September is Attendance Awareness Month, but experts say a year-round focus is required of district leaders and board members to make sustainable inroads and cultural shifts. “I think that school board members really play a central role in monitoring whether chronic absence is improving or getting worse,” said Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.
The effects of poor attendance habits on student achievement pose a major challenge to many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. By the ninth grade, students’ chances of graduating from high school drop by 20 percentage points for every week of school they miss, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank and Attendance Works, Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism.
Further, experts and researchers find chronic absence isn’t just a matter of truancy or skipping school, but of the overall well-being of children. Many absences, especially among the youngest students, are excused and tied to health factors such as asthma, dental problems, poor vision, learning disabilities and mental health issues related to trauma and community violence.
The addition of chronic absenteeism as an indicator on the California School Dashboard adds a layer of accountability that makes attendance even more of a priority for board members, district officials and school site leaders. About 10 percent of districts and 12 percent of schools fell in the red performance category in the indicator that debuted on the 2018 Dashboard (a “high” rate means between 10 and 20 percent of a district’s K-8 students miss 18 or more days of school, while “very high” means 20 percent or more of students fall into the category).
Chang of Attendance Works advises that board members keep attendance issues at the forefront, asking district or county staff tough questions about records, data and trends. She recommends boards integrate chronic absenteeism into their governance calendar cycles so they can incorporate it into their local educational agency’s culture, describing chronic absence rates as “an early-warning metric that can be used all the time.”
While interest in attendance generally peaks at the start of the school year, end of the school year and now with the release of Dashboard data, Chang said consistent monitoring can help leaders keep their pulse on new obstacles or barriers, such as transportation or other community issues. In other words, addressing attendance is not just a “one-off fix.”
Although districts and schools are tasked with accountability and rely on average daily attendance numbers for funding, there are many factors beyond their control. Schools cannot solve the issue alone but can still lead the charge, said Michael A. Gottfried, associate professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara. At a conference Policy Analysis for California Education conference earlier this year, Gottfried emphasized the need for districts and schools to orchestrate community buy-in, partnerships, and parental education and involvement.
Wide-ranging strategies outlined in new Attendance Playbook
The new Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism outlines more than 20 strategies that states, districts and schools can use to address chronic absenteeism. The joint report from Future Ed and Attendance Works includes interventions in three tiers, reflecting the intensity of support students need given their level of absenteeism. The full report is available at bit.ly/2Kat3iU. The following is a summary of some of the tier I interventions that stress the importance of effective messaging about attendance, rather than using the traditional punitive approach:
- Nudging parents and students: Sending reminders either digitally or through the mail to parents and caregivers about attendance can give them the proper context on how many days of school their children have missed. Researchers have found that alerting parents to the number of days missed is most effective in reducing absences.
- Implement positive messaging with a local focus: Schools and districts can talk to students and families with absenteeism problems to get a sense of what messages would motivate them to attend school more regularly.
- Using school buses and public transit: Research has found that providing school bus service or free passes on public transit can improve attendance rates and educational outcomes.
- Improving school climate with greetings: A low-cost option, this strategy focuses on building a greater sense of belonging for students. Examples include a principal standing outside as students and families enter or a teacher shaking students’ hands at the classroom door.