Present in the Story of Student Absenteeism
The data on chronic student absenteeism released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights are jaw-dropping.
In one school year alone, more than 6 million students — 13 percent of the student population — were considered chronically absent, missing 15 or more school days during the school year. Six million.
And rates are higher among students of color, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.
The numbers left dry-throated educators, policymakers, advocates, and education reporters alike stammering for a narrative to cushion the hard blow of the data and to try to explain how so many students went chronically missing from our classrooms in one school year alone. In the days following the release of those data, a cast of predictable villains was assembled: struggling families and communities, inadequate health, housing and social services, and “bad parenting.”
Alarmingly absent, however, was much of any mention of schools.
Having spent more than seven years now working directly with adolescents in the foster care system, I am not about to say that the struggles many students face outside of school do not contribute —sometimes mightily — to school absenteeism. Over the years, I have witnessed young people up against some of the most daunting challenges. And I have seen first-hand the systemic failures of agencies charged with protecting the welfare of young people and families and the turbulence that ensues in the lives of those young people.
But I have also witnessed, time and again, in both my work with young people and my work in schools through Ed Trust, the real power of schools to pull students in — and to push them out.
The schools I had the honor of spending time in while doing research on school re-engagement empower themselves with the narrative that they can do something about chronic absenteeism.
Springing from that narrative, their practices provide evidence of the power of schools to help turn staggering absenteeism rates around.
Here are five key lessons from these incredible schools and educators:
They don’t wait for students to disappear. When students enroll, school counselors do an intake with each student, working to identify and address concerns and barriers to attendance and achievement. And throughout the year, these schools have systems in place to ensure that they catch any attendance issues early, before they escalate. Teachers and counselors reach out to students and families in real time and work as partners to ensure that students are present and learning. They make sure that students who have missed instructional days have a path to catch back up and don’t fall further behind.
They target supports to the students who most need them. These are schools serving concentrations of struggling students. Still, they never throw up their hands and say, “Well, we have so many students to serve. We don’t have time to monitor all of them.” They tier students by need for intervention, and they organize themselves so that they can serve all students while providing extra supports to those who need it. And the supports they help provide for their students aren’t limited to those the school provides. They reach out to youth- and family-serving agencies and organizations to provide wrap-around support and to ensure that they are maximizing — and not duplicating or fraying — efforts.
They listen to students and work to create caring school environments. These schools are constantly providing touch points with students, from classrooms to counseling offices, to ensure that they stay on the pulse of school climate and student engagement. They make sure that in all of their classrooms and hallways, as well as through their practices and policies, young people are made to feel heard, cared about, and empowered.
They reserve out-of-school suspension for only the most serious infractions. These schools know that absence, regardless of reason, means that students are missing valuable instructional time. And so their disciplinary practices and policies stress restoration over punishment and keep students in school, not push them out. Building an environment of support and respect, these practices don’t just ultimately result in fewer suspensions, they result in fewer disciplinary infractions in the first place.
And they are constantly refining their practices with new learning. Leaders in these schools are constant learners, working to gain lessons from the field and from research in how to improve their practices. They consult resources like Attendance Works for research-backed strategies to ensure that their students are present and learning.
While others would be content to be written out of the narrative and call in sick for the effort to combat student absenteeism, these schools are standing and declaring themselves present — and powerful.