Kula Elementary makes dramatic cuts to absentee rate — Strive HI

Kula Elementary School lowered its student absentee rate by nearly 20 percentage points in the last school year, after a third of its students missed 15 days or more in the previous school year, according to statistics released Monday by the state Department of Education.

The statistics are part of the department’s new Strive HI Performance System, which launched in the 2012-13 school year. The statewide system evaluates public and charter school progress and performance in areas such as reading, math and science scores; achievement growth and gaps; chronic absenteeism; graduation rates; college readiness; and enrollment.

The Upcountry school of about 400 students had a chronic absentee rate of 32 percent in the 2012 to 2013 school year, and decreased it to 13 percent the following year – good for the most improvement among elementary schools in the state, public school officials said.

“It really was an awareness issue,” Principal Chris Bachaus said. “You’ve got your systems and routines, and no one was watching the ball in terms of schoolwide attendance. So we made it a schoolwide goal to close that gap.”

Bachaus attributed the school’s low attendance rate to the struggles of being a rural school, with family vacations during nonschool breaks and a lack of oversight. He said the school implemented an attendance policy to track individual kids. That led to the school sending home a letter to students’ parents or guardians after 10 absences and to a social worker after 15.

“By making the community aware of the issue and reinforcing going to school, we had really positive results, and the community responded very well,” Bachaus said of the school celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year. “The kids are in school, and they can’t learn unless they’re here.”

The Upcountry school’s improvement highlighted a statewide drop in chronic absentee rates – over the same period – from 18 percent to 11 percent. About 5,500 fewer elementary school students were chronically absent last school year, and 163 of 169 schools decreased their rates, the department said.

“The significant reductions in chronic absenteeism show schools are doing a better job at making instruction more engaging and interesting,” DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe said. “Research shows that when a leading indicator like chronic absenteeism improves, it’s a good sign that improvements in grades, graduation rates and college-going rates will follow.”

Lanai High & Elementary School ranked second in graduation rates for the 2013-14 school year, at 98 percent. Niihau School was first at 100 percent, and Hana High & Elementary School tied for fourth with Kalani High School on Oahu at 93 percent.

The Lanai school also ranked third in college-going rates, improving from 52 percent to 63.

Hana school was among the most improved schools in student achievement on the American College Testing exam. The standardized test for 11th-graders indicates readiness for entry-level courses in the University of Hawaii system, the department said.

The East Maui school had 13 percent of its students score 19 or more on the 36-point test. The school had no students qualify the previous year.

“We have more kids going to college and more kids wanting to go to college, so just graduating from high school here is a huge deal,” said Linda Gravatt, counselor for the high school and pre-kindergarten. “They want it, and they have a lot of support so they usually get there.

“Getting them to graduate from college is the next step.”

Pomaikai Elementary School was recognized as “high performing” by the department through the Strive HI program and will receive recognition and a financial reward at an event next month, the department said.

“Strive HI gives schools actionable data they can use to inform their improvement efforts; provides a snapshot of the overall health of the school to inform parents and communities; and it helps us deploy resources and support schools strategically,” Nozoe said. “This is not about ranking schools against each other.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at