The new short-term goals established by Jefferson City Public Schools in its strategic "game plan" include increasing monthly attendance and reducing the number of monthly discipline referrals.
Superintendent Larry Linthacum said progress of these goals and those related to getting more students reading at or above their grade level will be communicated at each monthly Board of Education meeting and at his community coffee outreach events.
Linthacum also noted there's overlap between these goals: Progress on one will help progress on another. "If your attendance rate is higher, you're going to have (better) learning," he said.
Higher attendance is a mark of a learning environment "where (students) want to come to school (and) have engaging lessons," he explained.
He added research shows students who can't read generally will have higher rates of discipline issues. In turn, "student behaviors is one of the No. 1 factors that's affecting the student learning environment," based on feedback from staff, he said.
Discipline referrals or incidents have been rising at Jefferson City High School and the district's two middle schools over the past several years.
"Incident" is the term the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education uses, but it's interchangeable with the term "referral" used by the district.
Either term refers to a behavioral infraction "serious enough that it should be documented in the student system," JCPS Chief of Learning Brian Shindorf said.
DESE's data has incident categories of alcohol, drug, tobacco, violence and weapon, though most of the Jefferson City district's discipline incidents fall into the "other" category. It's not immediately clear what that category does or doesn't include.
Regardless of the reason for discipline issues, the almost exclusive response by the district to serious ones at the high school and middle schools has been to give students an out-of-school suspension. For example, out of 166 discipline incidents at JCHS in the 2015-16 school year, there were 165 out-of-school suspensions doled out. Data for last year was not available.
The middle schools use in-school suspensions a bit more, in some years more than out-of-school; but other years have still seen three, four or more times as many out-of-school suspensions as in-school.
"I'm going to take a look at how did the number of suspensions we have affect our attendance," district Director of Secondary Education Gary Verslues said. Verslues said he also wants to answer questions like whether suspensions were the results of an accumulation of lesser referrals or more serious isolated incidents.
He said the district is "trying to prevent as many removals from classrooms and schools as possible," though they still have to hold students accountable for their actions. He added he'll look into whether those individual and systematic accountability mechanisms are in classrooms.
The district will be "taking a hard look at how well we're doing those things" to avoid removal from classrooms and school, Shindorf said, but "it doesn't mean that we're never going to have a suspension."
A printed update from Verslues to the board at its August meeting said a suspended-student classroom is returning this school year. The classroom is a place for students serving an out-of-school suspension to maintain their grades, and it's open to students who were suspended for "most infractions that are not Safe Schools violations."
DESE's information on the state's "Safe Schools Act" suggests such violations pertain to violent offenses like making threats or using weapons.
The district's suspended-student classroom will be housed in the Westhues Learning Center room of the Boys & Girls Club, and April Thornsberry is the certified teacher who will work with students there.
Verslues' information about the classroom said, "The success of our program will be determined by a zero, or very low, recidivism rate."
The district's overall attendance rate in the 2016-17 school year was 85.3 percent, according to data released at the JCPS board's July work session. That's down from the previous year's 86.9 percent — and also the lowest rate since 2013-14, when it was 87.3 percent.
On a building-by-building level, since 2013-14, there were marginal attendance rate improvements at Cedar Hill Elementary and Jefferson City High School. Every other building saw attendance rates decrease in the same time span, by anywhere from about one to four or five percentage points.
West Elementary School saw the biggest drop in attendance in the district — down 5.4 percent from 2013-14's 91.5 percent to last year's 86.1 percent.
Cedar Hill had the highest attendance rate in the district four years ago and last year, at 96.1 percent and 96.6 percent, respectively. JCHS, including Simonsen 9th Grade Center, has consistently had the lowest, out of the years presented, at 75.7 percent four years ago and 75.9 percent last year.
"Incentives and encouragement" like contests and celebrations have been used in the past to spur student attendance, Shindorf said.
That includes recognition for classes with the best attendance or with no tardies or early-outs.
"Most of our elementaries all focused on telling kids the importance of attendance and getting that news to parents," Director of Elementary Education Lorie Rost said. Rost was principal of Cedar Hill before taking her current position.
"We're going to continue with incentives," Shindorf said. He thinks the incentives encourage positive competition among classes to achieve high attendance.
The district will be doing more, however. When it comes to truancy issues, "our team has put together a little tighter procedures," he said.
There are going to be more frequent and sooner-released messages sent to parents to communicate their students' truancy issues. "Absence letters" will be sent to families at the fourth, sixth and eighth absences, according to the printed update from Verslues given to the board at its August meeting.
The same update also said, "Secondary principals have been analyzing and evaluating their guidelines and procedures to make sure we have the best practices possible in place to raise student attendance."
Shindorf said the district also will be more proactive about identifying and addressing issues at the heart of a truancy case before the matter reaches truancy court.
"When kids don't come to school, it's either because of transportation or because they're claiming to be sick," Shindorf said. A new districtwide, K-12 truancy officer is going to conduct home visits, arrange for transportation and coordinate other services as necessary, he said. The officer worked only with secondary-level students last year.
Typically, if a high school student has attendance issues, his or her younger siblings do, too, Shindorf said. But in the past, the district had intervened only with the older child.
Though the truancy officer will work alone, Shindorf said, she has access to support structures and will communicate with counselors and principals.