Take a walk around your school…

  • Are you wondering why you have not seen certain students? 
  • Are teachers talking about…whatever happened to (student), I have not seen him/her in quite some time?
  • Are there days of the week when you notice fewer students are in the building?
  • Consider when was the last time you reviewed attendance data, not from just the numbers, but from actual student-by-student data to make sure every at risk student has an intervention plan in place?

These are critical questions that must be proactively and continually asked to ensure we are addressing chronic absenteeism. Our schools are busy places with multiple activities and events taking place on any given day. We can easily forget to focus on student attendance and the risk for our students when we do this is far too great. As an example, in our work with a large urban district, when we dug into the mid-year data, we discovered over 25% of their high school students unaccounted for, meaning they were chronically absent. We also noticed students who had not been seen since the fall.

What is the definition of Chronic Absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is defined as the missing of 10% of school days due to absence for any reason- excused, unexcused, and suspension. 10% is the equivalent of 18 days per school year. Chronic absenteeism impacts key milestones: whether or not a student can read on grade level by third grade, achieve both academically and socially in their middle years, and stay on track to graduate from high school. The number of chronically absent students has almost doubled from the pre-COVID number of more than 8 million students (via attendanceworks.org).

Who is Chronically Absent at School?

National data from a 2021 Attendance Works report finds, “Prior to the pandemic, 8 million students in every state and at every grade level, missed 10% (or nearly a month) of school in the 2017-18 school year, according to the most current data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s EDFacts initiative.” According to Edmentum’s November2021 commentary, “That’s equal to about one in six students missing up to three weeks (15 days) of school a year.” They further offer: “While chronic absenteeism is experienced by students of all races, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds, students of a certain demographic tend to be reported as chronically absent more so than others. Chronic absence disproportionately affects students and schools in high-poverty areas, and Attendance Works believes that it hits hardest among communities that have been especially affected by the pandemic, including Black, Latino, and Native American students; students living in poverty; students with disabilities; and English language learners.”

Chronic absenteeism occurs in every grade level, but it is more common in high school. According to the Attendance Works chronic absence report: “High schools are even more challenged. The most recent and accurate data shows that half of all high schools in the US have either extreme or high rates of chronic absenteeism. In nearly a third of high schools (31%), at least 30% of students are essentially missing a month or more of school.”

As educators and leaders, we have to ask: What can we do to begin addressing absenteeism in a meaningful way? Below I share six ways you can start to address Chronic Student Absenteeism in your school district.

Build upon relationships. Make sure your students know they matter.

One helpful starting place is to survey students and host student forums to ask your students what they like and don’t like about your school so that they feel like they have a voice. You can ask students what their areas of interest are and whether they feel like they belong and are welcome at school. It is critical that if you ask for input, that you are willing to listen and make changes based on your students and provide an opportunity to discuss the survey results with your students. Our team at PLC developed a great tool, The Student Voice Survey, which you can use as a starting point. When we give students a voice and make changes based on their input, we begin to build a student-centered culture. 

Using Student-Centered Culture with Chronic Absenteeism-1

This shift in culture reflects back to them that they are important to us and we value them. A great success story comes from our work with Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School, a grade 6-8 school in the Albany City School District located in Albany, New York. After intensive work redesigning instruction, and developing student social emotional supports, we saw a massive drop of 17% in chronic absenteeism in the first two months of the 2021-22 academic year. The school also experienced a significant decrease in unique referrals and out-of-school suspensions according to Dr. William Rivers, Principal. Simultaneously, Principal Rivers shared that they saw an increase in ELA Performance Indicators of 16 points – a major accomplishment!

Create interventions for at-risk students.

When a student is absent, it is essential to to immediately call home to check in with a personal phone call. This action reinforces the message that ‘we care about you’. After a student returns to school, please welcome them back and tell them you missed them! If you identify a student who is beginning to miss multiple days of school each week or month, create a daily ‘check and connect’ activity to identify the ‘why’ behind the absences. Make sure the student support team develops a plan for wrap-around services to support the student with both in-school and community agencies. Once an issue is identified, it is critical that you create a sense of urgency around supporting the student.

Educate families about the importance of attendance.

Another important part of fighting chronic absenteeism is educating families about why attending school is crucial. Here are some strategies for doing so:

  • Send out weekly messages about the importance of good attendance.
  • Provide helpful tips on what families can do to address attendance concerns.  
  • Share the contact information for school staff who can help with attendance concerns.  
  • Develop proactive messages and share ideas of how families can support their child’s attendance.
  • Share impactful data points which stress the importance of attendance. One example might be: By 6th grade, absenteeism is one of three signs that a student may eventually drop out of high school.
  • Encourage families to have their children join meaningful after-school activities including sports, music, or clubs.

Put all students on a winning path.  

When a student returns after an absence, develop a plan to address the learning they missed so that they can be successful. Do not assume that they will learn it on their own. You need to assist them, as a school-wide effort, to create small, structured learning opportunities. Offer recognition to those students who are making progress toward improving their attendance, behavior, and academic goals. Establish student-led conferences which provide your students the opportunity to present to their families and teachers about their goals and action steps for reaching their goals.

Develop data systems to collect and analyze attendance, behavior, and academic data on a regular and consistent basis.  

At both the district and building level, it is a good idea to rigorously collect and analyze data to tell a story of why students are not coming to school. Start by looking at the system. Are your policies and practices in alignment with what your data is telling? Regularly put attendance issues and data front and center at faculty meetings. Begin to ask questions about what you notice at certain grade levels. And, always keep the conversation going.

Create positive conditions for learning – look at instruction from the student perspective.

It is important to understand how students experience your school. One way to do this is through Student Experience Walks. These were successfully developed and implemented in Gaskill Preparatory School of Niagara Falls City School District. Teachers followed a regular student class schedule and then discussed their experiences at their grade/content area meetings. This led to important conversations around how to redesign the day so that students can experience the right flow of activities and academic work conducive to how they learn best. The result has been overwhelmingly positive – students are reporting that they find classes more interesting and they have more energy throughout the day to fully participate .

Our key learning is that there are effective measures to combat chronic absenteeism, and it does not have to be a slippery slope. Attendance is critical – and for those districts and schools who address it continually and proactively– it can be one of the greatest drivers for making sure our students have every opportunity to reach their potential.

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