Communication can help students get off to a strong start with attendance

With chronic absenteeism rates in California still hovering at about double where they were prior to the pandemic (22 percent compared to about 10 percent), communicating to families the importance of getting children to school is more important than ever.

To aid local educational agencies in these efforts, Attendance Works and the California School Public Relations Association (CalSPRA) held a webinar on Aug. 24 exploring the strategic use of resources to effectively communicate with families in a way that can boost student attendance and engagement.

Often times, a necessary first step must involve addressing families’ misconceptions on the importance of regular attendance. Many attendees cited challenges related to families keeping their children home with the sniffles or pulling them out for extended vacations during the academic year.

Jessica Hull, CalSPRA president and executive director of Communication and Community Engagement for Roseville City School District, said in talking to families a few things became clear. For one, many didn’t understand that TK-3 students are learning foundational concepts, not just playing with blocks.

“One piece that I’m going to be adding [to the district website] is what are the building blocks that they are learning in those early grades that just cannot be missed?” Hull said. Many families simply don’t understand how much more academically focused those early years are now compared to when they were in school.

Chronic absence — defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason including excused, unexcused absences and suspensions — disproportionately affects low-income and foster youth, students with disabilities, English learners and Black and Latino children. Research has long shown that students who are chronically absent are less likely to read at grade level by third grade or graduate high school.

Research has also shown that, when done well, texting parents can be an effective and inexpensive way to communicate the importance of student attendance. And messages to parents are more effective when they included the exact number of days their student had missed.

Asked how families could be reached if they weren’t connected on social media or not able to visit the district or school site website Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang noted the benefits of two-way texting and various apps that can be beneficial in connecting families and schools.

“There are families who may still text but not be on social media, and folks have found that texting is a pretty effective approach,” Chang said. “An app that’s really interesting is called Talking Points. They allow for translations — so literally a family can talk into the app and then what comes out on the text for the teacher is in English, and when the teacher speaks back to the family it comes back in the text in their home language. And they have actually been building in some attendance messaging into their work.”

Regardless of how LEAs opt to connect with families, it is critical that they understand which students may be disproportionately affected, she said, “because that will help you tailor your strategies so that they have the most bang for their buck.”

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