Above: Melrose Avenue Elementary Principal Mathew Needleman awards attendance prizes during monthly visits to every classroom.

When the students in Christine Hann’s kindergarten class saw their principal walking in the door this week, they were overcome with excitement as they waited to see who would win this month’s prize. The topic? Good attendance.

Since taking the helm at Melrose Avenue Elementary Math/Science/Technology Magnet, Principal Mathew Needleman and his team have made improving attendance one of their top priorities. And with a range of strategies, they are seeing results.

Melrose kindergartners, from left, Idan Schmeidler, Darien Perez and Garid Otgonsaikhan proudly show off the pencils they won for coming to school every day in December.

“Our efforts to improve attendance have been working,” Needleman said. “Making an effort to engage the faculty, families and students in ongoing conversations about attendance makes a major difference. We’ve seen that here at Melrose.”

Discussions about improving attendance are taking place across L.A. Unified as District leaders focus on strategies to ensure that students are in school every day. The new tagline #AttendanceMatters reflects data showing that good attendance in early grades is a strong indicator of long-range academic success.

“It really comes down to a two-pronged strategy,” Needleman said. “First, you need to get all students aware and excited about improving their own attendance. We’ve found that introducing incentives and ongoing activities helps achieve this. Then, there is the issue of chronic absenteeism. We’ve made efforts to invest our resources as best we can to tackle that complex issue.”

During regular classroom visits, Needleman reminds students why attendance is important and then awards a prize to kids who had perfect attendance the previous month.

During this week’s visit to Hann’s class, Needleman handed a new pencil to most of the students as a reward for perfect attendance in December.

“You all did an especially good job,” Needleman said, smiling as he called each student by name and handed them their prize. “The holidays are a busy time, and so it’s that much more important to make sure you come to school every day.”

The students cheered one another as they added their new pencils to their treasure chests of awards.

In addition to the monthly awards, students with perfect attendance get the chance to enter contests for bigger prizes. Although it takes a little extra time, effort and money to make it happen, Needleman said, it pays off in significant dividends.

Melrose has seen a steady rise in average attendance in recent years. Now midway through the 2017-18 year, average cumulative attendance – the number of days attended out of total instructional days thus far – is almost 98 percent, two percentage points higher than at this time last year.

Tackling the matter of chronic absenteeism – when students miss 10 percent or more of school days – takes a little more effort, Needleman says.

He credits Miriam Arato, who teaches kindergarten and first grade at Melrose, with playing a major role in finding effective solutions.

“In my years of teaching, I began to notice certain students who were missing a lot of school days,” Arato said. “These are perfectly good kids, and I became concerned about why they would be missing so much school. It motivated me to look for answers.”

Arato took it upon herself to study the tools available to schools when students were chronically absent. She then worked with Needleman and others to find ways of using those processes to combat the problem.

Melrose teacher Miriam Arato was concerned about chronically absent students in her class and decided to take action.

“When students are chronically absent, it triggers meetings with the parents and signing attendance agreements that restricts their ability to excuse absences,” she said. “We wanted everyone involved to understand we weren’t just doing this because we had to. We did it because we genuinely cared about what happens with the kids.”

Arato said the key was to go beyond what the law requires, spending extra time as needed with families to understand what kind of unique situations at home may be factoring into a student’s absences and then offering any support necessary.

Needleman – who attends every parent meeting – said the key is helping families understand how attendance affects academic performance.

“Making the connection between attendance achievement is what sells it,” he said. “What I do is invite parents to sit with me and go over their child’s cumulative records. We’ll see that when students aren’t in class, their grades in core subjects tend to dip. When they see that, it clicks.”

The fact that Melrose is a magnet school adds another element in that many students travel long distances to get to school every day.

“We set expectations early on,” said the school’s magnet coordinator, Stacy Bertuccelli. “We point out to prospective families and at orientations that transportation and time management are that much more important, because students need to be here on time every day.”

The fact that Melrose is an elementary school makes it that much more important to talk about attendance, Arato added.

“If a student doesn’t learn good habits in the early years, then what is the incentive to stay in school in high school?” she said. “So, we work hard to raise everyone’s awareness and help them take ownership however we can. And, we’re doing well…so many of our kindergartners are showing perfect attendance this year.”

Arato helped launch an effort last year to provide weekly notifications to every parent about students’ attendance progress.

“At first it was a little rocky, as we received a lot of questions about why there were so many emails and letters,” she said. “This year, it’s going a lot more smoothly. We’ve got everyone talking about attendance and have woven it into the cultural fabric of our school. Students, teachers and families all know that here at Melrose, we care about attendance.”

The cultural shift has translated into a drop in chronic absenteeism at the school. Now halfway through the year, the percentage of chronically absent students is at 3.9 percent, a drop of nearly 4 percentage points since this time last year. And, given the back-to-school push to increase awareness of attendance, Melrose is doing precisely what District leaders are urging schools to do.

Needleman says that whether it’s strategizing in faculty meetings, incentivizing students or conferencing with families, it all comes down to a common element.

“You let others know you are paying attention,” he said. “Whether it’s a big problem or a small one, working with those who can make a difference all begins with letting them know you’re concerned and there are things you can do together to create change.

Needleman and the school’s team show no signs of letting up on their efforts any time soon. They are constantly brainstorming new ways to keep the conversation alive and the numbers moving in the right directions.

“You have to keep people interested,” he said. “You have to create a sense of ownership among employees, to keep the kids excited about coming to school and to help families understand the importance of ensuring good attendance. It all starts with letting them know that you are paying attention and that it matters to everyone involved. That’s always step one on the road to achievement.”