Report: Creating safe and engaging school environments can boost student attendance

Creating an engaging, supportive, welcoming and culturally responsive school environment can help to reduce absence rates — something on the minds of all school and district officials with Attendance Awareness Month in full swing.

A new report from Attendance Works calls on school boards and other policymakers to use the data they already collect on chronic absenteeism in their districts to help address inequities children face and improve student outcomes by considering the underlying conditions for learning and making sure schools are a safe haven for students.

For instance, researchers found that children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent, and African American, Native American, Pacific Islander and Latino students are disproportionately affected.

Such findings highlight the need for district leaders to diagnose and address both school and community factors that contribute to absenteeism.

“When communities are challenged by high levels of poverty and violence, inadequate public services and environmental injustices, creating positive conditions for learning in school is essential,” Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said in a statement. “Educators at all levels need to ensure attendance initiatives are not created in isolation but rather are integrated into their overall approach to improving school climate and student outcomes.”

California defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the typical 180-day school year, or the equivalent of at least one month of school, due to excused and unexcused absences, as well as out-of-school suspensions.

There is no question that children who regularly miss school are far less likely to achieve academically. Research has long shown that students who are chronically absent are likely to have lower test scores and limited proficiency in both reading and math, and are more likely to drop out.

Additionally, as a key accountability indicator on the California School Dashboard, improving attendance rates must be a priority for board members, district officials and school site leaders.

Yet state data shows many students are struggling to get to class. About 10 percent of districts and 12 percent of schools fell in the red category — the lowest performance — in the attendance indicator on the 2018 Dashboard. A high rate means between 10 percent and 20 percent of a district’s K-8 students miss 18 or more days of school, while a very high rate means more than 20 percent of these children were chronically absent.

A separate report also released recently by Attendance Works noted that chronic absence often speaks to the overall well-being of children. Researchers said that many absences, especially among the youngest students, are tied to health factors including asthma, dental problems, poor vision, learning disabilities and mental health issues related to trauma and community violence.

Addressing the issue

The organization’s latest report — written in partnerships with The American Institutes for Research and The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution — describes four conditions for learning that, if strengthened, could help create a learning environment that positively affects attendance, achievement and student well-being.

Through policy reform, school boards can improve students’ sense of physical and emotional health and safety; belonging, connectedness and support; academic challenge and engagement; and adult and student social-emotional competence. Ultimately, by addressing all four conditions, district leaders can ensure school environments are welcoming places where students want to be.

Researchers urge schools and districts to make dramatic changes in the way they address chronic absenteeism by moving away from punitive action to positive interventions.

There are already examples of districts or individual schools in California where policymakers are heeding such advice. Some offer laundry services on campus so that children can always have clean clothes; others provide additional snacks or meals for free schoolwide so that kids don’t go hungry; many have hired additional mental health counselors or have partnered with local mental health providers; and some even work with community groups to provide children with dental and vision services on campus.

When schools respond to absences, incomplete schoolwork and other challenges with positive and restorative approaches rather than punitive actions, researchers said students are more likely to feel cared about and to stay in school.

For help in creating a safe and engaging school environment for students and their families, visit CSBA’s website for various governance and policy resources to help address the conditions students face that can be barriers to attendance.

Additional CSBA resources: