Walla Walla elementary and middle schools are using attendance boards to showcase success rates in getting students to their classes. This one reflected Garrison Middle School’s numbers on Sept. 12.

Student absenteeism, continues to be a problem in Walla Walla schools, an issue that’s echoed across the nation.

Board members of Walla Walla Public Schools received a progress report last Tuesday indicating growth in five of the six areas targeted by the district’s strategic plan.

WWPS spokesman Mark Higgins said elementary and middle school principals presented at the board meeting as part of an accountability component of the 2017-2022 strategic plan implemented to improve student performance.

“Schools are using a monitoring tool referred to as a ‘dashboard’ to log and track data linked to the ‘Student Performance Success Targets,’” he said.

The dashboard metrics are used in each school to measure and track many areas of education, at a level the board does not typically hear about. By spending about two hours in the Oct. 2 study session with area principals, board members were able dive deep into school-by-school data, including who is coming to school and who is not, Superintendent Wade Smith said.

The information showed an overall 83 percent districtwide attendance rate, according to the most recent numbers, said Chris Gardea, assistant superintendent.

The district has taken several proactive steps this fall to curb the current attendance trend, Smith pointed out.

“We’re doing a lot of good stuff around attendance, as it is one of district’s strategic initiatives to reach 90 percent attendance, district wide, by 2021-2022,” he said.

This year, school entrances feature highly visible daily attendance signs, intended to bring awareness to absenteeism. Parent meetings are scheduled for an elementary schoolchild who has 10 absences in a year or five in a month.

As well, schools are having classroom celebrations and competitions to reward kids and motivate regular attendance, Smith said.

The district has also re-established community truancy boards and is sending out weekly attendance and grade reports.

Getting kids to their classrooms is far more than a number on a white board, experts say.

“Every absence, excused or unexcused, is a learning opportunity lost and can have significant impacts on a student’s success in school and life,” according to Washington state’s education department.

A student who misses even 10 percent of their school days — which can mean as few as two days a month — are considered chronically absent. Such kids are more likely to fall behind academically and are less likely to graduate from high school, noted the state’s Office of Public Instruction.

Walla Walla Public Schools board President Derek Sarley said this district is making a deal with parents.

“‘You get your kids to school, and we’ll stop at nothing to teach them what they need to learn,’” Sarley said today. “We have to keep up our side of the bargain, too.”

Smith predicted the district’s efforts around attendance will reverse the trend, even as there is a lot of work to be done on this and other strategic goals to produce sought-after graduates, he told staff in an email.

And their work is paying off, he said, listing timely interventions that are reversing what were decadelong flat or declining trends in language arts and math. In addition, investments in curriculum, technology, improved monitoring assessments, social-emotional-behavior supports and student-engagement strategies, are all showing positive outcomes.

“Referrals are way down, student involvement is way up, and we have a better understanding of the learning gaps and rigor that is required from our students than ever before,” Smith said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.