One Omaha high school is using a different tactic to improve student attendance this fall.
Burke High School announced a new policy earlier this month that prohibits students who have more than three unexcused absences from attending its homecoming dance on Oct. 8.
“The single most important factor contributing to student achievement is school attendance,” Darren Rasmussen, Burke principal, said in an email to families. “Burke High strongly believes that daily attendance is critical to the academic success as well as social and emotional well-being.”
Students can get their absences excused if they are missing class for a variety of reasons including sickness, court appearances, bereavement or transportation issues, according to school board policy. Unexcused absences include students who are truant, missing class for a reason that doesn’t qualify for an excuse or are “unverified,” meaning no one can confirm why the student is gone. In recent years a majority of absences have been unexcused, according to Omaha Public Schools district data.
Burke High is the only OPS school that has implemented the homecoming policy, said Bridget Blevins, spokeswoman for OPS. Each school has its own initiatives for improving things like absenteeism, she said.
The district reported in the 2020-21 school year that nearly 60% of students were either chronically absent or at risk for chronic absenteeism, which is defined by missing 10% or more of school days.
While 62% of Burke students were chronically absent or at risk in 2020-21, Burke High had the best attendance rate out of the district’s seven high schools.
Nicole Seymour, executive director of Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services Center, said she hasn’t heard of schools in the area using extracurricular activities like homecoming as a strategy to increase attendance.
Seymour said while this type of motivation to go to class might work for some, the GOALS Center focuses on research-based initiatives.
“The strategies that are recommended to be used are ones that are not punitive but are supportive and rehabilitative,” Seymour said. “I don’t want to speak on the strategies any school is using within their own programs, I just look at the research.”
Seymour said chronic absenteeism is “the worse it’s ever been.”
And the problem is not limited to Omaha. Statewide, nearly one in five students met the criteria for chronic absenteeism during the 2020-21 school year, according to recent reporting by the Flatwater Free Press, a nonprofit news outlet in Nebraska. It reported that chronic absenteeism surged across the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the national level, between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years the percentage of students considered chronically absent grew from 19.7% to nearly 29%, according to the National School Boards Association.
OPS introduced “Strive for 95” in the 2018-19 school year to combat absenteeism rates, Blevins said. The initiative focuses on efforts to get students to attend at least 95% of the school year, or miss less than nine school days.
The number of students who attended 95% of the school year grew by 2% between 2018-19 and 2019-20, according to district data. It then fell by roughly 8% in 2020-21.
Seymour said in order to decrease absenteeism, communities need to focus on addressing the obstacles students face at home that keep them from going to class, such as parental concerns, poverty and basic needs issues.
“We know there are root causes that are keeping chronically absent students out of school and they are outside of the control of the school,” Seymour said. “We have to work with kids and families on addressing, supporting and overcoming those barriers that keep them from getting to the school building.”
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