5 Ways Districts Are Fighting Chronic Absenteeism

Dec 15, 2023
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Nationally, about 7 million students miss at least 15 days of school per year. This equates to about one in every seven students. The reality for these chronically absent students is tough. Missing so many days of school can have negative impacts, such as falling behind, failing classes, and not graduating.

To combat the effects of chronic absenteeism, many states are taking action. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia are using chronic absenteeism as their additional academic indicator in their ESSA plans. Many states have slight differences in their definitions of what chronic absenteeism means, but generally, it’s defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year.

With this in mind, the focus on improving attendance rates for students who are chronically absent is certainly a concern across the nation, and it’s important to recognize the current efforts being made to fix this. Here are some ways that educators can fight against chronic absenteeism and support students based on what is working for other schools and districts.

1. Determine the cause

Before you can successfully implement any program to improve attendance, you’ll first have to figure out why students are chronically absent. Students may not be able to help it, and you will be able to better assist them if you’re acquainted with their situation. The article “How Schools Can Reduce Chronic Absenteeism” from Healthy Schools Campaign discusses how Mesa County in Colorado created tip sheets for teachers when talking to parents and guardians about attendance issues, behavior problems, or any other sensitive topics.

These tip sheets were designed to make teachers more comfortable talking about their concerns and ultimately uncover what is going on with students’ lives. Using these tip sheets and common referral forms, teachers and staff were able to refer students to specific services, such as healthcare, to address high rates of absences.

2. Partner with an outside organization

With tightening district and school budgets, it may be difficult to provide extra support to students who need it. This is why several districts are partnering with community organizations that have the means to provide for these students. That same Healthy Schools Campaign article discusses Mesa County’s pilot of the Building Bridges Initiative. This program not only helped educators identify and refer students who needed support but also connected them with community partners to get students the support they needed. After implementation of this pilot, participating schools saw a decrease in suspensions and expulsions and increases in GPAs and parent satisfaction, which resulted from reduced student absences.

An article from Education Week, “Schools Mount Fight Against Chronic Absenteeism,” mentions that, after analyzing data, a group of districts in Texas was able to find that many students were missing class frequently due to acute illness. To help, the districts were able to partner with a community organization to give free flu shots to students. For families who may have not had the time or money to get their children flu shots, this service really alleviated some stress and prevented their children from missing any school, and for districts, this was a clear opportunity to tackle this challenge.

3. Launch a schoolwide awareness campaign

It’s crucial for parents and students to understand what chronic absenteeism is and to be aware of the consequences that could follow, but not all do. Launching a campaign around your school can help build this awareness. For example, Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan partnered with Attendance Works and a local group, Believe 2 Become, to create the Challenge 5 campaign. The name “Challenge 5” originated through the purpose of educating parents and students about how missing more than five days of school a year increases the risk of dropping out and not graduating. This communitywide campaign challenges parents and students to strive for fewer than five absences a year.

Through the Challenge 5 campaign, community organizations were able to display posters and stickers in English and Spanish around the neighborhoods to make people more aware of the attendance issues. The outreach helped parents gain the skills they needed to support their children. After a year of this campaign, chronic absenteeism went from 35 percent to 27 percent, and then a year after that, it dropped to 22 percent.

4. Empower parents

Getting parents involved is important for student success, as it allows them to develop relationships with their children’s teachers, advocate for their children’s well-being, and support achievement goals. Encourage parents to step up, do their part and be aware of what’s happening around their children’s schools and district. In Maine, some schools have teams of parents and volunteers who have offered to walk with students to school. This not only ensures their safety but also helps give the extra motivation they need to get there and keep learning.

In Springdale, Arkansas, Monitor Elementary School hosts a literacy program for parents four days a week to discuss parenting education and to give them time to observe their children’s classes. This is a great way for parents to recognize how they can better support their children.

5. Incentivize good attendance

To help get your students in the classroom every day, incentives are never a bad idea. Sometimes, all that students need is a little extra excitement to get them there and to ensure that they are up to speed with the class. For example, each grade level in every Grand Rapids school held competitions for best attendance. The winners were rewarded with pizza parties and other exciting prizes. One teacher in another district gave out sticks of gum or fun-sized candy bars to those of her students who made it to class a certain amount of days. No matter how big or small the prize may be, a little incentive doesn’t hurt if you’re striving to motivate your students to attend class.

These are just a few ways that districts, schools, and communities could be fighting chronic absenteeism, and I’m sure that there are many more great ideas out there. Educators have the power to support these students where they need it most, and these are some starting points

Want to learn more about chronic absenteeism? Be sure to check out our blog post on how chronic absenteeism affects student achievement!

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