Seeking to cut down on the number of student absences, the Omaha school district is turning to an old-fashioned solution: a report mailed home to parents.

The old-school report to be delivered to mailboxes later this spring is backed by behavioral science and spun out of a lab at the Harvard Kennedy School.

It will tell parents and guardians of frequently absent Omaha Public Schools students how many days their student has missed and how that compares to the student’s peers.

The company behind the reports, In Class Today, said research shows that parents and guardians underestimate their students’ total absences and the value of attendance and believe their students’ attendance rates are average or better than average.

The reports to parents and guardians target those misconceptions by putting the absences into context and trying to spur action to prevent future absences, according to information about In Class Today given to the school board.

Research has shown that the mailed letters are more likely to reach people because the U.S. Postal Service can forward mail to new addresses when people move. It has also shown that parents often save such reports.

The mailed reports are part of a bigger push by OPS officials to reduce absenteeism within the district.

The district will also start providing attendance report cards to go along with normal report cards, said Lisa Utterback, executive director of student and community services for OPS.

Utterback said there’s never one specific reason for students missing school.

“But we know first and foremost it boils down to awareness,” she said.

Utterback said that when she talks to parents, she can tell that they really care about and value education, but often they don’t understand how a student missing one or two days a month can impede a student’s academic growth. She pointed to studies showing that poor attendance in sixth grade is an indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

With a goal of reducing absenteeism by 10 to 15 percent, the reports will be sent to 8,100 households in the 2019 spring semester and expand to 16,200 households in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

Utterback noted that In Class Today has been tested in other school districts. She said that when it was used in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Mateo, California, chronic absenteeism rates decreased by 11 to 15 percent.

In Class Today is starting with 29 OPS schools and will be expanded districtwide next school year.

The three-year contract with In Class Today will be paid for with grant funding. The school board approved the contract last month.

Rethinking the way OPS approaches attendance and absenteeism was one of Superintendent Cheryl Logan’s top three priorities for the district.

When Logan took over last year, she said OPS schools had largely been judged by their daily attendance rate — the percentage of students who show up each day.

But with that, Logan said a lot of things are missed, including individual kids.

The district is now focused on a 95 percent attendance rate for each student — making sure they don’t miss more than nine days of school.

The “Strive for 95” message is on posters, shared on social media and shared by community groups that work with the school district.

Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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