Students and local leaders spoke on the importance of attending school during the Attendance Awareness Month Kickoff Friday at the River’s Edge Pavilion at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs.

The event was part of an attendance awareness campaign coordinated by United Way of the Midlands and the School Based Attendance Coalition.

Nationally, there is growing recognition of the “connection between attendance and academic achievement,” said Shawna Forsberg, president and CEO of UWM.

Approximately 18,500 students in the three-county area (Pottawattamie County and Douglas and Sarpy Counties in Nebraska) missed more than 10 percent or 18-plus days of school last year, according to a press release from United Way.

Chronic absenteeism isn’t just a problem with middle- and high-school students, said Melissa Mayo, director of community impact for United Way and co-facilitator of SBAC. It starts showing up at the elementary and even preschool level.

“The good news is that poor attendance is a solvable problem,” she said.

Teachers need to create a warm, welcoming environment so students want to come to school, Mayo said.

The coalition has distributed kits with materials promoting a positive attendance message to 20 school districts, she said.

“Too many children are missing too many days of school, and too many children are starting (to do so) early,” Council Bluffs Superintendent Vickie Murillo said.

“We know ... that parents want the very best for their children, and they know attendance is important,” she said. “Few realize that missing as little as two days a month can have an impact.”

Building relationships with students and their families is “foundational,” Murillo said.

“Trust relationships help motivate attendance, even when it isn’t easy to attend class,” she said.

Murillo said she hopes interesting programs like the Early College Academy and planned Council Bluffs Trades Academy will help encourage students to attend school. In addition, the district has graduation coaches who work with secondary students, and school officials work closely with juvenile justice officials and the Pottawattamie County Attorney’s Office.

Poor attendance habits can affect a student when they become an adult, said Dan Koenig, president and CEO of the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce. He referred to a survey the chamber took to find out what skills employers were looking for.

“What we got back (were) things like work ethic, punctuality, ability to work as a team, communication skills, intuitiveness,” he said. “I see these in the challenges businesses face every day in hiring and retaining workers.”

Laurel Socha, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, said she had gotten off track at one point in her school career, but teacher/classroom strategist Traci Stoop and teacher Patricia Pettit, along with family and friends, helped her realize how important attending school was to her future. She said she’s now “more focused” in school and is thinking about her future. She wants to graduate, attend college and become a nurse.

“When you work hard now, things become easier then,” she said.

Ixcel Alvarado, who graduated from Omaha Public Schools, said she had been a delinquent but had gotten back on track with the help of the Midlands Latino Center, which helped her decide who she wanted to be.

“The one person I wanted to make proud was my mom,” she said.

Treynor Mayor Tom Lewis read the proclamation 11 area mayors have signed to designate September Attendance Awareness Month in their communities.

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Kathy Hanafan, who is employed by Green Hills Area Education Agency but is school attendance supervisor for Council Bluffs Community School District, was honored as the Iowa Attendance Champion. She has worked in the school district for almost 20 years, mainly on attendance. She has helped the district reduce dropout rates and improve graduation rates, Mayo said.

Hanafan supervises the district’s graduation coaches, who are also Green Hills employees, and facilitates attendance teams at all of the schools in the district, she said. She helps the teams develop strategies for solving individual students’ attendance problems and keeps track of attendance data. She refers families to community resources if needed.

“I believe we’re definitely making progress,” she said. “I think Council Bluffs has done a good job of getting the message out that attendance is important.”

The school district notifies parents after a child misses three days, six days and nine days, Hanafan said.

“The ultimate goal is to keep them from missing 5 percent — more than nine days,” she said.

All parents get notifications if their child misses three or more days, but the attendance team at the student’s school tailors interventions to the specific child, Hanafan said.

The community can help by talking about the importance of children attending school in order to develop the skills they need to be successful and by reminding students they need to be in school, Hanafan said.

“If you see kids out on a school day, ask them why they aren’t in school,” she said.

United Way and SBAC will cap the local observance of Attendance Awareness Month with a conference from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 4 at the Mid-America Center. The one-day “Attendance Matters” conference will feature two keynote speakers: Lorri Hobson, director of attendance for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District; and Sue Fothergill, associate director of policy at Attendance Works and the former director of Attendance and Related Strategies for the Family League of Baltimore. The speakers will highlight the efforts of two “Bright Spot” communities working to improve attendance rates — Cleveland and Baltimore. For more information, call UWM at 402-342-8232.

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