Webinar details how addressing school climate can reduce chronic absence rates

As schools across the country continue to deal with high rates of chronic absenteeism, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a webinar on Dec. 13 exploring the connection between chronic absenteeism and school climate.

Discussion covered common reasons why students disengage from school, as well as strategies to create learning environments that facilitate a sense of safety, connection and belonging that enable all students — especially those who are more likely to experience acts of discrimination, hate and violence — to fully and meaningfully participate in school.

“These practices are needed at the key moments in a student and family’s school experience as they enter the school or a classroom, or engage with learning and extracurricular activities, navigate circumstances that might result in differences of opinion or conflict, and utilize various supports and opportunities to enhance their school experiences and academic achievement,” said Hamed Negron-Perez, group leader of the Title IV-A Student Support and Academic Enrichment Group in the office of Safe and Supportive Schools and the program manager of School Emergency Response to Violence at the Education Department.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student missing 10 percent or more of the school days in an academic year — about two days a month — due to any combination of unexcused and excused absences, as well as for in- or out-of-school suspensions or the student being removed from the classroom as a result of behavioral issues.

About 30 percent of students nationwide, 14.7 million youth, are chronically absent, and about two-thirds of enrolled students attend a school with high or extremely high levels of chronic absenteeism, said Sarah Frazelle, senior researcher for the American Institutes for Research and project director of the Student Engagement and Attendance Center.

High rates of chronic absenteeism schoolwide have implications not just for those children missing school, but for their peers as well, Frazelle explained, because teachers then must use valuable classroom time either catching students up or moving forward on lessons for those who were in class.

Why students miss school

There are myriad reasons students may be absent from school, and addressing those early is critical to re-engaging them before challenges seem insurmountable.

“We know that it’s easier to support students and families when they’re first running into attendance issues rather than waiting for the attendance to really pile up and accumulate,” Frazelle said. “Problems have compounded by that point, and it’s really hard for the student to get caught back up.”

National and local surveys of chronically absent youth have highlighted common themes. Some students may disengage from school because learning doesn’t feel relevant or helpful, while others experience barriers related to their home or family situations. Many students are experiencing challenges related to their physical or mental health, and others report not feeling like there’s anybody on campus who cares about them if they do show up. Issues related to transportation or work or child care obligations among older students are also common reasons for missing class.

Steps to build connections

Identifying and addressing such issues quickly is critical to curbing chronic absenteeism, Frazelle explained.

“Schools with higher levels of family engagement had significantly lower increases in chronic absenteeism, [and] we know that making sure that we are making those connections with the families is really critical for families who have felt historically marginalized,” she said. “In general, you just want to know what the barriers that the families are facing and how the system can help address them.”

Frazelle suggested a few things schools can do to build school connectedness:

  • Providing physical opportunities for the students, such as recess, physical education or classroom activities that get children up and moving can help promote connectedness and sharing among youth and getting to know each other in the classroom.
  • Encouraging school projects like gardening or student-teacher lunchtimes that build connectedness between the student and the adults in the building.
  • Managing any chronic health conditions (asthma, diabetes, food allergies, etc.) as well as mental and social-emotional challenges and ensuring supports and resources are available to students and adults alike.
  • Providing professional development and support for school staff to understand where the students might be coming from, addressing implicit biases, etc. to ensure every student has an adult in the building that they can trust.

Resources and a recording of the webinar are available here.