Ensuring students make it back to school this season

By CSBA President Susan Markarian

As summer break draws to a close while temperatures still soar around the state, a hot topic on the minds of trustees, administrators and teachers alike is how to create a supportive and engaging school environment that makes students feel welcome and eager to attend school every day.

Student attendance, much like student learning, has not recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While California Department of Education data is not yet available for the 2022–23 school year, the 2022 California School Dashboard Chronic Absenteeism Indicator was “very high,” recording a statewide chronic absence rate of a 30 percent — more than double the rate of 14.3 percent in the 2020–21 school year.

The highest levels of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent of the school year for any reason — occurred among students experiencing homelessness, Pacific Islander, African American and American Indian students. But 11 of 13 student groups were labeled as having very high rates of chronic absenteeism, with only Asian and Filipino students designated as “high.”

Attendance is imperative — after all, you can’t learn when you aren’t there. A pre-pandemic study by Attendance Works found that students who missed three or more days in the month before taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress scored an average of 12 to 18 points below their peers who had been in class. A May 2021 study from the University of Maryland found that missing 10 English language arts or math classes in high school reduced test scores by 3 to 4 percent of a standard deviation. Other research has found that chronic absenteeism is a leading predictor of whether a student would drop out of high school.

Anecdotal evidence from districts presented in a spring California Schools magazine article on addressing chronic absenteeism found that absence rates were still far above normal in many districts around the state in 2022–23. Pandemic-related challenges, a brutal flu and cold season combined with COVID, and general student disengagement were the top reasons found by researchers for this continuing trend. While schools cannot dial back the “stay home if you’re sick” messaging, there are many other ways local educational agencies can make schools a place kids want to be — and to help them get there.

Addressing and preventing chronic absenteeism relies on a tiered-support structure in which the foundation includes a welcoming and supportive school climate where students have relationships with trusted adults and know where to turn to in times of struggle. Also contributing to this foundation are teachers who believe all students can achieve, and interesting and engaging coursework and extracurricular activities.

According to Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang, it is imperative to have accurate data systems in place to track attendance. While California schools track and monitor daily attendance, Chang cites the need to monitor attendance by period in secondary schools in order to track where a student may be falling behind most severely. Many districts have attendance monitoring teams in place to review attendance data for individuals and aggregate groups and identify students who may need extra supports to attend school.

As the spring California Schools article points out, addressing the root causes of chronic absenteeism requires building relationships with students and sometimes their families, not merely instating punitive action to try to force children to school. Attendance Works offers a variety of possible interventions including identifying common community and school barriers to attendance, creating individualized student success plans that includes attention to attendance and adding attendance strategies to individualized education programs. In addition, and dependent on staffing, LEAs can institute a family visiting program, match identified students with mentors to foster strong individual relationships, provide access to expanded learning opportunities that include tutoring, and implement small group interventions and supports for students and restorative alternatives to discipline and suspension.

Consistent and positive messaging about school attendance to the families of our youngest learners will also help to turn the tide. According to an analysis of 30 districts statewide, School Innovations & Achievement found that in the 2022–23 school year, kindergarten and 12th grades students posted the highest rates of absenteeism. Schoolwide attendance campaigns as well as targeted messaging to transitional kindergarten and kindergarten parents about the importance of attending school every day, as well as references that this is a state law, can educate new parents on attendance policies.

Boards should receive regular attendance reports disaggregated by demographics at their meetings and presentations on how chronic absenteeism is being addressed if it is a problem. In my nearly four decades as a school board member, I’ve seen the positive difference that regular attendance and an engaging school culture can make. That’s why it’s essential that boards emphasize the importance of attendance and receive regular reports on what programs and supports staff are implementing to keep students coming to school every day.