Todd Beamer's Saturday School reduces unexcused absences by 70 percent

Keith Wheeler has found a way to keep students in class.

The principal at Todd Beamer High School's School of Global Leadership and Economics has brought in an old standard to get new results: Saturday School.

Wheeler said the staff saw a concerning problem at the beginning of the year: A large number of students with multiple unexcused absences and tardies.

So the staff worked out a plan and, starting last October, instituted Saturday School.

"We took a hard stance," Wheeler said. "The first step was to educate students."

So educate they did. No student could get away with saying they didn't know about the policy change. Wheeler sent letters and messages via ConnectEd, the district's automated phone system.

Now if students have an excused absence or tardy, the teacher can either work out something with the student, or that student can be sent to Saturday School.

The change caused quite a stir at first.

"At the beginning, they damned it," Wheeler said. "I was the spawn of anything negative. But now if you ask any student what the consequence is (for absences or tardies), they will tell you."

Students weren't the only ones upset about the change.

"For the first week, my phone wouldn't stop ringing," Wheeler said.

Many parents felt that their student's actions weren't deserving of Saturday School. However, Wheeler stuck firm. All of the research shows that for students to succeed, they must be present in their classes, he said.

By the first of November, the calls started dying down. By the second week, there were no calls.

And the program was working. By the end of October, Wheeler said the tardies and unexcused absences were down about 70 percent each.

In December, those numbers dipped slightly, about 5 percent. That is still down from the beginning of the year, and for schools, December is notoriously hard to keep students in attendance, Wheeler said.

Saturday School

Students who get caught skipping classes or dawdling in the halls can now expect to experience the joys of Saturday School. However, this isn't the study hall or all-day boredom as seen in the film "The Breakfast Club."

The school runs from 8 to 10 a.m. and is set up similar to a regular class period.

Students are given some one-on-one time, discussing their infraction so they understand.

During the session, there are no electronics allowed. Electronic items such as cell phones are all collected at the beginning of the day.

First, the students must write a first draft of a reflection on what they did.

Students are also given a quiz on student conduct and the rules of the academy. Students must get a 90 percent to pass and leave.

The biggest part of the school is the essay. Students must write the first draft at the school on the topic: "How I can improve the quality of my education by making better choices on a daily basis?"

Students can spend the remainder of the time catching up on homework.

"They dread it, they hate it, it's like the black plague," Wheeler said.

Saturday School doesn't end at 10 a.m., either. Students must also turn in a second final draft of their essay the following Friday to Wheeler, along with a daily progress report from their teachers that has a yes/no section for teachers to fill out. The report tracks their homework completion, class participation, attitude with other students and teachers, attendance, tardies and progress in class.

"We're really seeing student reflection," Wheeler said of the five paragraph essays. "Do we have repeat offenders? Absolutely. But now it's beginning to become an institutional memory."

These days, Wheeler gets calls from parents asking why their student isn't in Saturday School.

When parents get the automated ConnectEd call that their student was absent or tardy, they want to know why the student wasn't sent to Saturday School. Parents sometimes tell Wheeler that their student needed it.

The work isn't done.

As second semester moves along, staff is seeing the number of absences and tardies creep back up. They know that just means they have to tweak the system a bit.

"What we get out of it will be measured by the effort we put into it," Wheeler said.

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