RADFORD, Va. – There's a new addition to the accreditation criteria for schools across Virginia. New this year, attendance is now part of the formula. In addition to things like SOL test results and graduation rates, this means if you take your kids out of school for vacation, you could be part of the problem and cause a school not to be accredited.
"Everyone wants their school accredited because we do know student achievement, school accreditation impacts the overall community," said Dr. Bernice Cobbs, the Benjamin Franklin Middle School campus principal.
Radford City Schools has one school missing the mark, but it is trying to new strategies to increase attendance.
Cesar Morales was failing geometry. Struggling in math, he also struggled to get to school.
"I just didn't care. I was like, 'School is dumb. I don't really need it,'" said Morales, a senior at Radford High School.
But once he started working with Frank Taylor, that all changed.
"Sometimes I'm a tutor, sometimes I'm a mentor, sometimes I'm a person to hold someone accountable," said Taylor, whose official title is Radford High School graduation coach.
He works with students who are absent a lot, helping them overcome obstacles and get to school on time. Taylor also works with students falling behind on school work or failing classes.
"The most important thing that I do that leads to student success is building relationships with them," said Taylor.
"He's able to take the students who have difficulties and challenges and take them on hikes, take them to his farm, take them out to dinner and build a relationship so that they want to come to school," said Rob Graham, Radford City Schools Superintendent.
Graham says it's just one of the ways the school district is trying to battle chronic absenteeism. The Virginia Department of Education defines that as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, regardless of the reason.
"It's probably one of the factors in a student's education that hinders them the most," said Graham.
Another program is night school. Students who have missed too much school, been suspended or need extra support come to school from 3:30 to 7 p.m.
"Nobody really talks about how out of school suspension really impacts a student's education, and it does because they are out of the classroom, they are missing a lot of instruction from the teacher," said Graham. "They get back into class and they don't have to make up work, they are ready to go from where they left off."
But there are positive programs in place too.
"I think it's pretty important to be at school all the time," said Lillee Hurst, a seventh grade student.
The day we were there, she was part of a group of students getting out of class to eat doughnuts because they didn't miss any class last quarter.
"This is actually my first year with having perfect attendance. I had a couple tardies last year," said Hurst. "It makes want to come to school so then I can celebrate with all my friends."
The Superintendent's Challenge rewards students who don't miss any class — that includes coming to school late or leaving early, even for doctors' appointments.
"I think this shows they actually care about attendance and want us to come to school," said Andrew Mann, a Radford senior.
But there's one catch with all of these programs in Radford. They aren't free.
"It is frustrating, it is frustrating. I'm not privy as to what the mandates are put in place for. I do think they are put in place in the best interest of students, but it does make it very hard for local school divisions who have a set budget to go outside of that budget and make those mandates," said Graham.
The Department of Education is putting more emphasis on attendance for schools to be accredited.
But Radford is spending about $60,000 on just a graduation coach and night school. Businesses in the community have helped with the first two Superintendent's Challenge parties. Savory and Sweet helped provide the doughnuts in January.
"We tried not to cut where it will impact student achievement, and I think in Radford city, we do a really good job of that," said Graham, who added the programs are paying off, with one of the highest on-time graduation rates in Virginia at about 98 percent last year.
Students like Morales are seeing the results, too.
"Once I started working with Mr. Taylor this year, he gave me a boost of confidence to gain courage to come to school and work more in class, pay attention, because I was not caring," said Morales.
The superintendent says they plan to continue the programs. If they have to make cuts, they try to cut things like certain computer software that doesn't make a big difference for students.