How to reach the unreachable: Closing K-12 attendance gaps

Three leaders school tackle the growing problem of 'missing' students and the state of remote learning in their districts.

Chronic absenteeism has doubled in K-12 during the past year and tripled for the youngest K-12 students, according to data from EveryDay Labs.

The COVID-19 pandemic, different learning models, fear and a lack of access have all conspired to create emptier, less engaged classes in districts across the United States.

Although some “advantaged” schools are enjoying 100% attendance, others are fighting to get students to participate. In Broward County, Fla., which serves greater Fort Lauderdale, the school district recently sent out 60,000 letters to families of students who were not meeting adequate academic standards. They have asked many of those students to come back in person.

“We did suffer with attendance issues in our most marginalized communities pre the pandemic, and it has widened,” said Dr. Carletha Shaw-Rolle, Principal Supervisor in Broward County during a recent webinar hosted by EveryDay Labs. “We were astounded by the number of students getting Ds, Fs and Is. We responded by reaching out and seeing [about] getting them into our schools and trying to provide them with a very quick response to intervention.”

Intervention has been crucial in improving attendance and engagement, but it hasn’t come easy. Aside from sending repeated emails, texts and phone calls to families, districts have had to lean on social workers, staff and even teachers to find students, sometimes going door to door.

EveryDay Labs, led by co-founder and Harvard Kennedy School professor Dr. Todd Rogers, is one group providing an assist to districts in fostering family outreach, personalized intervention strategies and offering best practices. They’ve seen a 10-15% reduction in chronic absenteeism in the 30 districts they’ve worked with, including some biggies – New Bedford, Mass., Dallas ISD, Fulton County (GA) and LA Unified.

During the webinar that featured Shaw-Rolle, Dr. Elena Hill from Dallas ISD and Jennifer Kretschman of the Sacramento City Unified School District, Rogers said the concerns from many districts like Broward County are real and affecting those who have the most to lose.

“The gap has grown, and it was already outrageous,” Rogers said. “And it’s particularly disproportionate and falling hardest on the most vulnerable communities, like so many things in our time right now.”

What is happening?

Along with attendance issues, Hill said Dallas is seeing the fallout of the unfinished learning from last year. Hill, Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning who focuses on pre-K-3, says it is alarming to see the youngest students, normally fully engaged in learning, be absent from it this year. She says fear is driving some parents to keep students home in a remote environment, but says, “there’s nothing wrong with that. Many families this is their first child. You have to consider a decision point when they have a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old and they’re just going to drop them off at school with the unknown virus.”

That said, the experiment at home isn’t working well either.

“We notice quickly that when you put a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old on a Zoom, the attention span doesn’t get longer,” she said. “Developmentally, we have to figure out how to truly engage our younger children.”

One of the ways Sacramento has addressed both the issue of absenteeism and engagement is through learning hubs of 10-15 students who work independently in a classroom with a staff member that is not an teacher. The safe, socially distant gathering of small groups addresses the social-emotional learning component by making the students feel a part of school.

According to Kretchsman, the MTSS Director and LCSSP Grant Coordinator at Sacramento Unified, the district also has an early warning system that identifies students who are sliding toward chronic absenteeism. She said site teams look at absences, culture and climate surveys before interventions take place. They also have utilized a peer learning network where “principals, attendance staff and social workers come together and share what they’re seeing.”

To measure future engagement, Sacramento Unified is hoping to utilize “pulse surveys” every six weeks that measure how well students are connected to teachers and whether they are comfortable in the class. Kretschman expects these surveys will address students needs.

“Our dream goal is to be able to measure each area of engagement,” she said.

The remote piece … can it work?

Though many districts are pushing in-person learning, what if the arrangement is not safe or feasible because of coronavirus?

For parents reticent about bringing back because of COVID spikes – Broward County by the way has had a more than 8% positivity rate the past week and still has only 25% of its student population in face-to-face learning according to some reports – Shaw-Rolle said the onus is not solely on students to be engaged.

“No matter where they are, whether they’re face-to-face or remote, it’s dependent upon the teacher,” she said. “The way that we’re delivering instruction to them, that teacher engagement piece is something that we need to talk more about. The best way to increase attendance, participation and engagement is to look at what the teacher is doing for the students in the classroom, and redefining and reimagining education for our students.”

Shaw-Rolle said qualitative data can pinpoint whether teachers are in fact reaching students and keeping them interested.

“One of the observations we made was that some of our students were attending well in some classes, and others not so much,” she said. “We followed up to see what the teacher is doing. In every case, we find that the students with the highest attendance, the highest engagement, the highest participation, the most positive grades are those who are in classes where the teacher has done a really nice job of transitioning to being effective in a remote environment.”

She said the problem isn’t new. “It is the same challenge that we have in face to face. The teachers who were the most skillful at delivering instruction were the ones who were the most engaging and were able to get the best bang for their buck for students.”

Hill agreed and said the really good ones that connect with students in class through their experiences can have a huge impact, depending on their approach.

“How do we add the human touch? How do we reach out to families and let them know, we care about you, we’re thinking about you?” she wondered. “When I was a school principal, it was so important for me to know about my families. The more we engage our families in very authentic ways, the more their students are going to be engaged in our classrooms.”

Overcoming the challenges

Kretschman said in the early stages of the pandemic, Sacramento staff was going door to door to try to reach the unreachable – 2,000 students that had all but disappeared from the system. When they did make contact, instead of browbeating them, they were building relationships, making sure the kids were fine. When they started this fall, the district formed online parent support groups and offered sessions on how to use Zoom and how to see student grades.

They also asked the right questions – Do you have five students at home? OK, here’s an extra hotspot – and ensured phone numbers and emails were corrected in their systems.

“We always give them our phone number so that they have someone they can reach in the future if something goes wrong,” she said.

The result of all the efforts: Only six were unreachable. “What it looks like, it is my hope, is that those students moved away.”

Once on board, she said in-the-moment and formative assessments, as well as open-ended assignments that foster creative learning can help engage even the most fickle students. Giving some credit for engagement is also helpful.

In Broward County, the results of outreach and social worker visits have been less successful.

Shaw-Rolle said the most underserved students in the community are “not attending, not engaged.” More alarming, “What we’ve found from our social worker visits is that students don’t even live there.”

And these eye-opening stories. She said some homes that have five or six children are figuring out “how they can be on a rotation just to be online.” One parent responded during a teacher roll call that their child was washing the dishes. She said learning from home must start with understanding the needs of families.

“While education is our No. 1 thing, if the mom doesn’t have a job or money to buy shoes are to buy clothing, trying to ask her to bring her kids back to face to face is just not something that we should even ask,” she said. “Sometimes we have to sit with families in their living room and address those needs outside the walls of the school before we can invite them back. We transitioned into this remote or blended environment so quickly that we sometimes forget to do some of the very basic things, like working with parents and students and families on how to learn at home.”

Shaw-Rolle said it’s never too late to discuss options, but “you’ve got to be ready for whatever they’re going to tell you. Because they’re going to tell you some things that are going to shock you.” Providing wraparound services is essential.

“We still can get around the table and talk about those things … what it means to learn at home,” she said. “We could change the tire on the car as we’re rolling down the street. We really need to educate our students one at a time and give parents and families real options, so they can almost look at a menu and pick what’s best for the children.”

Beyond the simple and somewhat complex interventions, she said there needs to be a reckoning to engage students and families much sooner.

“How do we galvanize parents within the community and make them a part of our education system? We have to do that through community organizations like the church, and opening up our schools to the community so that they become one with the education of our children,” she said. “That education does not stop when a student walks across the stage with a high school diploma, extending our schools, its buildings and the resources we provide and bringing the community resources into us.

“I think that we would go far by having our education in our public schools to be a seamless connection to our colleges and our workforce education platforms so that it is a communitywide effort and not just something that we’re doing in isolation.”


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