: 2.62/4 to 2.77/4, or 4%.

Outcome Data (Achievement, attendance, and/or behavior data): Attendance reports from Realtime. The originally targeted students had had 10 or more unexcused absences, for a total of 538 in the previous school year. Our stated Closing-the-Gap goal was to decrease this number by 25% from 538 to target of 404 unexcused absences for those students. Three of these students left our district before the end of the school year, and two did not have parental permission to participate. Adjusting for only the remaining participating students’ absences, our baseline number of unexcused absences was 482, meaning our goal of a 25% decrease in absences would mean our new target was 362 absences for those students. Our end result was 381 absences, or a 21% decrease, not meeting our 25% goal, but approaching it. The participating 6th graders showed a 35% decrease, with 199 absences in 2016-2017 to 129 absences in 2017-2018. 7th graders went from 170 to 133 absences, for a 22% decrease. 8th graders increased absences by 5%, going from 113 to 119.

Implications: These results show that our efforts were partially successful in reducing unexcused absences among the targeted students. Disaggregating the data, we see a clear image of success among 6th graders, with a 35% improvement in attendance, but that improvement shrinks for 7th graders, with 21% improvement, and plummets for 8th graders, whose unexcused absences actually rose by 5%. This indicates to us that we need to adapt our interventions more to the needs of our 8th graders. In future years, we will change the interventions and the incentives offered to 8th graders who may have found the prizes (gift cards to 5 Below) to be babyish, or participation in small groups and a bagel party with younger students present to be stigmatizing. We plan to offer higher value prizes, and a pizza party to the older students, and to focus interventions on individual counseling throughout the school year, instead of weekly groups for five weeks for this group. It should not be surprising that students who have a history of poor school attendance do not have excellent attendance in our small group lessons, but it is a concern that we hope to ameliorate with high quality lessons, more rapport-building with the students, and brief reminders given to students on the mornings of the group sessions. Our three-question pre and post-survey showed a small average improvement on two of the questions and no change in one of the questions, which was “I need to continue school and learning after high school to have a successful career.” Anecdotally, during the group sessions when the lesson focused on future education, multiple students in our groups pushed back on the notion that future education was necessary for their planned careers. For example, two of these students stated that their plans to be “a youtuber” and “a professional (video) gamer” did not require any post-secondary education. In future years, we intend to not only create lessons more developmentally sensitive to the often unrealistic career expectations of middle schoolers, but also, to rewrite our pre and post-survey questions in a way they are able to better grasp and see improvements in attitudes, such as “To get better at any job, I need to continue to learn my whole life.” We may eliminate this line of questioning altogether for the older students, as explained below. The question above which showed no change from the pre to post-survey was based on Mindset 4: “Understanding that postsecondary education and life-long learning are necessary for long-term career success.” The data hints that either our wording, the delivery of this mindset, or the mindset itself, was not the best fit for the at-risk students in this group. If you are having trouble making the commitment to attend school every day in middle school, the idea of tacking on college or trade school after high school may just feel too overwhelming to accept. With the feedback of our post-surveys, we now believe that the best way for us to improve attendance for students with chronic absenteeism is to meet them where they are. Instead of focusing on having to come to a place they dislike for the next five to ten years, we can have them focus on feeling better about the place they are attending today. It would be a small but important shift to a less overwhelming and more positive present. So we plan to switch from using Mindset 4 to using Mindset M 6: “Positive attitude toward work and learning.” We hope this more immediate focus will help these students wake up and come to school by creating a small, incremental change in how they feel about their responsibilities in the present. The fact that this group worked so well for the 6th graders tells us that, for our youngest students, we need not change anything next year, except perhaps to begin our groups earlier in the year to prevent as many absences as possible. For the 7th and 8th graders, we have studied the data and plan to change the Mindset used as the focus, as well as the types of interactions (only individual counseling for 8th grade, and a separate pizza party for them, as an 8th grade privilege). For these older students, we hope to incorporate a career lesson into the group structure that allows students to discover on their own, through their own research the likelihood of getting a highly prized but rare job (professional athlete, youtuber, etc.) and underline the message in every interaction with them how a positive attitude towards work and learning will help them now, to enjoy school and enjoy coming to school, and will continue to help them in their future careers.