Modern school superintendents face complex issues that were completely foreign to their predecessors. The current slate of challenges include wide-ranging concerns, from graduation rates to attendance, to school rankings.
More importantly, these challenges are intertwined with one another, and with other high-profile subjects, like that of school safety. School safety is a bedrock concern that manifests in diverse areas like attendance and funding.
However, while school violence is a highly visible issue that gains much attention, there are other concerns that need to be acknowledged, such as chronic absenteeism, a district’s inability to provide, and therefore act on, accurate attendance and truancy rates, along with of course, early warning issues like bullying and thefts. These challenges not only prevent a district from performing well, but they attract the attention of concerned parents and the community.
Schools across the country are looking for innovative ways to get ahead of these problems. Public forums are being held to collect ideas from the community. Districts are holding training sessions with their staff on new procedures and policies. School superintendents know that these strategies can only go so far in helping them overcome the core issues around school safety.
Technology has become a key tool in overcoming these challenges. Technological innovations are improving the areas of attendance monitoring, analytics, access control, and reporting. The newest solutions offer schools features that help schools address issues through integrations with existing district infrastructure.
Many districts struggle to raise funding for proactive solutions to their problems and even fewer districts have the funding to try out new methods only to abandon if failed. Understanding a problem is key to implementing an effective solution from the start. Successfully addressing the challenges facing modern school districts requires first identifying where the problems originate.
Absenteeism has reached epidemic proportions across the United States. Districts across the country struggle to find solutions to this growing problem. In California, for instance, the Justice Department found that more than 200,000 students in grade K-5 had missed 10 percent of the school year – classifying this group as chronically absent – causing the state to declare they were facing an attendance crisis.
Superintendents are aware that significant absenteeism can impact a school’s funding. But more importantly, missed school has a detrimental effect on student performance across their scholastic career. Data shows that chronic absenteeism in kindergarten leads to lower first-grade performance. The impacts become more significant in older students. A study conducted in Baltimore found a positive correlation between regular attendance and the number of students who graduated on time, or within a year of their expected graduation date.
Chronic absenteeism can be the result of a number of issues, both at school and outside of it. Outside of school, students may face family and financial issues that interrupt their ability to attend classes. An obvious cause of absence is illness, but children who live in an unhealthy home environment or who aren’t receiving regular or proper nutrition may become sick more often. Older children may be required to work to help support the family, and some families may be required to move frequently.
Within the school, students may avoid going to school if they don’t feel safe in the environment or if social pressure makes them embarrassed about their situation. Bullying and harassment can cause a student to avoid school as a means of self-protection. For others, their socio-economic status may make them a target for harassment as well. Something as simple as different lines for students to receive free meals can place children in a situation where they face ridicule from others. By establishing norms and holding students accountable for those norms in an environment where students can feel safe from bullying or harassment, only then can the issue be nipped in the bud.
Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, chronic absenteeism can point to deeper problems at the school and in a student’s life. If the school is aware of the issues, they can intervene to help students overcome and solve the root causes of missing school. But for school staff to be able to step in and assist, they need to be aware of the problem there. Without awareness, problems like bullying, embarrassment, and harassment may go unchecked.
Unfortunately, without accurate tracking and monitoring, systematic attendance problems may be hard to pinpoint and address. Early intervention is highly effective, whereas the efficacy of programs in later grades drops off. There are several proven tactics that schools can take to help curb chronic absenteeism, such as mentorship programs and low-cost incentives to attend, but for these programs to work, a district must have the proper data to know which students are at risk.
From the seemingly mundane to the concerning, state reporting metrics are crucial to the well-being of a school district. Not only is reporting required, but important operational elements, like funding, are dependent on it. Mandatory reporting is stressful for districts who don’t have the resources available to ensure complete accuracy and who know that the ability to get those resources depends on how well they mitigate issues primarily identified and managed with good data.
While above we discussed issues with absenteeism as it pertains to student achievement and safety, managing and reporting attendance numbers and truancy incidents can have far-reaching effects on a district. Absenteeism is different than attendance when it comes to reporting and the funds associated – a student can miss 10 percent of the school year while still attending on state-mandated reporting days. This means that in some state’s schools can misrepresent their attendance rates by incentivizing students to be in school on certain days.
Districts also know that truancy is an issue and one that cuts across demographics. With attendance and truancy rates having an effect on school funding, districts have begun turning to the legal system for help in curbing truancy rates. These are areas, though, where better data could help a district improve without involving the court system, and they aren’t the only metrics that are part of a school’s mandatory reporting.
For obvious reasons, states are interested in understanding threats and acts of extreme violence in their schools. The reporting requirements differ slightly from state to state, but general acts of extreme violence, violence against teachers, bringing a firearm to school, and drug-related offenses must be reported. Having systems in place to prevent or curb high levels of violence is in a district’s best interest.
Beyond statistics around violence, other crimes committed on school grounds are also reportable, and, importantly, can impact a school’s funding. Crimes such as theft, the presence of lesser weapons, and fights should be reported, but unfortunately, are consistently underreported. Discrepancies between law enforcement reports and those provided to state education agencies are common. Schools have a difficult time tracking such incidents and data is inconsistent and unreliable.
Because funding is tied to reporting, school districts are driven to identify issues and provide corrective action before they become reportable incidents. To do this, though, schools must have accurate systems in place to help identify high-risk students and escalating incidents and provide help to those that need it or that might put the school in jeopardy. Manual data recording and spot checks leave the door open for errors and poor data.
Accurate reporting and proactive intervention both require solid monitoring and dependable numbers to realize real change. Obtaining this level of accuracy is difficult, however. Staff shortages, budget issues, and siloed systems can make it problematic to collect and manage information and be assured of data integrity. Worse, it is through the collection and analysis of this information that schools can begin to proactively address issues. Without it, districts may be faced with budget restrictions or the consequences of misreporting mandated data.
With school violence appearing front and center on nearly every form of media, it’s no surprise that this topic is top of mind for districts, students, parents, and communities. It’s difficult to turn on the TV or log on to social media and not read about violence involving students. Managing the safety of students, staff, and the physical campus requires more active interventions than tracking and analytics offer.
Many of the subjects we’ve already discussed in this eBook are contributors to school safety challenges. Absenteeism can be a signal to bullying issues, which can escalate to greater violence. More extreme acts, such as the presence of weapons in school or an increase in drug-related activities can be red flags, as well. Unchecked, these problems can lead to more direct and immediate dangers.
It’s important to note, also, that threats to schools and students are multi-faceted. It isn’t just current students and staff that can be a danger. Former students have proven to be a concern. Campus visitors are a wild card, as well. Without clear, legitimate business on campus, these groups can mean serious trouble for a school. Even if a visitor is the parent of an attending child, there may be issues around custody or access to a student that comes into play.
As we’ve discussed, there are many indicators that can help identify problems before they happen. But they are only effective if the school has the systems, processes, and staff in place to address issues in time. Access control is an important school safety measure, but a difficult one. Fire codes require multiple entrances and exits, must be available for students, but each presents a portal for entry for someone that may not belong on the property.
Schools cannot anticipate and manage every threat to students and staff by only addressing the precursors to violence, crime, and attendance. Because threats can come from a number of vectors, physical security systems are still a necessity. Those systems must work in concert with the regular rhythms of the school, staff levels, and existing infrastructure.
With multiple factors contributing to potential safety incidents, security systems need to operate and interface with multiple school systems including some safety and monitoring systems that are already in place. This is important so that schools can identify and manage potential threats but also be prepared to handle situations as they are happening, all without requiring every part of an existing district infrastructure be replaced to ensure a safe environment.
Visibility into a school’s performance metrics like rankings, crime and violence, and graduation rates are more readily available than they have ever been before. While access to a school’s performance isn’t new, the ability to see this information via self-service, through reports and even school review websites, has expanded a district’s responsibility to manage community relations.
Parents have increasing concerns about the safety of schools and their efficacy at educating their children. They demand to know how a school district is addressing identified issues, and what processes are in place to deal with the unforeseen and sometimes unimaginable. With one-third of parents expressing fear for the safety of their children while in school, it’s up to the district to represent to the community what measures are being taken.
This loss of faith in a school district’s ability to provide the education their children need and the safe environment in which they can thrive has resulted in a disturbing trend. Studies show that enrollment in some areas of the country are dropping and are expected to continue that trend for the next ten years.
Combined, community demand for action and dropping enrollment rates can severely impact a district’s budgets and be detrimental to the very projects that would tackle these concerns. With smaller budgets, districts must become more creative with solutions to the very issues that are causing their budget restrictions. Proactively managing situations that could escalate to significant issues becomes increasingly important. And it increases the pressure on districts to provide reliable data pointing to the efficacy of the improvements.
Complicating the issue further is the fact that not all strategies have physical components that a district can point at and illustrate progress. District safety measure should address both the physical and the psychological safety of students and should include the community as part of the solution. Community services, like first responders and social services, also play a role in the improvement and perception of the school’s performance and safety. Without clear before and after data, it is nearly impossible for a school to illustrate the improvements brought about through various programs and to build trust with the community.
As we’ve seen, attendance has far-reaching impacts on students, budgets, and a district’s ability to proactively manage issues. Accurate tracking of overall attendance is crucial to identifying problems. Knowing where students are, from the bus to the classroom, provides schools with the information they need to notice trends and handle issues before they become full-fledged problems.
It’s important to know more than just if a student arrived on time and made it to their first class. Understanding individual attendance, from school arrival to each class and even lunch, can provide staff with the data needed to mitigate a growing concern.
To obtain this data, though, requires schools to have technology that gives timely and accurate views into absenteeism, truancy, and attendance and the tools to analyze the data to spot trends. Solutions, like a smart ID card, can simplify attendance tracking from entering the building to getting to class. Because cards like this require students to tap readers with their card, teachers are no longer required to spend valuable learning time taking attendance or tracking down errant students.
Thanks to advancements in mobile technology, chip readers can also be placed on school buses. This provides attendance monitoring from the moment a student gets on the bus, into the building, and through each and every class. Another great safety benefit is knowing the last known location of the student. This provides a trail that is necessary in locating what could be a missing student.
This data can then be shared with a centralized system that gives 360-degree visibility into a student’s day. From a single portal, administrators can quickly see attendance records or drill down into a student’s activities, helping the school notice trends and identify issues early. With this data, schools have a great opportunity for intervention in situations before they spiral out of control.
Implementing every proactive process and program available still won’t remove the need for physical security. Controlling and restricting access to buildings and campuses is an important safety measure.
Protecting students and staff requires schools to understand who is on campus at all times, and for what reasons. The right technology can automate much of the process of checking visitors in and validating their credentials. Integrations with your school’s information systems allows visitor data to be associated with a student, and for pertinent information to be displayed, such as ride authorizations or custody arrangements. Identities can also be compared in real time to known sex offender data, stopping potential predators at the school office door. Scannable name tags can be printed, making it easy to spot campus visitors without authorization.
Access issues may not always happen at manned entrances and exits while forcing everyone to enter and leave buildings at only a few access points can cause crowding and safety concerns. Unattended doors can be accessed controlled with chip cards, granting access only to those with proper authority to open them. Tracking is integrated into these automated security locks, making it quick to identify which student and staff members used which doors to access the building, and when.
However, concerns can exist if access is allowed from unmanned entrances. It’s not uncommon for someone to “hold the door” for another person, no matter how frequently student and staff are reminded that this is a breach of security. With mobile apps, a student or visitor’s credentials can be checked almost anywhere in the building, at any time. These apps can validate that a visitor has checked in at the office for building access, or record that a student is wandering the halls without permission.
School districts must juggle the need to keep students safe, keep them in class and engaged, implement the processes and systems to help them do that, and do it all with limited and sometimes shrinking budgets. Additionally, many districts must put solutions in place that can cooperate with aging, legacy systems or even existing, modern infrastructure.
With limited technical resources, schools must also make sure that integration with existing systems is quick and inexpensive. The right solution will layer over existing systems, preventing the need for data duplication or “chair turning” to see important information in multiple applications. A well designed administrative application can also automate state reporting, returning countless hours to staff who can spend their time on more important, student-centered activities.
Beyond solution implementation, there are other operational concerns. Once a system is in place, features like analytics must be easily available and user-friendly. Having a single viewport into attendance, visitor management, door access, and behavior management saves staff time. It also eliminates confusion, since staff and administrators only need to learn a single interface.
Parents, students, and community members want to be able to see the changes being made to improve the school experience. For some implementations, that’s easy. It’s easy to see door locks and key card access being installed.
Other, so-called “soft” changes, are less apparent but no less important. Changes to processes and procedures are the kinds of implementations that are hard to demonstrate. But they can be much more powerful in preventing issues. With the aid of behavioral data and analytics, support teams can provide services to those students in need. That same data, abstracted to show trends throughout the school and district ecosystem, can paint a picture for the community of how intervention at the student level has a positive effect at the macro level, across safety, attendance, and even graduation rates.
These soft changes require comprehensive tracking and analytics to prove their effectiveness to school boards and community members. Manual tracking would be fraught with errors and misreporting. But with a complete tracking and security system, the proof comes from the same system that provides the data to run these programs.