On September 19, 2023, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida hosted a virtual Donors Forum, Driving Student Success: A Collective Approach, to discuss public school attendance and its role in student success and education as a whole. The program opened with remarks by Foundation Vice President of Donor Services Tom Caron, including an update on the First Coast Relief Fund – which was recently re-engaged in response to the fatal racially motivated shooting in New Town.
Guest presenters for the forum included Dr. Ronetta Wards, Vice President of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, and Mr. Ronnie King, Founder of the MyVillage Project.
Here are presenter highlights:
Dr. Ronetta Wards, Introduction to School Attendance Trends
- There is state legislation in place that mandates children to attend school from K through 12th grade, with truancy defined as missing 21 days of school or more – including both excused and unexcused absences. This legislation establishes a chain-of-command reporting structure but leaves it up to the individual school districts to enforce the mandate.
- Duval County looks at truancy from a slightly different perspective than the state, and families have to submit documentation explaining more than three days of absence in a row. Duval County also differentiates between excused and unexcused absences, so the county data on school attendance may differ from state data.
- The state data for Duval County for 2020-2021 school year recorded a 22 percent truancy rate, or approximately 31,000 students.
- Public schools with the highest percentage of students missing 21 days or more include Bridge to Success, SP Livingston Elementary, Ramona Boulevard Elementary, Longbranch Elementary, Grand Park Career Center, and Rufus E. Payne Elementary – with figures ranging from 64-51%.
- Public schools with the lowest percentage of truant students include Julia Landon Middle, James Weldon Johnson Middle, Jacksonville Beach Elementary, Stanton College Prep, Kirby Smith Middle, and J. Allen Axson Elementary – with figures ranging from 2-4%.
- There is a significant correlation between high truancy rates and the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price meals, indicating the relationship between truancy and other factors – like poverty levels, community support, etc.
- Truancy is a problem across the United States following the pandemic, not just in Northeast Florida (a recent New York Times article on truancy levels nationwide was referenced).
- It is important to avoid the blame game when trying to address the problem of school attendance, and it is more important to look at the overall community problems that exist and address those. For example, the high number of truancy levels in elementary schools may indicate other barriers that exist, like transportation and family support.
Mr. Ronnie King, Introduction to MyVillage Project
- In 2013, the MyVillage Project began as the MyVillage Project Community Fund, held at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. It now has five funds at community foundations in Gainesville, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami, in addition to Jacksonville.
- The Project, primarily volunteer-led, is now a collaboration with 185 member organizations, 4,482 member stakeholders, and 425 member projects – serving more than 12,000 students in Duval County and its expansion cities across Florida.
- The MyVillage Project capitalizes on existing grassroots organizations – many of them Black-led, which traditionally don’t receive the same level of funding as similar peer organizations – that are already doing work in the communities. The Project helps fund initiatives by combining resources, supporting work that is already being done, and working with people on the ground to best help communities in need.
- Some of its current initiatives are:
- Project Daily Attendance – Eighty-five member organizations take turns going into schools and recognizing students for consistent attendance with gifts and rewards. This has been very well-received with students and has resulted in an 8 percent increase in daily attendance. The project also goes to student homes and provides families with thank you’s and such recognitions as gift cards for helping their students maintain attendance.
- Annual MVP Achievers – This program brings together parents, students, and educators to recognize student improvement and achievement in reading and math.
- The MyVillage Project consistently interviews its member organizations, and others in the community, to gain insight, share experiences, and hear innovative ideas – including at a recent symposium where they collected 120 interviews.
- Representatives from member organizations gather twice a year to discuss collective programming, funding, and community goals for the upcoming school year.
Insights from Panel Discussion with Dr. Ward and Mr. King
- Key indicators of student success are Attendance, Behavior, and Course Performance in English and Math (known as ABC), and investment needs to be in all three because they all affect each other. Lack of attendance makes it hard to achieve any of the three indicators.
- There is currently a ReadJax community-wide initiative in Duval County, spearheaded by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund and the Kids Hope Alliance, which aspires to all children reading above grade level by the end of Grade 3. Mayor Donna Deegan has also made student literacy a key component of her administration’s agenda.
- There are many structural barriers that might affect student attendance – including different elements of poverty, lack of communication between parents and schools, environment of a school, or shortages in bus drivers or teachers.
- Some elements of schools have shifted from a local presence to outside factors – such as national bus companies versus local drivers or students going to school a long way from their neighborhoods via the magnet system – which contributes to a lack of communication or sense of belonging with schools.
- The enactment of House Bill 733, which mandates later start times for middle and high schoolers (the reverse of the current situation in which high school starts the earliest and elementary the latest) may have some effect on attendance levels, but that remains to be seen.
Community and Action Solutions
- Reprioritizing education is one of the biggest factors to student success, and part of this is providing support outside of the school doors and engaging communities.
- There are no silver bullets to magically solve the issue of school attendance, but working with families and students to make connections within neighborhoods and communities helps take advantage of resources that already exist.
- When organizations can come together and there are more hands on deck, solutions become scalable and can actually make a difference across cities, especially when the problem involves such a large number of students. This is important for problems not to reoccur or persist.
- Listening to people closest to the problem is vital, as is suspending judgement and realizing that not all needs are the same. Mobilizing communities and leveraging expertise are also critical factors for success.
- Getting involved is important. There are many volunteer opportunities throughout Duval County schools and through educational organizations. Consider donating time and talent to help students – every minute spent with them makes a difference.