How to address chronic student absenteeism in schools

Schools across the country are struggling with chronic student absenteeism, and more are now using absences as a measure of school culture in accountability reports to the U.S. Department of Education.

Education researchers believe the solution to addressing the problem requires simple steps to involve parents and the community, and are encouraging schools to move away from punitive punishments that have failed in the past.

Available data shows more than 7 million students miss at least 15 school days per year, and in nearly 10,000 schools at least 30 percent of students are chronically absent, which is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, Education Week reports.

In the past, the measure served as an indicator that something is wrong with a student or school, and often foreshadowed future academic struggles including students being held back or failing to graduate high school.

Now, many states are ramping up efforts to address the problem by including student absences in yearly federal reports required through the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires states to report chronic absenteeism, but roughly three-quarters of states are including the metric as a measure of school quality in an attempt to improve academic outcomes, according to the news site.

“First and foremost, you have to show up to learn,” Angelo Gonzales, director of the nonprofit Mission: Graduate told the Albuquerque Journal. “It is also about engagement. We want kids to be present and deeply engaged in their learning.”

In Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, roughly 25 percent of high school students are habitually truant. It’s a similar story nationwide.

In Oregon, the percentage of chronically absent students statewide increased from 17.4 percent a few years ago to nearly 20 percent last year, The Daily Astorian reports.

In Oregon’s Seaside School District, 24 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of the school year, and other districts like Knappa and Jewell schools were close behind with chronic absentee rates eclipsing 20 percent.

“We know that students who attend school regularly have more opportunity to learn, so tracking chronic absenteeism is critical,” acting state Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill told the news site. “There is a direct link between high instances of chronic absenteeism and low graduation rates. This is why chronic absenteeism is one of our school accountability measures in our Oregon Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act and why Gov. (Kate) Brown and the Legislature have invested in programs to address the issue.”

In Oregon, the state invested $7.4 million over the next two years to improve attendance and graduation rates. Other states including North Carolina are also considering absenteeism as a metric for ESSA plans.

A recent study by the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation reveals the problem often starts early in students’ academic careers. In North Carolina, one in eight elementary school students miss 15 days or more of school, Duke University professor Philip Cook and Georgetown University’s Phyllis Jordan wrote in a recent editorial for the Charlotte Observer.

But Jordan and Cook point out that solutions for getting students to come to class regularly aren’t exactly rocket science.

In one school, administrators gave teachers of first-and second-grade students prepaid cell phones to keep regular contact with parents, and encouraged educators to visit students and their parents at home at the beginning of the year.

According to Jordan and Cook:

The results of the experiment in one North Carolina school district were positive: Student absenteeism dropped by an average of 10 percent, and parents were twice as likely to contact teachers—whether through texts or calls—as parents in other classrooms.

A report from the nonprofit Attendance Works titled “Portraits of Change” highlights other relatively simple models deployed elsewhere to cut down on chronic absenteeism.

“Cleveland, for example, brought its chronic absence rate down from 35 percent to 29 percent in a year by enlisting a wide array of education and community partners. Cleveland’s attendance campaign included phone banking and outreach, incentives, professional development for teachers, and mentoring for students struggling with attendance. Long Beach, Calif., engaged the entire community, including its health professionals, in its campaign to cut absenteeism across the board,” Education Week reports.

“New Britain, Conn., deployed additional outreach workers to help cut kindergarten chronic absenteeism in half within two years. When attendance climbed in those New Britain kindergarten classrooms, so did the scores on literacy tests.”

“Chronic absenteeism, more than any academic indicator, is something parents, teachers, and the community can improve if they use data to target action and address barriers to getting to school,” Education Week reports. “Fortunately, public data will be more available than ever before for scrutiny. And the inclusion of the metric in state accountability plans brings an added urgency to getting more kids to school every day.”

The common theme of several successful efforts have focused on positive encouragement, rather than past practices such as fines, suspensions or jail time for parents of chronically absent students.

Importantly, the  most successful strategies for getting students to class require involving parents and the community as a whole in the problem-solving process. As James Davison Hunter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, “Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.”

By involving family culture, school administrators are able to create a stronger school culture. Bringing parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders together is critical for other important initiatives, such as student character education programs.

Schools partner with police to help traumatized students

The West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice is promoting a new way of dealing with traumatized students that’s building on the relationship between law enforcement and schools.

The “Handle With Care” program spawned from high percentages of students in West Virginia schools dealing with traumatic home lives, and is designed to give police a means of tipping off schools that specific students could be struggling with serious problems. The program also highlights the importance of schools cultivating partnerships with the community, a critical element required for a variety of educational objectives, from developing character education programs to combating chronic absenteeism.

The Register-Herald reports:

According to 2016 data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than half of West Virginia’s children (52.4 percent) have had at least one adverse childhood experience. Roughly 26 percent of the state’s children had two or more adverse experiences, such as the death or incarceration of a parent, witnessing or being a victim of violence, or living with someone who is suicidal or has substance use disorder.

Director Andrea Darr of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice told Concord University sociology students during a recent presentation on the “trauma-informed approach,” that “teachers aren’t trained to handle these children.”

“They see a misbehaving child,” she said. “They’re disrupting class so other students can’t learn, but traumatized children aren’t learning either.”

The program, launched as a pilot project in 2013 at Mary C. Snow Elementary School in Charleston, encourages local police officers to record the name, age, and school of children involved in potentially traumatizing incidents.

Officers then contact schools with a confidential text, fax, or phone call to alert administrators that a child may experience difficulty at school and they should “handle this student with care,” Darr said.

The information is not recorded as part of the child’s permanent record or any official police report, and officers do not disclose the nature of the incident. The intent is simply to advise schools that specific students are dealing with an emotional and turbulent time.

“All they need to know is this child might have trouble learning today,” Darr said. “It helped them be proactive instead of reactive with children in the classroom.”

The program is voluntary for county and local law enforcement, but many have answered the call to action and helped to expand the program statewide by 2015. As of February 2016, police have tipped off schools to a total of 580 incidents involving 1,056 kids, and schools are praising the program, the Register-Herald reports.

“We’ve received nothing but positive feedback,” said Eric Dillon, director of pupil services at Raleigh County Schools. “Lots of times, we as educators, administrators and counselors, we do not know that interaction is taking place outside the school. It’s always beneficial for us to know in dealing with that child the next day.”

Dillon said RCS received 149 Handle With Care referrals last year from the Beckley Police Department and the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Office, often times over the weekend. The information is relayed to teachers, who can then offer resources like counselors and social workers to students in need.

“There are so many things as an educator you can’t control,” Dillon said. “All our educators have the best interest in mind for all our students. To be able to intervene, to talk to the child and offer support for the child, it’s a win-win for our students and our school system.”

The effort to bring community leaders, in schools and local law enforcement, together in support of students is the same type of cohesion University of Virginia sociologist James Hunter describes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.

“Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, united, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation,” Hunter writes.

School leaders, teachers, board members and others can build on the strong social networks established through the “Handle With Care” program and similar efforts to intentionally develop a school ecosystem that supports good character, which would undoubtedly benefit both traumatized students and their classmates.

The Jubilee Centre offers a framework for schools to think through the community building process, with specific considerations for pupils and parents, as well as methods for connecting with community groups, businesses, other schools, and universities.