Anniston school officials want more students in class and plan to intensify a program it started last year to achieve that goal.

The program encourages students to attend class and helps parents get their children to school. The system  this year wants to focus more on reaching struggling parents and students earlier and develop community partnerships to further improve attendance.

The system's initiatives are similar to those recommended by a recent nationwide study that shows chronic absenteeism leads to poorer student performance and lower test scores. The study adds to years of research that links absenteeism to lower student achievement and graduation rates, education experts say.  

Anniston ended the last school year with an average of 95 percent daily student attendance. The same year ended with 81 percent of Anniston High School's seniors graduating — a 23 percentage-point increase from two years prior.

Yolanda McCants doesn't see that as a coincidence.

"It's a collaborative effort and I think attendance contributed to that," McCants said of the graduation rate.

McCants said the system's increased outreach regarding absenteeism is working, noting that it has had an average of 97 percent attendance for the first 20 days of school.

"This is possible with the help of all the elementary, middle and high school principals focusing on the same purpose," McCants said. "It's everybody understanding the importance of attendance so that every child reaches his or her full potential."

According to a report the San Francisco-based nonprofit Attendance Works released at the end of August, disparities in school attendance rates starting as early as preschool and kindergarten are contributing to achievement gaps in high school dropout rates across the U.S. The report is a state-by-state analysis that shows students who miss more school than their peers have lower national testing scores.

The report recommends several ways schools can improve attendance, from tracking individual attendance and absences to increasing parent engagement and public awareness and engaging in partnerships with community-based agencies.

McCants said the system tracks students’ absenteeism and follows up with their parents.

"We're now monitoring it monthly, every 20 days to see where we are and to see if we can identify excessive absences," McCants said.

She said the system has worked with various agencies and nonprofits to help increase attendance, such as Anniston-based Family Links, which provides training and other services for parents. Each school this year tailored the overall attendance program to fit its individual needs, McCants said.

McCants said the system sends staff to visit parents' homes and uses an automated call system that tells parents when their children are reported absent. The system started participating more last year in the early warning court program through juvenile probation services. McCants said 215 parents attended court last year. All students between 5 and 17 years old are required by state law to attend school, McCants said. Parents are warned they can be arrested for failing to keep their children in school.

"We're looking to decrease the number of parents in court this year because we feel they are more aware," McCants said. "We're trying to meet with those parents earlier to prevent them from going to court."

The report used results from the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress test, given every two years to a sample of fourth- and fifth-graders in all 50 states. It's mainly a math and reading test but it also questions students on how many days they missed from school in the month before the exam, usually given from late January to early March. The report defines poor attendance as missing three or more days in that period, regardless of if the absences were excused or not.

The report shows that fourth-grade students missing three or more days scored an average of 12 points lower on the reading assessment than those without absences. Alabama fourth-graders who missed three or more days did better than the national average, but still scored 10 points lower on the test than their peers with better attendance.

Alabama eighth-graders who missed more than three school days scored 17 points lower on average than students without absences, the report shows. The national average was 18 fewer points for eighth-graders with three or more absences.

Jessica Cardichon, senior director for policy and advocacy for Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington D.C.-based education policy advocacy organization, said previous research supports the new study that student achievement is tied to school attendance.

"Especially as students get older, academic disengagement becomes more of an issue because it's harder to jump back in and get up to speed," Cardichon said. "The longer you're away from school, the harder it is to engage."

Thomas Rains, policy director for the A+ Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved education policy in the state, said chronic absenteeism can be an issue for students and schools.

"If students aren't showing up for school, it makes it harder for them to learn," Rains said. "Making students feel welcomed and wanted in school and having teachers who care about them is critically important."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

Correction

An article in Sunday's edition of The Star incorrectly worded the percentage increase of Anniston High School's graduation rate over the last two years. The graduation rate has increased 23 percentage points from two years ago.