WATERLOO — Waterloo Community Schools’ officials have been trumpeting good news lately about the district’s highest-ever graduation rate and its much-improved showing on a statewide ratings system.
But they say future advancements may be limited if the district doesn’t figure out how to get more students through the school door on the first day of classes.
Nearly 9,200 students came to school Monday, the first day of classes, in kindergarten through 12th grade at the district’s 18 buildings. That was about 1,000 less than officials anticipate will eventually be enrolled based on past attendance and students already registered for classes after moving into the community. Officials don’t always know who will show up late, though, because some families also move away.
“We typically have 1,000 students that aren’t there on the first day,” Superintendent Jane Lindaman said in an interview earlier this week. “Last year, we were missing approximately the same number on the first day. We believe that the next level (of achievement) comes by attacking these historical barriers.”
Eventually, these students show up for school and are included in an official count done Oct. 1 every year. Last year, Waterloo Schools had 10,296 students as of that date. Lindaman believes enrollment will be “stable” based on that count.
District administrators emphasize, however, that missing even the first days of school can impact a child’s ability to succeed and excel.
“It affects the educational process. Every time a new student shows up, the teacher has to spend time catching that new student up,” said Marla Padget, executive director of students and at-risk services. “We just want (families) to understand the benefits of starting at the beginning.”
To that end, officials are going public with the on-time attendance problem in hopes of spurring more people to get their children to school sooner.
“In past years, Waterloo Schools has been reluctant to share our early enrollment numbers because it really would not be an accurate picture of what our enrollment count would be,” said Lindaman. “This year, we’re sharing the data earlier ... really in hopes that we can help people understand the complexity of our enrollment.”
Outreach has been underway since before the start of school through letters sent by principals and teachers. Some teachers even do home visits prior to the first day.
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Hundreds of children were registered Monday when their parents belatedly realized school was starting, most likely due to the appearance of buses and children on their streets ready for the first day.
School and district staff have been trying to contact those who didn’t show up – and are seeing some success. That includes efforts during the daytime and evening by family support workers and administrators at the buildings along with student services staff and district-wide administrators.
“We have people calling, they’re going to doors, they’re doing everything they can,” said Lindaman. “We are doing everything humanly possible to reach out.”
On Monday, “we had 400 kids that we were not sure about” at 11 elementaries because they didn’t come to school, she noted. As of Tuesday, the district had “decreased that number to 267 just by going door to door” and making calls. At the district’s four middle schools, about 300 students were unaccounted for plus another 400 at the three high schools.
A barrier that was keeping 71 seventh-graders out of school as of Tuesday was the need for the meningococcal vaccine, required by the state before starting classes. Other barriers that parents have told the schools are keeping their children from attending, which often correlate to a family’s poverty level, are that they haven’t purchased clothes or done their hair – and that they won’t be able to until Sept. 1.
However, “we can help them get what they need,” said Padget, through emergency funds available at the schools.
Classroom staffing across the district is typically in flux until about Labor Day, which is next Monday.
“We are planning to make some final staffing decisions on Friday,” said Lindaman. “The precarious situation for the district is we’re trying to make permanent decisions based on incomplete information.”
While a news story will raise awareness, it may not directly reach some of the families whose children have yet to show up at school. As a result, Lindaman said, “we’re asking for the support of neighbors, organizations, relatives, businesses” to alert those families.
“So, if you are a family that is paying attention, spread the word,” said Padget. “We have to get the word out in the community.”