A. Vito Martinez Middle School: Reducing Absenteeism by Increasing Engagement

A. Vito Martinez Middle School: Reducing Absenteeism by Increasing Engagement

Location: Romeoville, IL

Type of school: Public school

Grade levels: 6–8

Number of students: 671

 

Chronic absenteeism has been a major problem for schools ever since the COVID pandemic upended students’ learning in 2019–2020 and 2020–2021. According to research by the nonprofit initiative Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University, a staggering two-thirds of schools nationwide are currently dealing with this issue. (By contrast, in the 2017–2018 school year, only a quarter of schools were impacted by this problem.)

A. Vito Martinez Middle School was one of those schools struggling with absenteeism. Their 2020–2021 school year consisted of half a year of remote learning followed by half a year of hybrid learning. The next couple of years saw an increase in both absenteeism and associated behavior problems, including a troubling rash of acts of vandalism inspired by a social media trend. “We really, truly felt like we were in triage,” describes school principal Sarah DeDonato. “And when you’re in triage, you can’t be preventative. You can’t be proactive.”

For the 2023–2024 school year, DeDonato and her administrative team implemented an ambitious plan to improve students’ sense of belonging and create a positive culture and climate. As a result, the school’s absentee rate dipped to 17 percent, which, at four percentage points below the district average, was the lowest figure for a middle school in their district. Their behavior issues also decreased dramatically: the number of behavior referrals from 2022–2023 to 2023–2024 fell by almost 80 percent. 

Here’s how the Responsive Classroom approach helped A. Vito Martinez Middle School educators achieve these remarkable results.

A Holistic View

A. Vito Martinez educators were first introduced to the Responsive Classroom approach in 2018. DeDonato led book studies of The Power of Our Words for Middle School and Yardsticks to help educators improve their teacher language and better understand middle school students’ common developmental characteristics, respectively. Additionally, their district started sending a couple of educators from each school to the Responsive Classroom Middle School Core Course. But, according to DeDonato, “while that was awesome for those individual educators, we weren’t gaining traction as a universal system.”

That all changed in April of 2023 when DeDonato and her leadership team started using Kaleidoscope, an online tool that provides feedback on how effectively a school is implementing Responsive Classroom practices schoolwide. “It allowed us to see which areas in our building we were stronger in and which areas we wanted to focus on,” notes DeDonato. “When we started looking at our system as a whole, that’s when we saw the most growth.”

Schoolwide Expectations

Based on the feedback they received from Kaleidoscope, one of the first steps DeDonato and her staff took was to create universal expectations for classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, and the cafeteria. Educators taught these consistent, schoolwide rules throughout the first two weeks of school to give students a clear picture of what was expected of them in every area of the building. This shared understanding also made teachers feel more supported; now they could frame conversations about the rules as universal rather than specific to each teacher or classroom.

In a recent staff meeting, when DeDonato asked educators what they thought led to their success in addressing absenteeism and behavior issues, she remembers that a majority of her staff responded that “the growth was attributed to consistent expectations across the building.” The second most popular response? “Students seeing themselves represented in their school.”

Student Belonging

Because so much of middle school students’ work is digital, it was a unique challenge to publicly display student projects, but DeDonato made it a strategic priority to create a welcoming environment in which students felt accepted and appreciated. The displays have had an energizing effect. For DeDonato, “it’s been exciting walking through our halls and seeing all of these different student models of work that are no longer just behind [computers].” Students seem to think so, too, as evidenced by their newfound respect for the building and the fact that the vandalism issue has all but disappeared.

Advisory

To further support students’ sense of belonging and significance, A. Vito Martinez educators started leading Responsive Advisory Meetings at the beginning of the 2023–2024 school year. DeDonato prioritized the daily Advisory period by scheduling it right after first block rather than first thing in the morning so students wouldn’t be tempted to come to school late. For twenty minutes every morning, ten to fifteen students meet with a teacher they know from a different part of their school day. The teacher leads them through an arrival welcome, announcements, acknowledgments, and an activity, using ideas provided by a district-level support team that regularly incorporated teacher feedback. 

A consistent Advisory with a familiar routine has enriched the school experience for all participants: educators have appreciated the chance to get to know their students better, while students have responded enthusiastically to feeling seen and heard by a significant adult in their lives. DeDonato and her team have also found opportunities to embed additional learning into Responsive Advisory Meeting’s familiar structure. For example, at the beginning of the school year, students learned the school’s universal expectations during Advisory. Staff also regularly incorporate restorative circles into the Advisory structure to help students build community. Additionally, A. Vito Martinez staff use MTSS, or multi-tier system of supports, to give targeted support to struggling students; they use Advisory to meet the needs of students who are in Tier 2 and Tier 3 and need a small-group intervention and individualized support, respectively.

Best Practices

Restorative practices and MTSS are separate from the Responsive Classroom approach, but the different programs align philosophically and, in practice, can act as natural complements. This holistic view is an important part of DeDonato’s attitude toward professional development: she sees the Responsive Classroom approach as a natural extension of these programs and an opportunity to build on and refine what has already been successful. She advertises this to her staff as “best instructional practices that we just do because we know it’s good for kids”—a framing that increases teacher buy-in. “I consider Responsive Classroom to be best instructional practices,” she explains. 

The school’s educators and administrators find the “best instructional practices” framework inspiring because it captures current successes while also suggesting the possibility of continued improvement, which is exactly what Principal DeDonato wants. As A. Vito Martinez Middle School looks to build on the achievements of this year, she is sure of one thing: “We want to continue to evolve and grow.”