Hughson partners with county office to boost student attendance

Hughson Unified always has enjoyed one of the highest attendance rates of any school district in Stanislaus County. In 2019, more than 96% of Hughson’s students attended class on a given day. But then COVID hit in the spring of 2020, temporarily forcing all students into a distance-learning mode from home until the next fall, when limited face-to-face classes resumed.

Even when all COVID restrictions were lifted, attendance lagged as some parents remained cautious. In the 2021-22 school year, for instance, Hughson Unified’s daily attendance rate was 92.7% -- good, but not up to its previous level.

Regular attendance at school is important on two levels. The first, obviously, is academics. Children learn more when they’re in class with a teacher. Studies have shown that it can take two days to catch up when students miss just one day of school.

“We know that students learn best in the classroom,” said Superintendent Brenda Smith. “By being at home, they are missing out academically and socially. We want to help our students acquire good habits for their life and being present is a way to do that.”

There also is an important financial aspect to high attendance. School districts receive state funding based on how many students show up each day. If Hughson can raise attendance to 95% this year, it could mean as much as $300,000 more flowing into the district, said Chief Business Official Kristin Burkett. That’s money that can be used for textbooks, to upgrade technology, to add programs, expand facilities or many other important things.

All that explains why Hughson Unified eagerly signed on this school year to an attendance campaign organized by the Stanislaus County Office of Education. For a relatively modest investment of $5,000 – based on total enrollment – the district can participate in SCOE’s “Every Day Counts” initiative, which seeks to increase attendance in the county’s 25 public school districts.

“Even a one-student increase will more than pay for the program,” explained Eric Petersen, Hughson’s director of student support services. “Obviously, we expect to do much better than that.”

SCOE has created materials that the district has access to – social media posts aimed at parents that stress the importance of regular attendance, campaign banners and other signage, billboards at high-traffic locations around the county, radio ads and more.

Hughson’s five campuses also have created their own attendance-related incentives for students.

At Hughson Elementary, there is a special party at the end of each month to honor any student with perfect attendance. Principal Megan Reisz said students get to play with special toys, participate in a dance party or partake of a tasty treat. She said attendance also is routinely promoted in the Tuesday night parent communication sent each week.

At Fox Road Elementary, fourth- and fifth-graders who don’t miss any class in a month get a special ice cream recess as a reward. Principal Jeff Persons said there are posters in each classroom promoting attendance and that he regularly talks with students about the importance of being in class. He thinks the campaign already is working – Fox Road’s attendance is 2% higher this year than the same time last year.

At Ross Middle School, students with perfect attendance are entered into a monthly raffle. The winner can invite four friends to a pizza party in the Husky Hangout, said Principal Mary La Rosa. There also are slushie parties, which are popular, and an electric bicycle will be raffled off each semester as a prize. Ross already has seen a rise in its attendance rate to 97%, according to La Rosa.

At Hughson High School, every student with perfect attendance in August was rewarded with an ice cream treat. In September, there will be 40 $10 gift cards given to students who are there every day. In addition to monthly prizes, Principal Loren Lighthall said there are social media posts and regular announcements stressing the importance of attendance as well as other messages from teachers. Any high school student who doesn’t miss a day all year also could be eligible for a special countywide prize – a brand new car donated by Modesto Toyota. Others could receive game consoles, iPads and gift cards.

At the Valley Community Day and Billie Joe Dickens alternative education site, students who didn’t miss a day in August got to participate in an ice cream sundae party. There will be other monthly prizes the rest of the year.

Smith said the new campaign aims to put the legitimate fear associated with the pandemic in the past.

“There were some habits acquired during COVID that we are still addressing,” she said. “For example, we had told everyone during that time to stay home if you have a runny nose. Now, with COVID not being as big of a health threat, we are working to re-educate our students and parents about health concerns that warrant staying home. In addition, during COVID, attendance was not a focus because there were mandated quarantines.

A month into the school year, the attendance campaign appears to be working.

“We’re running at 96-97% out of the gate,” Petersen said. “We’re excited about that.”