Joshua Williams didn't like school.
For him, absence from Anniston High School was a common occurrence. His chances of graduating on time or even graduating at all were slim.
In October, however, his chances improved. Williams entered a new program to help Anniston High students with chronic absences stay in school.
Williams had perfect attendance during the past school year.
"I really wanted to help myself for real," said Williams, 17, who will be a senior this fall and the drum major for the high school marching band. "I started to see how missing school was keeping me in trouble."
The program, called TEAM Believe, was just the beginning of a larger Anniston school system initiative to curb absenteeism. The system is planning a year-long program, beginning with a community summit meeting Thursday, that will include education for students and parents on the importance of attendance, incentive initiatives at every school to encourage students to attend class and better attendance monitoring of the entire district. It's an all-out assault on chronic absenteeism, which school officials and education experts say is a major cause of lower graduation and higher dropout rates.
"What we're trying to do is take a proactive step," said Darren Douthitt, Anniston schools superintendent. "Anyone not paying attention to attendance is asking for dropout problems."
Yolanda McCants, Anniston school improvement coordinator and organizer of the attendance program, said the year-long event will feature multiple components. The summit, set for 5 p.m. Thursday at Anniston High, will offer students and parents information on why attendance is important and ways to achieve better attendance goals.
"We have collaborated with different resources in the city to pull in and show we're all in support of students staying in school," McCants said.
Those resources include juvenile probation officers, Gadsden State Community College, the Calhoun County Health Department and even Sarrell Dental Clinic in Anniston.
"They will share information on the programs they offer, like teeth cleanings after school hours," McCants said. "We want to make sure kids stay in school."
McCants said posters promoting school attendance have already been placed in areas throughout the city where students will likely see them, such as the Carver Center. More posters will be placed in the schools and fliers will be distributed among the community explaining the importance of attendance.
Also, each school will be tasked with developing individual initiative programs to encourage students to come to class, McCants said.
"For example, students can earn coupons for tangible and non-tangible awards," McCants said.
McCants said that while the school system has 95 percent average daily attendance, that figure can be misleading and does not indicate how many students are chronically absent.
"We can have 95 percent average daily attendance and still have 25 percent of students who are chronically absent," McCants said. "This is just an effort to identify those students with excessive absences, whether excused or unexcused."
All the while, the school system's central office will be monitoring each school and keeping better track of attendance, McCants said. By doing so, the hope is to help more students graduate, she said.
"We want to improve graduation rates and decrease dropout rates, but we just thought we would make it fun," McCants said.
The Anniston school system has struggled to improve its graduation rate for years. Anniston High had a 58 percent graduation rate in 2013, the lowest in the county. The state average graduation rate was 80 percent for the same year.
Jessica Cardichon, senior director for policy and advocacy for Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington D.C.-based education policy advocacy organization, said chronic absenteeism is one of the main causes of lower graduation rates across the country.
"It's a perpetual cycle — the more time you spend outside the classroom, the further you fall behind and that can put you off track to graduation," Cardichon said.
Cardichon also said that the average daily attendance that schools normally follow and report don't show the problem of chronic attendance.
"You can have 90 percent daily average attendance each day, but that doesn't mean you don't have chronic absence every day," she said. "That's because different students can be absent on different days."
Kay Atchison-Warfield, a graduation success and dropout prevention administrator with the Alabama Department of Education, said chronic absenteeism is a major contributor to lower graduation rates in the state.
"Chronic absenteeism is the number one indicator in the state for students not completing graduation on time or not completing school at all," Atchison-Warfield said. "All the research supports that absenteeism plays a major role in students' ability to graduate."
Thomas Rains, policy director for the A+ Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved education policy in the state, said there are several things school systems can do to improve attendance and therefore graduation rates.
"You identify students early on that are at risk of dropping out. You can even go back as far as sixth grade," Rains said.
Cardichon said she agreed that schools should start looking for warning signs early, around middle school.
"And they should track absenteeism accurately," Cardichon said. "A lot of schools don't look at chronic absenteeism."
Atchison-Warfield said more active engagement can also help increase attendance rates.
"Active engagement in the classrooms and the different consequences of being absent ... and conversations with parents and the community," she said.
It was active engagement that helped Anniston High student Cierra Vincent graduate last year; it’s what the administrators hope to repeat throughout the system this coming school year. After having a son, Vincent found it difficult to attend school every day.
"I remember when I missed weeks of school," Vincent said.
However, the school's TEAM Believe program helped her get back on track. Through the program, Vincent worked hard during school hours to make up the classwork she had missed. She graduated on time, earned a scholarship to Gadsden State Community College, and is now considering joining the Navy or Army as a way to have a better life for herself and her son.
"I thought it wouldn't help but it actually helped a lot," Vincent said of the school program.