Years ago, it was easy for districts to ignore what high average daily-attendance numbers can conceal: kids, sometimes lots of them, who miss weeks of school every year.
The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act has changed that calculus.
For the first time, the law requires states to report chronic-absenteeism rates, and more than two-thirds of the states use those rates as indicators of school success in federally mandated accountability plans.
District leaders should confront chronic absenteeism because it can derail students’ educational progress, making it less likely they’ll learn to read, pass classes or graduate, researchers and advocates say.
Sidebar: Roll-call reversals
Across the country, districts tackle attendance problems with an array of strategies—some as simple and inexpensive as mailing informational letters to parents, and others as complex and costly as offering counseling, mentoring and support services.
“You can use your data to figure out where it’s a problem, and then you unpack what could be going on, and then you figure out the solutions” says Hedy N. Chang, executive director of the national nonprofit Attendance Works.
Online exclusive: Snail mail helps solve attendance problems
“You can turn around chronic absence.”
Support, don’t punish
In the 2015-16 school year, the most recent for which federal data is available, about 8 million public school students, or nearly 16 percent of those enrolled, were chronically absent.
The federal data defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days of school; although under ESSA, states usually define it as missing 18 days in a 180-day school year.
Addressing chronic absenteeism should start with efforts to create a culture of school attendance—by, for example, promoting the importance of coming to school and offering incentives, Chang says.
For instance, at Santa Fe Public Schools (14,000 students) in New Mexico, social worker Crystal Ybarra has distributed free doughnuts to high school students who show up before the morning’s first bell.
It’s a small piece of a larger initiative—including an Attendance Awareness Month, outreach to parents of absentees, and a truancy task force of school officials, families and community providers—that has shaved off nearly 3 percentage points from the district’s truancy rate.
When students miss school, districts must reach out quickly to provide mentors and support services to help families overcome attendance barriers, Chang says.
In districts that are solving attendance issues, leaders say it’s important to address problems early, build on existing relationships and take a supportive rather than punitive approach.
In Alabama, Montgomery Public Schools (28,000 students) partners with the local prosecutor’s office to employ social workers who help families of absentee students obtain needed services—such as counseling for unaddressed mental health problems and subsidized childcare for younger siblings, and even new shoes for students.
An initial written notice to a truant comes on the prosecutor’s letterhead, and the family is summoned to an early-warning meeting at the courthouse.
Unexcused absences have fallen by nearly a third in six years, says Catherliene Williamson, the district’s chief of student services.
“In the most extreme situations, law enforcement gives us that additional leverage, but the biggest difference-maker is really talking with families and finding out what the barriers are” Williamson says. “Sometimes, folks just need to know that there are other resources available.”
‘Let’s work together’
In the 8,600-student Meriden Public Schools in central Connecticut, district leaders asked school-based teams of administrators and specialists—who were already meeting weekly to discuss student behavior—to also monitor attendance.
Typically, teams reach out when students miss three days of school. But families of students with a history of absenteeism get a phone call from a teacher after a single absence.
This early intervention has helped reduce the chronic-absenteeism rate at one struggling elementary school from 21 percent to 8.5 percent, says family-school liaison David Cardona.
“You can’t go months without looking at this” Cardona says. “The numbers creep up. A situation could arise within a matter of two weeks.”
Successful programs also build on families’ relationships with teachers.
A North Carolina program designed by Philip Cook, professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University, paid elementary school teachers to visit with parents early in the school year and then gave teachers smartphones for follow-up conversations.
The result was a 10 percent decrease in absences. “The home visit was quite powerful” Cook says. “To have this kind of personal contact with the teacher, I think, was a very good start in establishing regular communication.”
Attendance conversations should focus on how schools can help families get their children to school, rather than on who’s to blame for absenteeism, district leaders say.
At the 700-student Greene County Career Center, a high school vocational district in southwest Ohio, a truancy interventionist has worked with students who missed school because they were homeless, because they had to drive their parents to chemotherapy appointments, and because they lacked daycare for their own young children.
By helping students cope with these responsibilities, the district has reduced truancy court referrals from 24 to one in just two years.
“It’s more of a ‘let’s work together to resolve these issues’ versus a ‘we’re going to wait until we catch you and then we’re going to file charges,'” says Jenny Adkins, supervisor of student services.
“Typically, what we find is that just by being able to be a support to them, their whole demeanor changes. This may be the first time that they’ve had somebody who actually cared whether they’re here or not.”
Indeed, before ESSA, chronic absenteeism was easy to disregard: When different students miss different days of school, average daily attendance can stay high even while substantial numbers of students rack up high absenteeism rates.
“We were missing almost 1 in 4 kids as chronic, yet the average daily attendance was over 90 percent” says Cardona, of the Meriden Public Schools.
And although researchers and advocates note that accurate data collection is a prerequisite for reducing chronic absenteeism, not every district is meeting that challenge.
“If you have a system that, top to bottom, is not being meticulous about record keeping—from the state on down to the superintendent on down to the teacher—it’s going to be very hard to have a credible system” says Cook, the retired Duke professor.
“If you don’t know which kids are accumulating a lot of absences, then it’s going to be hard to know what the priorities are for intervention.”
Absent vs. truant
Experts prefer the term chronic absenteeism—which covers both excused and unexcused absences—to truancy, which typically includes only unexcused absences.
Focusing exclusively on truancy risks overlooking the damage caused by missing too much school for any reason—whether it’s illness, homelessness, academic disengagement or fear of bullies.
“When kids aren’t in school, they can’t benefit from the instruction that’s being offered” says Chang, of Attendance Works.
“If you’re chronically absent in pre-K and K, it means you’re less likely to read by the end of third grade. If you are chronically absent in middle school, you’re more likely not to pass your courses. By high school, chronic absence is associated with dropping out.”
Low-income students are more likely to miss school, and because these same children reap the greatest benefits from schooling, one of the most effective strategies for providing pathways out of poverty is to do what it takes to get these students in school every day,” Johns Hopkins researchers wrote in a 2012 report.
That may require interventions that go beyond even the most energetic attendance program, encompassing larger efforts to strengthen the relationships between students and their schools:
Whatever the nominal causes of absenteeism, attendance problems can signal a deeper breakdown in the ways that educators engage students and families.
Its a little bit of a canary in the coal mine,” says Chang. If your school climate is negative, kids will stop showing up to school—and maybe theyll all say theyve got stomachaches.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.