ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — Children can't learn if they are not in school, and right now, the superintendent of St. Lucie Public Schools calls attendance the biggest crisis facing educators.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has seen a big drop in students coming to school every day. That can impact everything from their social emotional health to their academic success.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education
A banner is now posted in the front office of every St. Lucie County public school.
At St. Lucie West Centennial High School, the daily average attendance on Thursday was 93%. The goal is to be above 90% every day of the school year.
Routines are important every day to get Centennial High School students to school and on time.
"They make it to high school and you think, they’ve got this. We’ll, they don’t always have it. They are still children. And we really want parents to follow up with their kids," assistant principal Susan Mannion said.
Mannion said attendance is a big focus right now for the Eagles. Last year, more than 1,000 students were considered "chronically absent," meaning at least 18 unexcused days.
"We have a lot of students who struggle with anxiety. And especially right after COVID, coming back to school to a large comprehensive high school of 2,700 students, they have anxiety with that," Mannion said.
The assistant principal added it's all about figuring out what's keeping kids out of school and providing solutions and incentives. They'll do raffles and give snacks in the car line to parents and student drivers.
"A few times at the back gate, they’ll give out stuff to people who are on time," student Timothy Stevens said.
"We can’t stop. We have to be very, very aggressive," said Superintendent Dr. Jon Prince of St. Lucie Public Schools.
Prince said attendance is a district-wide crisis, with COVID normalizing kids not coming to school. He added that numbers are looking better this year as educators address chronic absences sooner.
"We’re seeing an uptick in attendance, because if kids miss a few days in the week, we’re calling home, we’re sending letters, we’re bringing families in to sign attendance contracts," Prince said.
The superintendent said in middle and high schools, almost half of students missed 25 or more days last year.
"I think attendance right now and the lack of students attending regularly is the biggest crisis that educators are facing today," Prince said. "Because of COVID, it really normalized kids not coming to school, because when we pivoted to online learning, I think we also created a lot of bad habits."
For younger students, the challenges are different.
"When people talk about literacy, especially for our younger kids, kids missing school is literally impacting and effecting their lives, because they can’t learn to read if they’re not here," Prince said. "When kids aren’t coming to school and they are in elementary school, that’s not a kid problem. It’s a parent problem."
"Thank you for being here and we can't wait to see you tomorrow. That's what we say to all our kids," said Kathleen Melrose, the principal at Lakewood Park Elementary School in Fort Pierce.
At Lakewood Park, the strategies are different, but the mission remains the same.
"Keeping them here each and every day and seeing the importance of being here each and every day has been a challenge for sure," Melrose said.
Individual and class prizes for perfect attendance and daily check in and check out mentors for some students have been making a difference.
"They ask me, how’s my day and what I've been learning and stuff," student Zakiya Knight said.
No matter the age, school leaders said it's a joint effort between parents, students, and school leaders to keep everyone in class.
"Our goal is to make sure this is the best part of a child's day, each and every day," Melrose said.
St. Lucie Public Schools has more information and resources about attendance, which you can see by clicking here.