Editor’s Note: Kirk Hutchinson is currently the Principal at Venice Elementary School.
“Everybody at school, on time, and ready to learn!” joyfully rings out on the morning broadcast at Atwater Elementary — Every single day.
“It is our morning mantra explains Assistant Principal Jody Long, the children all know it by heart!”
I am here with Team Atwater whose focus and dedication are paying off. With the recent spike in attendance numbers, Principal, Kirk Hutchinson, Assistant Principal Jody Long, and Home-School Liaison Kristina Confer, are walking their talk. They are indeed at school, on time, and expecting my visit. They are also prepared, fully present, and excited to share what’s going on at Atwater Elementary.
“We made the commitment,” says Kirk Hutchinson. “Attendance Awareness is a central part of our School Improvement Program (SIP) this year. Every staff member has implemented the attendance platform as the overarching goal within their own individual, professional, and instructional development plan. We are all on board, and we all know the game plan. Attendance is front and center, and it is indeed a team effort.
It all begins with Back to School Night. We spend the first 15 minutes sharing the video of Manatee County Schools Superintendent passionately sharing that 1,275 children in Manatee County do not meet the 3rd grade-reading benchmarks and how this is already profiled to play out in their teenage and young adult years. We then share the materials from Attendance Works. Parents of kindergarten students, in particular, are clearly shown how to look at attendance through the early patterns of chronic absenteeism vs. the truancy lens. They know right out of the gate that if their child is absent two days in September, we will begin an immediate proactive approach to shift a potential pattern. We will, and do, look at absences. Period. Excused or otherwise. They can expect to hear from us. We share the clearly outlined protocol for absences that Kristina has prepared and explain it to them. We also clarify that we do this because we care deeply about the children. Although we steer away from truancy discussions, we do make it clear that attending school is not optional. It is the law.”
“You know, having a Home-School Liaison (HSL) assigned to our school has been imperative to our success,” says Assistant Principal, Jody Long. Having been a teacher for 20 years before becoming an administrator, Jody offers a clear, practical perspective. “The HSL position is a critical component to our successful approach regarding attendance. Reports now have a way of making an impact. With our HSL now on board, every staff member can do their job better. What’s even better is that Kristina specifically came from our middle school, so she has a true K-8 perspective. By starting at this age-level, it enables her to help change the trajectory and quality of the student’s education. Essentially, where once we would receive the reports and try to put together bits and pieces, we now have a real way to integrate them and move forward. Kristina and the HSL role really is the glue.”
“Kristina comes to us as a fellow educator and is brand new to this position, but not to this community,” explains Kirk. “She charts everything. Every day, every month. She is also in a constant state of implementation and has recently formed a Parent Involvement Committee. Recognizing that the schoolhouse can and should be seen as a resource for the family, Kristina listened and subsequently brought these parents together. Helping them bring to fruition an environment that feels like a real community, where students can feel safe, love being at school, and enjoy learning. It has had a big impact.”
Kirk continues, “It’s pretty amazing. These are really good people. Whether its staff, parents and families or collaborative community support, we are so fortunate because the people here genuinely care. Being able to engage with them at this level, where we feel like a community, transforms the whole playing field.”
Kristina, a former middle school teacher, is a good listener, and today is no exception. She has also come prepared. As she opens a folder and begins to explain to me all that she has implemented or that is currently pending, I realize how invested she is in supporting this initiative. Like several other schools I have spoken with, she conducts weekly schoolwide support team meetings, monthly attendance meetings with guidance staff and truancy workers, and when necessary, parents and teachers of a child with attendance concerns. She takes time to explain to me that the teacher is always included because that is the person with whom parents feel most comfortable.
Kristin keeps attendance on everyone’s mind. Attendance ribbons are purposely posted all along the wall in the hallway so that students lining up to enter the lunchroom have time to consider them. ‘Formal’ invitations to join the H.E.R.O. Club — Here, Every day, Ready to learn, On Time — are sent out individually. Children earn a ‘STARBUCK’ as they check in every morning with the goal of attending the Hero’s breakfast with their parents at the end of each month. A 3-tier approach spells out the attendance protocol for staff and families. Personal notes are sent weekly to classes from the administration congratulating them for operating as a team and understanding the importance of being ‘at school, on time, ready to learn.’ Students and classes are continuously acknowledged on the morning broadcasts. Sparkly attendance pencils go home with every individual child at the end of the month. Certificates go home every quarter with report cards. Weekly attendance trophies are awarded to classes to encourage support and team effort. End of School Attendance Medallions are handed out…
Meanwhile, homes are visited, obstacles are assessed and addressed, student attendance contracts are signed, and the determined leaders at Team Atwater continue to hold the vision: Everybody, at school, on time, ready to learn!
“We made the commitment,” says Kirk Hutchinson.