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June 20, 2024
ASCD Blog

3 Novel Approaches to Reducing Absenteeism

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Absenteeism isn’t a new problem. Looking at successful solutions other schools have implemented can help educators boost attendance and engagement in schools today.
EngagementSchool CultureEquity
Two children talk to each other and walk to school with their backs turned toward the camera, a school bus in the background behind them
Credit: Andrew Angelov / Shutterstock
Lemon-scented cleaning products were the prominent smell as I walked into the home of a 7th grade student in rural Pennsylvania. His mom greeted me (the assistant principal) and the school counselor with masked worry, quickly saying, “Sorry about the mess. I’m trying to get him to school; he just has so much to do.”  
In this single-parent household, the 13-year-old son was responsible for so many daily chores, including caring for his disabled mom, that he had already missed 15 days of school in the first quarter alone. We spent the next hour talking—not about an attendance plan or truancy court, but about the difficulties that the mother was facing and supports that could be offered to her and her son. Two hours later, our departure was marked with a tone of sincere gratitude and relief in her voice, and we promised to return in two weeks to check on progress. 
Absenteeism has reemerged (because it was always there) as a dilemma facing districts. This time, though, absenteeism is paired with declining enrollment and culture wars, which are overshadowing the severity of this dilemma.  
In my bi-weekly superintendent roundtable meeting, the district’s director of student engagement presented data on the number of children enrolled in public, charter, and virtual schools, cross-referenced with attendance and academic performance patterns. The overarching question was about how to increase both academics and attendance while meeting family needs.
This is not a challenge for district-level administrators to solve on their own, nor is it reasonable to put the problem and solution on individual schools, principals, or teachers. 

All too often in education, we attempt to fix problems reactively by introducing new solutions, rather than looking at what has worked in the past.

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The counselor and I knew we needed to address what was becoming a trend: All too often in education, we attempt to diagnose and fix problems reactively by introducing new solutions, rather than approaching problems proactively by looking at what has worked in the past. Although absentee rates have increased nationwide, there are several practices that communities and school districts have employed for years that help mitigate this problem. While there are several barriers to addressing absenteeism in school districts, we can draw on three uniquely creative and inclusive strategies that have resulted in past successes.  

1. Collaborate to maximize school resources with minimal state and federal support. 

One of the creative strategies used to re-engage the 7th grade student who was having trouble balancing family responsibilities with school attendance was to allow additional time during the school day for academic and non-academic activities. REM (Remediation, Enrichment, and Make-Up) is a concept that provides students with extended periods during school hours aimed at providing opportunities for students to get back on track educationally. Many schools and districts have programs like REM, such as ELP (Extended Learning Programs), which implement similar concepts and supports. Studies have seen these strategies in action across the country, from a rural school in Pennsylvania to an inner-city school in Florida.  
Using this structure, students rotate through sessions that meet their needs at each grade and grade-band level. Student service teams work together to identify students in need of academic and non-academic supports and intentionally provide these supports during the extended morning block. 
For students who are chronically tardy, REM provides a time buffer before they miss key academic classes. For students who are on time, it provides additional academic support. This time also allows for fun activities that encourage students to get to school, such as The Coffee Cart, Daily Dance-Offs, and Recess Raffles. When staff at these schools (administrators, teachers, support staff) intentionally structured the school day to engage students with free activities, each school saw a decrease in their rate of truancy and tardiness.

2. Leverage communities and hire family members. 

Absenteeism impacts high-poverty and minority communities the most, so solutions need to come from a community-based approach. Frequently, schools call phone numbers that don’t work, send letters to addresses that have changed, and hold meetings and town halls with low to no attendance. For students who do not have permanent housing or reside in foster care or group homes, absenteeism and tardiness are four times as likely
By actively including communities and family members, schools have seen dramatic increases not only in attendance rates but also in achievement rates. For example, during the 2016-2017 school year, Roosevelt Elementary School in Philadelphia had a chronic truancy rate of 41 percent. However, during their 2018-2019 school year, the chronic truancy rate had dropped to 22 percent and, more impressively, the school outperformed the state in academic gains with over 75 percent of their students making academic growth in ELA, math, and science. In addition, they filled six staff vacancies and reduced behavioral incidents and suspensions by 17 percent in the short two-year period.  

By actively including communities and family members, schools have seen increases not only in attendance but also in achievement rates.

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How did this school achieve such drastic results so quickly?
They hired parents. 
School administration analyzed data to identify that 60 percent of their students with chronic truancy were from homes where one or more guardians were unemployed. Many of these families, however, had an abundance of neighborhood connections and relations. Three community members, for example, had a connection to over 47 students. The school offered them jobs, hiring two parents as climate support staff and one individual as a community liaison. These roles are integral to school operations, as they provide supports and supervision to both students and families. 
While some districts have positions similar to climate support staff, such as hall monitors and lunch supervisors, the climate support staff at Roosevelt Elementary works with students to establish attendance and behavior goals and coach and mentor them toward achieving these goals. The community liaison then connects families with resources in support of their child’s goals. As climate support staff interact with students, they collaborate with the community liaison, who communicates with families to create a system of comprehensive supports. This approach wholly engages community participation and involvement, aimed at slowly but surely improving student attendance. 
The school created a winning situation for the community: School was now not only a place for students to learn but also a place for adults to be employed. The newly hired staff supported students during and outside the school day to improve their daily attendance. Seeing success in this strategy, three additional community members were hired the following year to expand what was becoming the school’s Community Connections department. In addition to increasing student attendance, the school began to build trust with the community and increased school community engagement. Five years later, the school has maintained its attendance rate, experiencing a reduced rate of chronic absenteeism compared to their district peers.  

3. Acknowledge new dynamics in student learning options. 

During the pandemic, many families found virtual and e-learning options convenient for students. How do we authentically engage students using these programs and platforms? Enrollment in virtual schools is exploding and, if public schools want to keep families and students enrolled and engaged, they will need to embrace technology and new dynamics to provide options for students and families that still meet the rigorous demands required for graduation and college-career readiness. 

If public schools want to keep families and students enrolled and engaged, they will need to embrace technology and new dynamics.

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Some households during the pandemic developed routines that allowed caregivers to continue working and students to continue at-home learning. Other families established a “new way of school” and routines. Families who had the opportunity to work and learn from home also benefited from increased family time. 
If schools are going to improve engagement, these dynamics need to be recognized. A colleague of mine who works for the Maryland Department of Education described to me recently a new organization with a unique approach to addressing truancy. Based out of Baltimore, Concentric Educational Solutions has contracted with a number of school districts and inner-city schools by checking on and supporting families in the e-learning process. For schools in Detroit, this option comes with social supports and visits from attendance counselors. They schedule check-in sessions to ensure that students who are learning remotely are cognitively engaged. It is not tutoring or mentoring but proactive monitoring—a “mobile counselor” to help keep students on a path to academic success and to support each family’s unique circumstances. 

Addressing Absenteeism Requires Everyone

As an education community, we need to work together to engage and increase student attendance and learning—and this is a problem that all individuals need to have a say in solving. REM was born out of a desire to provide students with school-day time to get caught up on work and evolved into a truancy prevention tactic. Parents being hired by the school was a novel idea to support chronically truant students, but it transformed the surrounding neighborhood. The “mobile counselor” initiative, which involves checking on families struggling with e-learning, has a significant impact beyond ensuring schoolwork completion: It helps regain families' trust in the school system. 
As districts across the country face declining enrollment, and as technology continues to evolve at a rapid rate, families will be provided with more education options than ever for their children. Every school and every district has programs that are working to support students but may need a shift in the approach or an adaptation from a neighboring school. To support families and re-engage students to reduce absenteeism, we must be collaborative and creative. From teachers to parents to lawmakers and students, the ability to increase engagement and attendance will require everyone.

Matthew Hayes has over 10 years of experience as a school and district level in rural, suburban and urban communities. He was a principal in Philadelphia and is currently an area superintendent in Florida who advocates for instructional equity and community resources and engagement.

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