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Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common

A surge in students’ chronic absenteeism since the return to in-person classes hasn’t discriminated, threatening academic recovery in schools of all sizes and demographic makeups across the country.

But schools that are finding success in combating the problem tend to have at least one thing in common: They’ve leveraged help from outside of school, including community groups, families, and political leaders.

President Joe Biden’s administration on May 15 stepped up a call for communities across the country to “cultivate a culture of attendance” and make it clear that students need to be in school to learn and develop important academic and social skills.

“This is a very crucial moment for academic recovery, so we need all hands on deck to make sure that we’re getting students fully engaged … to attend school every day,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said at a White House event held to highlight approaches to fighting chronic absenteeism and new policy steps from the Biden administration to support those approaches.

The importance of community partnerships was a recurring theme of the May 15 event, which was called the Every Day Counts Summit and featured school district leaders, education advocates, and state officials discussing how communities can best address chronic absenteeism—and why it matters.

More than 1 in 4 students nationwide were chronically absent—missing at least 10 percent of school days—during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, according to an analysis of federal data conducted by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and Attendance Works. Those figures represented a marked increase over pre-pandemic levels.

Chronic absences have profound impacts on students who miss classes, affecting their grades, connectedness to their peers and school community, and chances of completing high school. When chronic absences reach high levels, the classroom churn makes it harder for teachers to set classroom norms and teach, and harder for students to learn even when they show up every day. Chronic absenteeism can also be self-perpetuating, as research has shown that student absences can make peers more likely to miss school, and absences have contributed to national declines in math and reading in recent years.

To help more states and districts take collaborative approaches to boost attendance, Cardona announced a handful of new partnerships and resources at the event, saying the country’s students “cannot afford to normalize” high rates of chronic absences.

Among the resources touted by Cardona were $250 million in grant funding for learning acceleration, which can include measures to fight absenteeism; a “toolkit” for districts to use to communicate with families about the importance of attending school, which will be available by the fall; and a new partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics that will encourage pediatricians to provide resources to parents explaining when it is appropriate to keep children home from school, tips for addressing school avoidance, and guidance on preparing for the start of a new school year.

Putting plans into action

Although strong messaging campaigns can be effective, driving down students’ absences will take much more, speakers said during the event.

In Connecticut, statewide absenteeism rates more than doubled during the pandemic, from 12 percent to about 25 percent, according to Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat.

The most successful approach districts in the state have used has been old-school door-knocking campaigns, through which thousands of volunteers—teachers, superintendents, student leaders, and others—knocked on the doors of families of students missing school and said, “We miss you and want you back–how can we make that happen?” Lamont said.

Every family had a story to tell about why their children were absent—a teenager got a part-time job to help pay the family’s bills, a mom needed her daughter to help translate at doctor’s appointments, a child was nervous about bullying.

Districts worked to address each individual situation, providing as many solutions as possible and referring families to outside organizations for assistance they couldn’t provide (such as for housing and counseling).

The model, Lamont said, proves that “schools can’t do this alone.”

The barriers families face

The reasons students are chronically absent generally fall into four main categories, said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

  • Barriers: These can include challenges such as older students having to care for younger siblings or take jobs, and a lack of transportation to school.
  • Aversion: When students don’t want to go to school due to factors like social anxiety, which has been increasingly true for students who took online classes during key developmental or transition years (from elementary to middle school or middle to high school, for example).
  • Disengagement: When students lack a connection to peers and adults at school, or don’t understand how coursework is relevant.
  • Misconceptions: These reasons can include assumptions among parents that students should be kept at home for even minor illnesses or a perception that in-person classes aren’t all that important because students can make up work later.

Every community is different, Balfanz said, and district leaders need to understand their community’s individual needs to make meaningful progress in fighting absenteeism.

Then, districts must adjust staffing and resources to respond to those needs, instead of continuing to rely on “pre-pandemic norms” that are outdated and leave schools “underpowered.”

There is no silver bullet solution, but if school and district leaders are looking for a good place to start, making efforts to ensure every student has a person they connect with at school can go a long way, Balfanz said.

“School connectedness is as close as we have to a universal prevention measure,” he said. “You have to believe there’s an adult who knows and cares about you as a person … This is where we as a nation have to double down.”

Real-time data are a powerful tool

Several leaders, including Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee and Indiana State Superintendent Katie Jenner, emphasized the importance of districts gathering and tracking real-time absence data.

Rhode Island and Indiana have both developed online dashboards that are updated daily with absence rates at every school in each state. The Rhode Island tool is available online publicly. Indiana’s will become publicly available soon, Jenner said.

Rhode Island’s dashboard was developed as part of an initiative called Attendance Matters RI, which has taken an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, said McKee, a Democrat.

As part of the campaign, local leaders and influencers have created videos discussing how it’s important—and cool—to be in school, organizers have written opinion pieces for local newspapers, businesses have sponsored attendance incentives that allow students and families to receive special perks for good attendance, and mayors have recorded robocalls emphasizing the importance of attendance.

More than 90 percent of schools in the state are reporting fewer chronically absent students than a year ago, McKee said.

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