How chronic absenteeism is impacting high-poverty districts

In nearly half (41%) of the most economically disadvantaged school districts, three-fourths of their schools reported "extreme" levels of chronic absence, a new analysis suggests.

“If you’re not in your seat, you’re not learning,” is a phrase we hear time and time again from superintendents who have taken steps to bring their students back into the classroom. It’s an issue that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. In fact, nearly 30% of all students (14.7) million were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, suggesting they missed out on at least 10% of the academic year.

That’s according to new data from Attendance Works, a nonprofit research organization, that analyzed attendance data from the 2021-22 school year. The research reveals a dramatic rise in chronic absenteeism among students of all backgrounds. However, district leaders who serve large proportions of economically challenged students face even greater hurdles in tackling this issue.

Around 70% of high-poverty schools witnessed “extreme” or “high levels” of students who were chronically absent, a 25% increase since before the pandemic.

“Poverty is a driving factor for shaping the size and scale of the pandemic’s impact on a school’s chronic absence challenge,” the analysis reads.

Overall, two-thirds of students attended a school with either “extreme” or “high” levels of chronic absence during the 2021-22 school year.

‘An effective approach’

Support from district leaders is crucial as tackling chronic absenteeism requires a system-wide approach, the report declares. Superintendents ought to train teams to take a close look at student data and find ways to engage them and their families and “implement a coordinated set of tiered interventions,” the researchers wrote.

Additionally, these efforts will prove even tougher for leaders in high-poverty districts. In nearly half (41%) of the most economically disadvantaged school districts, three-fourths of their schools reported “extreme” levels of chronic absence, meaning at least 30% of students were chronically absent.

As a result, Attendance Works recommends that leaders take a “tailored” approach that ties to their local realities. For instance, community organizations that can serve as partners are most commonly found in urban or suburban areas. As such, rural communities ought to look within to their “longstanding formal and informal relationships among staff at schools, local community members and other agencies,” the analysis reads.

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Above all, addressing chronic absenteeism requires a detailed, multi-pronged approach from the district. While the numbers are startling, leaders can implement several strategic solutions now in an effort to bring kids back to school regularly. What’s important is that you focus on re-engaging students and families while taking into account their personal challenges.

According to Attendance Works, district leaders should begin developing initiatives that tie closely to these four focus areas:

  • Family engagement: A recent study from Learning Heroes suggests that family engagement is a significant contributor to higher attendance levels.
  • School connectedness: When students feel a sense of belonging at school, they’re more likely to show up. Encourage your educators and staff to make connections with their students and build a sense of trust.
  • Community schools: Research reveals that community schools have proven successful in reducing chronic absence. Some reasons for this include their ability to support relationships between students and staff, coordinated community resources that help to break down barriers and collaborative leadership that meet regularly to address this issue.
  • Expanded access to health services: This includes school nurses, school-based health clinics and telehealth. All of these are instrumental in improving attendance as they might be services students might not otherwise have outside of school.
Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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