4 ways to improve urban school attendance

Engaging environments, personal contact with families, systems, and logistics make the difference

Getting kids to show up at school is an age-old problem. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education notes that about 6 million students (1 out of 7) miss at least 15 days during the school year, increasing their likelihood of lower achievement and dropping out.

Students of color and those living in poverty—overrepresented in these figures—often attend urban schools, such as East Upper School and East Lower School in Rochester, New York, where we do our work.

When the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education began a partnership with these schools in 2015, East Upper suffered from widespread absenteeism. As part of our reform efforts, we sought out other urban schools—with similar demographics of high-poverty and minority populations—that also demonstrated exemplary attendance rates (90 percent or higher), and we applied what we learned to East Upper.

In three years, East Upper went from an average daily attendance of 77 percent to 82 percent, and East Lower reached an average daily attendance of 90 percent.

Exemplary schools prioritize four factors that lead to greater daily attendance.

1. Engaging environment

School leaders and staff connect personally with individual students by knowing each student by name, fist bumping and always saying “hello.”

At East Upper, we wanted to find out why some students behaved violently at school. Using restorative practices that pair high emotional support with high academic expectations, we gave students a voice, making it possible for staff to understand why school might not feel like a safe place.

2. Personal contact with families

Principals, social workers and staff build relationships with families, making school welcoming. Providing interpreters for non-English-speaking parents improves communication. Local community liaisons help develop relationships with families and students.

East Upper formed an attendance team. Members meet weekly with school counselors, teachers and administrative staff to identify, respond to and support students on the path to chronic absenteeism. They visit homes, connect parents and students with community services, and organize meetings among students, families and teachers.

3. Attendance systems

East Upper’s leaders have become more conscious of the importance of promoting and prioritizing attendance improvements. We shifted our systems to coordinate with county, state and local agencies to address impediments that lead to missing school—such as caring for siblings or ailing parents or grandparents, and working to support families.

4. Record-keeping and logistics

Throughout the day, schools with high attendance analyze their student data—from ID-card scanners that students use as they enter, attendance apps that administrators check, or hall sweeps by every adult in the building.

At East Upper, we maintain a shared Google Drive to monitor attendance. We also track which community agencies are supporting which students, ensuring that resources are matched to each student’s needs.

Applying these four practices is supported by research and proven to work in real schools with real students.

Valerie L. Marsh is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education in New York. Shaun Nelms is superintendent for educational partnership organizations at East Upper School and East Lower School in Rochester, and an associate professor at the Warner School.

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