Attendance intervention strategies need a reality check

To combat the rise of chronic absenteeism, we need to rethink how we support students and families throughout their journey in school.
Joanna Smith Griffin is the CEO and Founder of AllHere
Joanna Smith Griffin is the CEO and Founder of AllHere.

As a 7th-grade math teacher, my attempts to teach geometry were often thwarted. Not by the presence of disruptive students, but by their absence.

Chronic absenteeism—described by Attendance Works as missing 10% or more of school for any reason—has long been a problem in public education, but now, with the vast majority of the nation’s students experiencing educational disruption for well over a year, more students than ever are missing class, not showing up in-person, not logging on, and not completing assignments.

This is not a time to revert back to old attendance intervention strategies that are often punitive and inequitable. Spurred by unprecedented circumstances, school leaders are taking steps to reimagine attendance strategies that acknowledge the unique circumstances of each child, and therefore, their family.

Attendance is a family engagement issue

I remember as a teacher making personal phone calls to parents and visiting students at home after school hours. More often than not, parents weren’t aware of the number of classes or assignments their child had missed. Traditional school practices may have assumed disinterest, but the real causes were more often language barriers, parents working multiple jobs, poor internet access, among a host of other obstacles faced by our most vulnerable populations.

Randomized controlled research conducted by Dr. Peter Bergman at Columbia University confirms a significant information gap between the number of absences parents or guardians believe have occurred for a student and the actual number of absences. By simply closing that information gap with weekly messages to parents, Dr. Bergman’s research produced significant gains in not only attendance but also improved grades and student retention.

The journey to attendance—especially in these times—is rarely linear. To ensure every family receives the support they need, schools must re-examine all the touchpoints a student and a family encounter. In most cases, we can do better making sure families get the help that facilitates them being engaged in their child’s education.

Put an end to the emails and letters that never get opened. Families prefer to text

To truly be equitable with absence intervention, we must reach families where they are, and that’s on their phones. Even if students and parents aren’t reading handouts or emails, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re checking texts.

Mobile phone ownership doesn’t necessarily mean parents can check email or log into an app. In the US, over 97% of adults across all income levels own a cell phone with SMS messaging compared to 85% who own a smartphone. That percentage drops significantly at lower income levels.

A text is the most effective communication tool at our disposal today, even for families with all of the devices and WiFi access. SMS texts offer a way to reach families that might not have access to permanent addresses, families that access email infrequently, or families that are simply busy.

Academic support is not limited to the school day

In 2021, we have a responsibility to use technology and evidence-based practices to combat the rise of chronic absenteeism. That starts with recognizing the root of the problem, which is family engagement.

Families increasingly expect, and the pandemic necessitated, 24/7 support from their schools. In a nation where the student to counselor ratio is almost 500/1, the burden of student support often falls on the shoulders of teachers. We need to reverse the resulting rise of teacher burnout and find new ways to scale support with technology.

Last year, a school district in Michigan piloted a chatbot they dubbed “Mini” to respond to family questions and concerns as well as proactively share information about their child’s attendance. Mini could answer most questions within 2 seconds, and if she didn’t have the answer, she could efficiently connect families with resources or directly to school staff when they needed support the most.

Attendance intervention starts with timely, empathetic family engagement. The way we deliver that support needs to change urgently if we are going to save our most vulnerable students from falling further and further behind.

Joanna Smith Griffin is the CEO and Founder of AllHere, a company that combines conversational AI, behavioral science, and interactive nudges to foster attendance and engagement in K-12 education. AllHere’s AI-powered chatbot provides families and students with 24/7 support through personalized text messaging.

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