Rural Schools Tackle Attendance Issues at Spring Summit in Bangor

District and school administrators and educators from thirty-six districts and education entities in rural Maine convened at Jeff’s Catering in Bangor recently for the first ever Rural Maine Attendance Summit organized by RSU 74 Superintendent Mike Tracy. After looking at his own data submitted to the Maine Department of Education last spring, he found that some of the students in his district were out of school enough to be defined as chronically absent. In his efforts to be proactive about the issue, Tracy looked to available resources only to find that they were mostly geared towards urban school districts. That’s when he began working on plans for the rural attendance summit.

With the collective understanding that small rural school districts must approach things differently than bigger urban school districts, the summit aimed to help generate more tools, and allow for the exchanging of ideas regarding the growing issues that are keeping kids from accessing school in rural Maine.

The day long summit provided participants with the opportunity to hear from key note speakers, Emanuel Pariser from the MeANS school, and Britney Ray from Washington County’s TREE program – Transforming Rural Experiences in Education. Each speaker provided information and expertise about working with students and parents who may be experiencing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and/or childhood trauma. In addition, district officials could share specific issues in their own communities, collaborate on solutions that were working, and pose specific questions to a panel of experts.

Rural Maine School Districts with less than 1,000 students and other stakeholders were invited to attend. In addition to host district RSU 74, others in attendance were Goodwill Hinckley, MSAD 54, RSU 68, Otis School Department, RSU 93, RSU 89, AOS 94, RSU 73, MSAD 41, Snow Pond, RSU 84/MSAD 14, MSAD 37, Union 69, RSU 26, RSU 19, Medway, MSAD 20, RSU 25, Cornville, RSU 10, MSSA, Sunrise Country School, RSU 67, AOS 91, MSAD 59, MSAD 46, CSD 13, Athens, MSAD 70, ME Charter School, UMF, AOS 96, MSAD 30, AOS 90, and Calais.

Panelists included Martha Kempe, Head of Schools at Wayfinder Schools; Sue Reed, Maine DOE Early Childhood Specialist; Ashley Cirone and Laura Thomas, TREE Program Coaches; Catharine Biddle, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at UMaine and researcher for the TREE Program; and Susan Lieberman with Count ME. They fielded audience questions about strategies that involve parent and student voice, treatment options that may not typically be found schools, and ways to make school a priority for students and their families. Members of Maine DOE’s Data team were also on hand to answer questions about reporting requirements and to learn more about the needs of rural schools when reporting attendance data to the state.

The day included workshop time for attendees to meet with other districts and share ideas that were working in their schools, and closed with an opportunity for attendees to work with the people from their own district to work on a plan moving forward.

School officials left with various action plans that included strategies involving better outreach and partnerships with parents, home visits, team approaches and/or committee groups to research and take action, attendance awards and incentives, hiring on social workers and school resource officers, early-day or before school programing that kids won’t want to miss, and working more closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

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