It was a muggy morning on the Long Center Terrance in downtown Austin. Central Texas school superintendents and their staffs fanned themselves as they listened to a local student mariachi band play.
But these education leaders weren’t there to just hear the music. They were there to address a major issue in Central Texas schools: student attendance.
“Too many students are missing school in Central Texas," said Kelly Crook, Del Valle ISD superintendent.
On average, students in Central Texas miss more school than students in the rest of the state. When they don’t show up, districts lose state money, around $40 per student per day. Plus, it makes it harder to teach and more difficult for students to learn.
That's why schools and the Missing School Matters initiative likes to kick off each school year with a rally focused on attendance. Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the group that education creates equal opportunities for all students across the region, and not just some.
“This is a huge opportunity for us because there are not very many places in our system where we can, by determined and focused action, actually do something that would have such tangible return and reward," Alder said. Adler estimated increasing student attendance by three days per student would bring an additional $34 million in state funding to the region.
School districts like to kick off each school year with a focus on attendance. Nationally, the group Attendance Works declares September Attendance Awareness Month. But local data shows school districts might be better off focusing their efforts later in the year.
According to E3 Alliance, the group that puts on the annual attendance rally, students in Central Texas miss the most school at the end of the school year. Among low-income students, the average number of days absent nearly doubles from the beginning of the school year to the end of it.
“My recommendation is that there’s a little more emphasis placed on middle to end-of-school," says Nichole Prescott with E3 Alliance. “Not to not focus on the beginning, but to keep that focus on attendance throughout the school year.”
There are a variety of reasons students are absent: from illness and family responsibilities to simply missing the bus. Michael Cardona is the new superintendent for San Marcos ISD. He says schools need to start reinforcing the importance of attendance early so students understand why they need to show up.
“When we disconnect from that we lose the kids and then it becomes harder later on," Cardona says.
Cardona says one way to reduce absences is to make schools a community hub, using city and county partnerships to increase services, like medical clinics.