Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
Attendance Works and The Campaign for Grade Level Reading co-hosted a recent webinar to discuss ways to support students with chronic attendance problems. The panel was moderated by Hedy Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence. The panelists represented urban and suburban districts from around the country. Panelists shared best practices for how “partnerships with health providers, public agencies, community organizations and early childhood providers can equip schools to take the year-round, all-hands-on-deck, intentional approach to ensuring students are engaged and learning in multiple settings so they are comfortable and confident in school.”
In recent years there has been increased awareness that promoting school attendance is a powerful way to improve student outcomes in both learning and emotional wellbeing. Educators have long known that chronic absenteeism is the early grades is a strong predictor of continued attendance and achievement problems throughout the K-12 experience. We also know that mental health and physical wellbeing of both the child and/or the caregiver can be either the cause or the result of poor school attendance. Further, chronic absenteeism has intersectional connections with such other issues as housing, poverty, access to medical care, asthma, community safety, and before and after-school childcare. These issues long predated the COVID pandemic, but they spiked during that time and have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education from SY 2020-21, the first full year of the pandemic, reported that at least 10.1 million students were chronically absent from school. Chronic absence is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, and it includes excused and unexcused absences and suspensions. The SY 2021-22 school data released by at least five states-Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and California- shows that chronic absence continued to surge and is especially concerning within the kindergarten grades. Chronic absence in kindergarten is a strong predictor of ongoing attendance problems, so engaging parents in addressing these barriers early on is very important for ensuring students learn to read by third grade due to its impact on subsequent school performance, including graduation rates. Kindergarten absenteeism in Ohio increased from 21.9 % in 2021 to 31.3% in 2022, and in California the chronic absence rate for kindergarten for 2022 was 40.4 %. Connecticut kindergartners in 2022 had a chronic absence rate of 27.5% with preliminary data for Fall SY 2022-2023 showing an increase to 33.2%. Its impact can be seen as well for older middle and high school students who have left school without a diploma. Some data suggests that older students are caring for their younger siblings and/or working to support their families.
The innovative approaches presented at the Attendance Works webinar highlight effective strategies that schools and districts are using to focus on improving attendance – especially in the early grades. They include continuously engaging caregivers to inform them of the social, emotional and academic importance of coming to school each day for their pre-K and Kindergarten student; making home visits to increase connection and trust between families and schools; and building multitiered systems of support that includes high levels of community and family engagement. The panelists also emphasized physical and mental health-related factors that drive absenteeism rates. A related article outlines three areas for improvement:
· providing caregivers with clear guidance about when a child should stay home or show up to school for physical and mental health-related reasons;
· investing in tools and resources to ensure that school is a safe and welcoming environment for a student
· data sharing, early intervention and treatment services and supports (Tier 2 and 3) to support student emotional, behavioral and physical health needs.
All these approaches are important for students to gain critical skills in academic, social and emotional areas and to improve regular school attendance. It’s encouraging to learn about what many districts are doing to improve attendance by addressing the complex root causes of chronic absenteeism.