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Millions of students are chronically absent each year. Improve school conditions and more kids will show up, report argues

Mark Keierleber | September 23, 2019

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An obvious educational rule of thumb is that in order for students to learn at school, they first have to show up.

But with millions of children counted “chronically absent” each year, a new report argues that educators can improve attendance by first making their schools more welcoming places to attend.

The report, released Tuesday by the American Institutes for Research and Attendance Works, argues that schools can improve student attendance if children feel safe and included at school. A comprehensive strategy to improve students’ health and safety, sense of belonging, emotional well-being and academic engagement are all key to combating chronic absences, according to the report.

Those elements work together to “pull people in or push them out,” said David Osher, vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a co-author of the report.

“You want school to be a place people want to be,” he said. “For too many students, particularly too many students who face economic disadvantage and often are culturally marginalized, what they experience in school tends to not be highly engaging.”

As examples of the benefits to improving school climate, researchers pointed to reforms in Cleveland, Ohio, that followed a 2007 school shooting. In that incident, a suspended student showed up to his high school campus and opened fire, injuring two teachers and two students before taking his own life.

In response, the district launched an initiative to improve the social and emotional skills of both educators and students, including a preK-5 curriculum that helps children understand and manage their emotions as well as reforms to in-school suspensions.

The district also launched a new approach to truancy that centers on family engagement and early student interventions rather than referring students to court. An ongoing campaign offers incentives for good attendance and a phone bank that allows officials to call the parents of students who frequently miss school. Data collected during those calls have helped identify challenging patterns, including incidents in which students didn’t go to school because they lacked clean clothes, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. In a partnership with the Cleveland Browns Foundation, the district responded with an initiative that provides school uniforms to students. Since the attendance campaign launched during the 2015-16 school year, chronic absence has declined from 44 percent to 30 percent.

Other districts should adopt a data-driven approach to absenteeism, researchers argue, while a flood of new student attendance data can help school leaders and policymakers identify other school climate challenges. Student attendance has received heightened attention in recent years after 36 states and the District of Columbia opted to use chronic absenteeism as a school accountability metric under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Nearly 8 million students missed at least three weeks of school during the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent federal education data.

Children living in poverty, students of color and those with disabilities are more likely to be chronically absent, a term that encompasses excused and unexcused absences as well as out-of-school suspensions. Chronic absences can stem from a variety of challenges, from health problems to housing instability. Because of the steep challenges some children face, improving learning environments won’t guarantee perfect attendance, according to the report. But a poor school environment can exacerbate the problem.

Rather than addressing chronic absenteeism on its own, the report argues that it should be part of a wider school improvement effort that centers on issues such as curtailing bullying, providing engaging coursework and fostering cultural responsiveness.

“Educators and staff should offer students the care and support they need to handle challenges and adversities that can undermine academic success,” according to the report. “Students more often ask for help, persist and achieve when they are taught by and receive support from adults who demonstrate they care about them.”

Parents and students can face punitive discipline for unexcused absences, known as truancy, including fines or jail time for parents whose children frequently fail to show up to class. But that approach comes with dangers, Chang said.

“People too often thought that addressing poor attendance is a matter for the courts when that’s only the very last resort,” Chang said. “What really has to happen is an investment by schools and communities in prevention and early intervention. If we do that well, very few kids should ever have to see that intensive system.”

In-school efforts to punish students for poor attendance can also have negative ramifications, Osher said. When absent, students can be barred from making up missed assignments, excluded from extracurricular activities or even suspended. Such approaches, he said, can interfere with school efforts to engage students.

“The policy of punishing somebody for missing a class or more by telling them that they’re then going to miss another day or two of classes or more doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It’ll make it more likely that you’ll repeat a grade. It’ll make it more likely that you’ll drop out of school.”

With districts nationwide able to access more data on chronic absenteeism, the report also highlights a new interactive map by the Brookings Institution, which highlights school-by-school absence rates across the country alongside community factors that could affect learning, such as student discipline rates.

Though it can be a daunting task to address chronic absenteeism, Chang said data on the problem can guide reforms.

“Using the data to unpack what’s going on, using the data to target where you can bring in other community partners so you can share the burden, that’s what helps this not feel so overwhelming,” she said.

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