Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.
Tara Garcia Mathewson/The Hechinger Report
Third-graders at Alamosa Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., practice reading with first-graders in Carrie Ramirez's classroom.

Albuquerque rethinks approach to often-absent elementary students

Absenteeism in the younger grades, where students largely rely on parents to get them to school, can be a product of poverty. In Albuquerque, N.M., and elsewhere, schools are starting to track attendance student-by-student to better target support.

Danielle Burnett, a truancy prevention social worker in Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico, spends her days figuring out why students miss school. Her job is to identify the underlying reasons and help families change course.

Some students don’t show up because their parents can’t afford school uniforms. Ms. Burnett can get these students vouchers for free pants and tops. 

Many parents keep their children home for minor colds or stomachaches. Burnett encourages them to send kids to class unless they have a fever or are throwing up, and she reminds them that the school nurse can help with health decisions.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of educating parents about the importance of attendance. In the early grades, parents can be lulled into thinking class time isn’t that important – even though these grades lay the foundation for students’ literacy and math skills for the rest of their lives.

“The culture of attendance is huge,” Burnett says. “If parents weren’t taught that it’s important, then their kids are not going to be taught that.”

A communitywide effort to reduce chronic absenteeism is underway in Albuquerque — and in many other places in the United States – as what was once a hidden problem has been brought into the spotlight. Schools historically tracked “average daily attendance,” counting the total number of students present on any given day. This masked the fact that a single group of students tends to account for the vast majority of daily absences. In Albuquerque and elsewhere, schools are starting to track attendance student-by-student – and are being more vocal about the problem. But it’s a complex one to solve. 

“In a community like Albuquerque, where you’ve got such high poverty rates, there’s a different standard around how quickly we can move the needle on chronic absenteeism,” says Angelo Gonzales, executive director of Mission: Graduate, an organization advising the school district. He adds that all the factors associated with poverty make quick solutions difficult. 

Tara Garcia Mathewson/The Hechinger Report
At Alamosa Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., the number of students who were chronically absent from the start of the school year through mid-January is 5 percentage points below last year’s rate overall.

For many years, the attendance focus in schools in the US was on reducing truancy, which can be seen as more serious than chronic absenteeism. But researchers have emphasized more recently that it doesn’t matter whether a student has an excused absence or not; missing class puts them at risk of falling behind.

Reducing chronic absenteeism has increasingly been at the heart of school improvement strategies over the last few years. In 2016, the Obama administration highlighted it with a report that it called “an unprecedented look at a hidden educational crisis.”

Thirty-six states will soon consider the broader problem of chronic absenteeism as part of their school accountability frameworks, according to a roundup of state plans created by FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank. 

“This work really takes everyone,” says Daphne Strader, Albuquerque Public Schools’ director of coordinated school health, who works to reduce various barriers to learning, including frequent absenteeism.

The poverty connection 

At the elementary level, students largely rely on their parents to get them to school, and educators know that the consequences of poverty have a lot to do with student absenteeism. Of the Albuquerque district’s nearly 91,000 students, 69 percent were considered economically disadvantaged during the 2016-17 school year. At Alamosa Elementary School – where district social worker Burnett spends half her time – all 548 students were, according to Johanna King, Albuquerque Public Schools’ communications director.

“There are just so many other factors that these families have to deal with,” says Carrie Ramirez, an Alamosa first-grade teacher. Ms. Ramirez has seen students struggle with embarrassment when their absences mean they can’t keep up with peers.

This is only the second year Alamosa Elementary has been tracking attendance student-by-student. And a core element of its initiative is raising awareness about the problem. About one in four students has missed more than 10 percent of school days so far this school year, according to data Burnett tracks. Researchers say that hitting this threshold triggers a cascade of negative effects. Missing that much school – roughly two days per month – hurts a student’s chances of reading on grade level, passing classes, and graduating.

Besides the 26 percent of Alamosa students who are already chronically absent, Burnett’s data show that another 27 percent are considered at risk of becoming so.

Under the guidance of Mission: Graduate – an initiative of the United Way of Central New Mexico that brings together schools, government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and community members to collectively work toward common education goals –  Albuquerque Public Schools is drawing on best practices for improving attendance. Instead of focusing exclusively on students who miss the most days of school, the district has a three-tiered strategy, with all students getting some type of targeted attention.

At the first tier, schools are supposed to be fostering a positive culture of attendance for all students and collecting consistent data to track absenteeism. The second-tier prioritizes prevention, and school attendance teams tailor special initiatives for groups of students who miss school regularly. The third tier is the most individualized. Students who routinely miss school get individual assessments and attendance success plans geared toward their unique needs and circumstances.

Besides the districtwide focus, Alamosa is among 10 elementary schools getting additional grant funding from the United Way. This comes with extra support and data-tracking to combat and monitor chronic absenteeism.

These efforts are starting to produce results. School attendance data show that the portion of Alamosa students who were chronically absent from the start of the school year through mid-January is 5 percentage points below last year’s rate overall.

Bonuses for attendance provide a major incentive for students, even those who might only miss a day here or there. Students who don’t have any missed days or tardies don’t have to wear their uniforms on Fridays. Entire classes that have perfect attendance for a given week get a popcorn party.

“I have parents saying ‘My kid is dragging me to school on time,’ ” says Ulrike Kerstges, Alamosa Elementary’s principal. “They want to earn the dress-down day and the popcorn.”

Replicated elsewhere

Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that has led the charge to reduce chronic absenteeism, advocates a strategy similar to the one Albuquerque has designed. Cecelia Leong, associate director for programs, said this comprehensive focus on building awareness, prioritizing prevention and designing case-by-case interventions is a critical shift for school districts, which have traditionally responded only to students with the most frequent absences and the most severe challenges, like homelessness, chronic illness, and family dysfunction. Those students, Ms. Leong says, deserve attention, but without pairing that work with prevention on a larger scale, schools and districts cannot have a major impact on overall chronic absenteeism numbers.

It’s like public health, Leong explains. A widespread focus on prevention can reach far more people and improve outcomes overall.  

She has seen progress in school districts that have good data systems, committed leadership, and a comprehensive strategy for addressing chronic absenteeism. Districts in Grand Rapids, Mich., and New Britain, Conn., as well as schools in New York City and Meriden, Conn., are among the success stories Attendance Works cites nationwide. John Barry School (grades pre-K to 5) in Meriden, for example, reduced its chronic absenteeism rate from 21 percent in the 2014-15 school year to 9 percent in 2015-16. 

Leong is convinced it will take creative, comprehensive solutions to make a dent in the chronic absenteeism problem nationwide.

And the stakes are high. “It’s really hard to achieve your mission as a school district to educate children if they’re not there,” she adds.

At Alamosa Elementary, parents have to be partners in prioritizing attendance, and administrators try to emphasize this collaborative spirit. Dr. Kerstges, the principal, says it’s important to talk to parents early, when their children have just a few absences instead of dozens. And it’s important to be understanding.

“We are not blaming,” Kerstges says. “It’s not, ‘Get your heinie over here or else,’ it’s, ‘How can we help you?’ ”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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