Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan watches the district's back-to-school "We are SPS United!" video during her "State of the Schools" speech. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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At the beginning of the school year, Springfield Public Schools officials used a sports metaphor to set an attendance improvement goal. 

At the end of the first quarter, the stats show Springfield’s teachers and students are playing the game well, but there are some challenging parts to come. 

“We know that historically, attendance tends to start strongest at the beginning of the school year,” said Ben Hackenwerth, chief strategic innovation officer for the district. “Winter weather and other factors create a decline throughout the course of the year. We are happy to be ahead of the game, as far as our goal goes[…] we have to stay with the grind of it all.”

According to numbers released Monday by SPS, first quarter attendance is up district-wide by 0.91 % over last year, from 92.11% to 93.02%. The first quarter ended Oct. 19. In that first quarter, elementary school students had the best performance when it came to being at school: 

  • 1% increase for elementary, from 92.92% to 93.92%.
  • 0.84% increase for middle schoolers, from 92.44% to 93.28%. 
  • 0.79% increase for high schoolers, from 90.62% to 91.41%. 

Springfield Public Schools reported an average daily attendance rate calculated from tallying the number of hours in class and dividing that total by the number of minutes scheduled for each student. 

Tougher hurdles await with winter on the way

At the beginning of the school year, SPS set a challenge of raising its previous year’s K-12 attendance rate by two percentage points to 91.93%. Superintendent Grenita Lathan promised that if the district won this game, she would get a Gatorade shower similar to what winning football coaches get after a bowl game or a playoff win. The rate in the first quarter shows the district ahead of that goal.

Schools have focused on that message in a variety of ways, Hackenwerth said. Kickapoo and Hillcrest high schools post regular attendance reports on their X.com pages, focusing on having the classes compete with each other, for instance.

But winter is coming. 

Two seasons — holidays and flu — are proven over time to squeeze student attendance rates significantly.

Hackenwerth said that even though those issues are known, adjusting for them can be difficult. The district’s schools are staffed with nurses to help monitor student health, so that they can treat students who need to go home over the course of the day.

“We’re asking families that if their child is not running a fever, send them to school,” Hackenwerth said. “We are also making sure that we follow up, something we became lax on over the last few years. We make phone calls to see why they are gone, and what we can do to get them back in school.”

So far, attendance numbers look similar for the second quarter, which included Halloween. Between Oct. 20 and 31, attendance was up by 0.83%, from 92.02% last year to 92.85% this year.

The district has been emphasizing attendance in a community campaign, Hackenwerth said. The biggest messenger has been the district’s teaching staff.

“Internally, we are making sure that leaders and teachers have the right reports and data, so they can see how well kids are attending, and can intervene as early as possible when they are not,” he said. “We can do all sorts of things with a community campaign, but we know one of the most important sources is a teacher’s communication with a family.”

Attendance a familiar problem

Attendance has been a challenge in Springfield over the last five years. According to numbers from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, SPS students lag behind the state average. 

The state tracks proportional attendance, a figure that is different from the average daily attendance SPS is using for its goal. Proportional attendance is a measurement that tracks whether 90% of students are in attendance at least 90% of the time. The most recent numbers show Springfield is behind the state average.

The district’s 69.9% proportional attendance rate for 2021-22 is below the state average of 76.2%. The 69.9% rate is a significant dip from previous years, according to DESE reports. The state education authority reported proportional attendance rates in Springfield were 83.4% in 2020-21, 81.2% in 2019-20 and 82.7% in 2018-19.

The state has not yet released numbers for the 2022-23 school year.

Lathan in September said Springfield Public Schools was putting a renewed emphasis on improving attendance, now that pandemic-related stay-at-home orders have expired and in-person learning has fully resumed. 

Hovering over 90% in the previous years, Springfield’s average daily attendance dipped to 89.93% in 2023. 

Attendance strongly correlates to better student performance, Lathan said. During September’s introduction of the goal, she and other school district officials asked business and community leaders for help to meet it. 

Hackenwerth said that one message they push to students and families, in pursuit of that attendance goal, is that if attendance is a class, a 90% does not get you an A.

“If you attend at a 90% rate, that’s 17 or 18 days, and that’s a lot of school to miss,” Hackenwerth said. “When it comes to attendance, an A is more like 96% to 98%.”

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or jhadsall@sgfcitizen.org. More by Joe Hadsall