Sometimes, a simple operating norm can change the behavior of children and adults in a school community. On the east side of Cleveland this fall, principal Rachael Dengler has discovered that having eighth graders calculate daily attendance and tardy rates and post them at the car line can not only provoke cheers and a symphony of car horns, but it can catalyze the formation of school culture and vibrant community life.
Mrs. Dengler decided to start the new year by committing to daily operating norms that reflect the root beliefs of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School. Her team has implemented several new actions aligned with their beliefs, but one has captured the imagination of the entire community: the daily posting of attendance and on-time rates in the afternoon car line.
“At St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School, we believe that we are always learning. And when it comes to student learning, we believe that every minute matters.” Ms. Dengler introduced the belief to her team at the beginning of the year, and pointed to the language in the family handbook that she wanted to find a way to operationalize. The handbook states:
“To optimize our children’s learning, they must attend class, on time, every day, whenever possible…Being late to school interferes with our children’s progress in school and also disrupts teaching and learning for other students. Parent support in ensuring on-time arrival is critical.”
They borrowed a norm they had heard about from Jess Aybar, a Partnership School principal at St. Athanasius in the Bronx. Every afternoon, the office team would send the day’s attendance and tardy numbers to the eighth grade math class. The eighth graders would calculate the attendance and on-time rate together and print the daily rates on a white board, along with the root belief that explains why these numbers are important. Right before dismissal, the eighth graders would carry the white board out to the front of the car line. The hope: tardy parents might try to arrive earlier, and the parents of absent students might be less inclined to keep students home if all are aware of the rates.
When the eighth graders began putting the sign out at the end of August, daily attendance was in the low 80s. It began ticking up immediately, about one percent per day, for about two weeks. Tardies dropped quickly, and have been consistently in the low- to mid-90s. At the end of the fourth week of school, the on-time rate hit its highest point yet: 96 percent—though attendance dropped unexpectedly that same day, down to 85 percent after a streak of days over 90 percent.
When the sign comes out, if the number is higher than the day before, parents cheer and honk their horns. When attendance reached a new high point last week, Ms. Bayon, mother of fourth grader Hindolo, shouted to Mrs. Dengler from her car, “If it weren’t for COVID I’d give you a high five right now! Congratulations!”
Lavelle, a second grader, saw the eighth graders carrying the sign down the stairs and asked if he could carry it out one day. His mom is always at the front of the car line, and he had seen how excited the parents get when the eighth graders have gains to share. He got energized about the prospect of being the bearer of good news.
But Lavelle’s hopes were quickly dashed. “Nope,” said Ah’Vaeya, an 8th grader. “You’ve got to be an eighth grader to carry this sign out.” In just two weeks, the attendance rate sign had become one a central symbol of seniority in this 121-year-old school.
In the first week of September, Christian, a fourth grader, asked Mrs. Dengler, “What’s the big deal with this anyway?” She explained to him: “It’s a very big deal to all of us that you’re here everyday. It’s really important for you and all your friends to be here, and to be on time, so you can learn as much as possible. And we want you to know that we miss you when you aren’t here.”
Parents have started to gather around the spot where the sign is placed. Returning families are introducing themselves to new families, and Mrs. Dengler hears them getting to know each other and making plans to get their kids together outside school. In the past, parents stayed in their cars and waited for students to come to the cars, but the sign has created a gathering spot and a conversation catalyst. New friendships are forming through these conversations, and yet another St. Thomas root belief—“we are better together”—is coming to life around the attendance board.
Students have begun to internalize the numbers—celebrating increases and even taking declines personally. As the eighth graders worked the math and realized attendance had dropped to 85 percent in week four, groans began to erupt. Outside the room, Mrs. Dengler heard outbursts from students as they raced to calculate the day’s rates.
“Where is everybody?”
“We’ve got to do better!”
“Whoa, hey! Check it out – anybody else do the tardy rate yet?”
“It’s a new record!”
Then, they burst out with pride, jumping out of their seats, eager to get the new stats on the board and out to show the parents.
The board has quickly transformed from a tool that enacts a policy to a full-blown culture carrier at St. Thomas. It is part of a ritual that communicates how well we live out one of our root beliefs—that we are always learning, so every minute matters. The daily ritual of counting and communicating something important to us has given rise to new friendships, stronger community, and care for other people’s children—all manifestations of another deeply held conviction: that we are better together. The daily effort to compete with yesterday’s results has created a sense of joyful teamship, which just makes everyone want to be together even more. The original goal is being achieved—more students are in school, on time, and students are receiving more high quality instruction—but the school’s culture is being transformed too. Students have become invested in each others’ presence, and their sense of urgency for instruction is emerging. As their parents gather around the whiteboard, and they celebrate the daily act of other people’s children showing up for school, they are getting to know each other and each other’s kids, and deepening their sense of community and family, child by child.