How US schools are combating chronic absenteeism

Nationally, 13 percent of students – about 6.5 million – miss more than 15 days of school each year. First-ever national data show that just 4 percent of school districts account for half of chronically absent students.

Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor
Sixth grade math teacher Holly Knowles works with students at Gilbert Stuart Middle School on June 2 in Providence. Gilbert Stuart Middle School is part of the pilot stage of the My Brother's Keeper Success Mentors Initiative, a national campaign to address chronic student absenteeism.

It’s not every day that a school district tries to draw attention to some of its most dismal statistics. But in Grand Rapids, Mich., the percentage of students who are missing too many days is on bold display in every school. Through a community-wide challenge that has begun to build bridges of trust, Grand Rapids is now able to show those numbers going down.

Tracking missed days – whether excused or not – and stepping in quickly if they start to add up, is a priority in a growing number of school districts.

“Chronic absence is … a driver in poor student outcomes in schools. All the best instruction in classrooms doesn’t make a difference if kids aren’t there to benefit from it,” says Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national campaign by the nonprofit Child and Family Policy Center.

Nationally, 13 percent of students – about 6.5 million – miss more than 15 days of school each year. That can signal they are at risk of falling behind. In some places, the percent of chronically absent students is much higher – more than 50 percent in Detroit, for example. And the number of days they miss – with or without an excuse, or because of suspensions – can run much higher, too.

Poor students are the most likely to accumulate absences, but students of color and those with disabilities are also disproportionately affected.

The first-ever national data shows that just 4 percent of school districts account for half the nation’s chronically absent students, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The new analysis includes an interactive map that shows where chronic absenteeism is most heavily concentrated, and how it overlaps with race and income statistics.

Many schools have overlooked this problem because they have traditionally seen daily attendance in the mid-90 percent range as fine. But some have taken a close look at individual student data – and have gotten creative about how to better support students and their families to ensure consistent attendance.

These “bright spot communities” are starting to encourage other districts to make progress on reducing chronic absenteeism – and in turn, improve academic outcomes, Ms. Chang says.

5 days or less

When Grand Rapids school officials realized that one-third of their students were missing more than 10 percent of the school year, they partnered with Attendance Works and a local group called Believe 2 Become, and came up with the Challenge 5 messaging campaign.

Posters and stickers in English and Spanish blanketed neighborhoods with the slogan “Strive for less than five days absent” – accompanied by a picture of a child giving an adult a high five.

The grade levels in each school held competitions for best attendance each month and earned pizza parties or other awards. Outreach to parents helped them feel more welcome and gave them skills to better support their kids in school. And school teams offered more help to those who faced significant barriers.

In 2014-15, after a year of focusing on the problem and then launching the Challenge 5 campaign, Grand Rapids reduced its chronic absenteeism from about 35 percent to 27 percent. In the next year, it dropped again to just above 22 percent. Tests there showed that those with good attendance were three times more likely to be reading on grade level than chronically absent students.

The campaign “made people uncomfortable, initially,” says Mel Atkins, executive director of community and student affairs. But after the initial year of talking a lot about the data in the community, now “we’re all striving for the same thing. The importance of school has ramped up. Parents are feeling more empowered,” Mr. Atkins says. This year they are including pre-K in the campaign for the first time.

Major urban centers with a history of racial segregation and intergenerational poverty account for much of the chronic absenteeism, but rural areas, including many where most students are white, also need to tackle it, the new analysis revealed.

In Springdale, Ark., Principal Maribel Childress of Monitor Elementary School had 94 percent daily attendance, higher than the state average. But when she looked more closely, she found a subset of students missing lots of school.

She put together a team that included a counselor and a liaison with families who have come to Arkansas from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific in search of jobs, and whose children make up about one-third of the elementary school’s student body.

By spending summers in both the Marshall Islands and Mexico, where another third of the families originate, Ms. Childress has been able to incorporate elements to help everyone feel included at school. “Celebrations are very important in the Marshallese culture, and so, rather than fussing about attendance issues, we have celebrations for great attendance” at the end of each semester, she explains in a video from the Arkansas Department of Education.

Getting parents in class

Four days a week, parents come in for several hours in the morning for a literacy program that also offers parenting education and gives them time in their children’s classes to see the teaching and learning.

Chronic absenteeism has been significantly reduced at Monitor, Attendance Works reports. Statewide, Arkansas is trying to address the problem as one way to reach its goal of having all students reading on grade level by third grade.

Another promising approach is the Diplomas Now project, which has used early warning indicators such as low attendance to set up individualized plans to support students. A recent evaluation found that in middle schools in 11 urban districts, chronic absenteeism was reduced among sixth-graders by 15 percent. And the rate of middle-schoolers attending more than 90 percent of the time (77 percent) was 4.1 percentage points higher than in the control group (73 percent). (The project is overseen by three nonprofits, including one at Johns Hopkins co-directed by Mr. Balfanz.)

Even suburbs that do well on academic measures overall may have large numbers of students who are chronically absent. Fairfax County, Va., for instance, reports 12 percent of its 180,000 students as chronically absent.

Under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states and schools that receive Title I aid for low-income students are required to report chronic absenteeism. States also have the option to include it as one measure of school engagement.

It’s an opportunity for “a more concerted effort around making sure schools are warm, welcoming, engaging, and also are helping students and families monitor when absences are adding up,” Chang says.

Next week: How 'success mentors' are helping schools slash chronic absenteeism

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