Students lined up to get candy, soda and pizza in the Fremont Middle School cafeteria Thursday for a Halloween party that doubled as an attendance initiative.
Invitations to the seventh-period Halloween party were given only to students who had perfect attendance for the month of October — about 340 of the 750 enrolled students.
When asked what their favorite thing about the party was, eighth grader Asher Vredenburg said, “Hanging with friends,” while seventh grader Cianna Hines said, “Eating free food and getting free stuff.”
Both of those students said attending school is pretty normal, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for all students at the middle school.
Regular attendance at the school was 77% last year — below the state average of 80% — and chronic absenteeism was at 29%.
Students who attend more than 90% of their enrolled school days are counted as regular attendance, chronically absent students miss more than 10% of the school year — 18 days or more.
Lily Wilkins, who missed 30 days last year, was able to attend the Halloween party.
“I didn’t like missing school and I wanted to bump up my grades,” she said, adding that seventh grade was much better than sixth grade.
In addition to the party, yearbook and natural resources classes also keep her coming back to school.
This year, school staff is hoping to have a 96% attendance rate, which is tracked week-by-week.
School staff looked into the students who were chronically absent last year, missing between 18 and 30 days of school, and are working to collect data about why students are not attending school.
Assistant Principal Jake Hughes said the most important part was creating connections for the students, but the Halloween party has in some cases started that conversation.
“The monthly incentive isn’t going to change the overall problem, but the connections will,” Hughes said. “I have kids in the hallway, that I don’t typically talk to, come up to me and say, ‘Hey Mr. Hughes, I’ve got perfect attendance I’m going to be at the party.’ So all of sudden they’re seeking me out.”
School staff is also looking at upgrading its offering of extracurricular activities and seventh grade science teacher Samantha Weber is working to map out geographic areas with absenteeism to see if the school or the district can provide additional services.
“It’ll help narrow the focus of research and identify similarities and differences in the geographic areas where chronic absenteeism lives,” Hughes said. “We’re going to be able to see if there’s any barriers we’re not aware of and ways we can adjust the way we do things to try and combat some of that.”
Thursday’s party was an incentive for students to come to school every day in October, and the school plans to have similar events every month.
Matthew Tripp, an eighth grader, said he missed 18 days last year because his family took trips to Washington and he had a few sick days. Tripp said the party was nice, adding that he really liked the free food.
Students were able to fill a paper bag with candy from trick-or-treating around the cafeteria, have soda and eat pizza.
“The October party is creating quite a stir,” Turnaround Program Teacher Karen Howington said.
Hughes added that about a quarter of the students who were chronically absent last year received invitations to the Halloween party.
“We felt great about that,” Hughes said. “For me, that is something that emphasizes that this incentive right now is working, but it’s also important that that connection is still with that.”
Only students with perfect attendance were invited to the party, which meant that some students who had excused absences remained in the classroom Thursday.
“When you look at the information that we have, we have to do something about it,” Hughes said. “It’s not that I don’t understand that kids were sick, but that’s just the monthly goal. Each one of those kids that has come into my office has given me the opportunity to talk about the importance of attendance. It’s OK that you didn’t make it this month, it’s OK that things happen in life. Even though you have the best of intentions and you really wanted to be here you didn’t make it and next month is a next month.”