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Back to school, and staying there, in Kalkaska

Max Johnston

Michigan schools have one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the country -- that’s students that miss at least 10 percent of the school year.


However, Birch Street Elementary school in Kalkaska has found a way to keep kids in school by helping them inside and outside of the classroom.

The first week of school just finished at Birch Street. Attendance was high; only four students out of nearly 400 missed school.


Bryan Flory with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says that is a good sign.


His title is 'Success Coach,' someone who gets kids in school and tries to keep them there. Flory has to be a truancy officer and a social worker with some guidance counselor thrown in. He says on his first day in 2014, he was stunned at what he saw.


Empty desks and chairs.


“I just assumed that parents and children attended school on a regular basis,” Flory says. “I was shocked to see how the attendance rate was poor.”


Chronic absenteeism means a student missed at least 10 percent - or 18 days - of the school year. When Flory started at Birch Street the chronic absenteeism rate was 20 percent, nearly double the national average.


So the school was chosen for the state’s Pathways to Potential program. Through it, Health and Human Services puts success coaches like Flory in schools with poor attendance.


When he’s in the classroom Flory tries to make attendance more exciting for the students. He gives out “brag tags,” brightly colored badges that say “Welcome to School” or “Outstanding Attendance.” Students get them at the end of each month for not missing class.


Credit Max Johnston
Some of the "brag tags" that students can get for perfect attendance.

One brag tag in the shape of a paw fittingly says “Paw-some Attendance.”


“Every month that they receive a brag tag, their name is entered into a drawing,” Flory says. “At the end of the year we give away bikes and scooters and other little prizes.”


Birch Street has classes from preschool to third grade. Executive Director of Attendance Works Hedy Chang says attendance is critical at this early stage.


“Kids who are chronically absent in pre-K and [kindergarten] … are much less likely to be reading proficiently by the end of third grade,” Chang says.


Chang says elementary school attendance can have lasting effects. Research has shown that staying in class at an early age can affect a students tendency to hold down a job or commit a crime as an adult.


So for the first half of the week Flory is in the classroom helping students, for the other half he’s working with parents on everything outside of it.


“I do help families with daycare and Medicaid, food assistance, state emergency relief,” Flory says.


Flory says if money is tight, the last thing on a parent’s mind is school attendance.


That’s especially true in Kalkaska, where the median household income is half the national average. Lost manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages have hit the area hard. These struggles at home can trickle down to children in schools.


“They can’t heat their home or their electric’s going to get shut off,” Flory says. “That puts some stress on families and then children are sometimes not able to make it to school.”


Flory says this part of his job is social work.


For example, last year he noticed that one student was missing a lot of class. He found out their dad worked a full-time job, their mother was on bed rest and the student didn’t have a bus route to their house.


Credit Max Johnston
Flory meets with teachers, students and parents in his office at Birch Street

So Flory contacted the district and got a bus to pick the child up until their mother recovered. Hedy Chang says intervention like this in students’ lives can improve entire communities.


“The more you have an educated community, where people know the value of the schools, the easier it is to bring in better jobs,” Chang says.


Since 2014, Birch Street’s chronic absenteeism rate has dropped by almost 30 percent. That’s one of the largest decreases in the state.


Flory says there is still work to be done, but there is something different about the school: students are excited to be here.


“When we come in to the classrooms, everyone knows who we are,” Flory says. “They know that we’re going to reward them for their good attendance.”