Absentee numbers keep dropping at Randolph-Henry

Published 8:30 am Friday, May 10, 2024

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The projects are working. That’s the message Randolph-Henry High principal Erin Davis wants to highlight. More students are showing up for class, they’re sticking around to do homework and in general, cutting down on the chronic absenteeism problem. 

There was just one problem for Randolph-Henry High when looking at last year’s data. The grades were great, as were test scores overall, beating the state average in some cases. The dropout rate was lower and the graduation rate was improving. The only issue was chronic absenteeism, with 26.6% of students missing 10 days or more. 

Overall, the district took a different approach than those around it. In Prince Edward, school officials put up posters and had students make videos, warning of the dangers of being absent. Then in Buckingham, notes were sent home to parents. In Charlotte County, however, and specifically at Randolph-Henry, officials rewarded good behavior rather than just focus on the negative portion. And the numbers don’t lie. This way is working. 

“Chronic absenteeism is a hard battle,” Davis said. “I do think our incentives are becoming more popular and catching on, as we seem to be making gains every year.” 

The high school’s latest example came this past month, as students loaded up the buses on Tuesday, April 25. The rule was simple. Any student that maintained “exceptional attendance”, what is two or fewer absences, got two things. First, a ticket to the Durham Bulls AAA minor league baseball game. Second, they got a boxed lunch to eat at the game. And out of that group, four students had their names drawn, receiving $25 each to spend in the team’s gift shop. 

Last year when Randolph-Henry staff tried this, only 60 kids qualified. This time around, the group took an estimated 100, nearly doubling the number. 

“That is a large gain in just one year,” Davis said. “Attendance is crucial to academic success and we are thrilled to reward our students for their dedication to regular attendance.” 


But it’s not just about incentives. Part of it involves making sure students have what they need at school. The goal is to eliminate any obstacles to success. 

“We offer a free breakfast and lunch to all students, stock a student supply cart in the halls, maintain a Statesmen Care program for hygiene items in the restrooms, and keep a student success clothes closet on site for students who need clothes,” Davis said. “(Also), seniors who need to work during the school day may qualify for a work release program or a student internship.” 

That’s something the state task force looking into chronic absenteeism found as well. If you provide free meals, and give students the things many of them may be lacking at home, those schools have seen a reduction of absenteeism by 6%. This program helps reduce the stigma of hunger and provides a need for students. This guarantees at least two of the three daily meals. 

But the incentives do help. If a student has two or fewer absences during a grading period, there are different benefits. In October, for example, students who qualified were invited to an outdoor movie night on the front lawn of the school, with free pizza and popcorn. In December, students that qualified got a special lunch, catered by the Fishin’ Pig, accompanied by live music and some games in the gym. 


Overall, making these connections between improving students’ overall mental health seems to have the biggest impact. A study from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) shows mental health is the main issue across the state. More than 50% of all Virginia middle school students and two-thirds of high school students said they’re constantly nervous, anxious or on edge. Ten percent of middle school students in Virginia and 13% of high school students said they considered suicide in the last year. 

Part of that has to do with the pandemic, the data showed. Some students have been concerned with, and struggling to adapt to a return to normal. In some areas, a concern over potential gun violence has students on edge. And then, in places like Lunenburg, part of the problem is a family situation. Some families in Charlotte County, for example, either have just one car or no vehicle at all. That causes a problem when a student misses the bus or doesn’t live near a bus route. If their parents or guardians can’t take them before going to work, these students miss class, increasing their anxiety. It also grows the chronic absenteeism rate, which is defined as missing 18 days per school year, equating to two days per month. 

But when given positive incentives, rather than just warning what will happen if they miss school, it’s been motivating students to get up on time, to give them something to focus on and work towards.