School communications: 5 ways strategic outreach reduces absenteeism

When we talk about chronic absenteeism, we’re literally talking about saving lives.
Kara Stern
Kara Stern
Kara Stern is head of content at SchoolStatus, a fully-integrated data analytics and communications platform designed to improve student outcomes through a unique combination of comprehensive data and direct school-home engagement. She came to SchoolStatus via Smore, a leading digital school newsletter platform. A former teacher, middle school principal, and head of school, she holds a Ph.D. in teaching & learning from NYU.

Even before the pandemic, schools were grappling with absenteeism—but the pandemic drove the problem to unprecedented levels, and we are far from recovered.

There were an estimated 230,000 students in 21 states whose absences could not be accounted for, according to an analysis from The Associated Press and Stanford University’s Big Local News project. While the rise in absenteeism has impacted students across the board, children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent, Attendance Works reports.

Additionally, students from communities of color, as well as those with disabilities, are disproportionately affected. While many chronically absent students, especially in the elementary years, might have excused absences, intervening early is essential because students who are chronically absent in elementary school are at higher risk of dropping out of high school and entering the criminal justice system.

When we talk about chronic absenteeism, we’re literally talking about saving lives.

School communications and connectedness

There are many reasons not to come to school, a number of which are out of our control. But one entry point to attendance is the concept of belongingness or school connectedness. The belief that you are welcome and included in the community. This is the “I” in a district’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

If we’re talking about at-risk students, we have to talk about school connectedness. Truancy is a barrier to inclusion. Rather than treat absenteeism as truancy, we can use our district’s DEI goals to build a more inclusive community at the building level. In other words, we can approach attendance by building strong community bonds.

One simple way to begin that process is with school communications. At the micro level, school communications are about sharing information, but at the macro level, they’re about building relationships. Regular updates—coupled with one-on-one outreach from the principal, teachers, counselors, and coaches—say to students: “We care. We want you to know what’s going on. Your child’s presence matters! Our community is only complete when your child is here.”

Here are 5 steps you can take to jumpstart inclusive communications:

  1. Share weekly, digital, translatable “Principal Weekly Updates” that clearly communicate procedures and school values, and that invite family participation. Post across multiple channels.
  2. Share weekly, digital, translatable classroom/homeroom updates that build a communication bridge from home to school across multiple channels. Include information about the weekly schedule, lunch menu, assignments, due dates, upcoming events, and shout-outs for good attendance. Communicate the importance of being at school. Send these updates at the same time each week, so that home adults can rely on it.
  3. Monitor your analytics to understand who’s engaging with your updates and who isn’t. Match engagement patterns against attendance data.
  4. Work with counselors to reach out individually to families via two-way messages to build meaningful one-on-on relationships to help address absenteeism.
  5. Implement a positive, welcoming universal attendance intervention solution with communications in each family’s home language.

Make sure staff also feel connected

Research shows the benefits of intentional school communications really pay off: the more home adults hear from teachers, the more successful their children are in school—from attendance to behavior regulation to achievement. It’s a win-win.

Lastly, it’s important to get faculty on board.

To foster inclusive school and classroom communities, building leaders need to model the kinds of communications practices that encourage school connectedness. One way to set the tone is via a Principal Weekly Update shared with families. A second is to share a Principal Weekly Update with faculty and staff, with logistical info for the week plus professional learning resources and inspiration. Additionally, instructional coaches should work with teachers on the specific strategies they need to help at-risk students thrive.

There’s no magic fix for chronic absenteeism, but we can strive to make our school buildings the place where students want to be. And we can challenge ourselves to build communities where at-risk students truly feel they belong.

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