Each year, the best part of my job is shaking the hands of our almost 8,000 high school graduates. I get to meet amazing students and their families who are eager to begin the next chapter of their lives.
Last May, I met Madison Mitzel, a graduate with 13 years of perfect attendance. From kindergarten through grade 12, she did not miss one single school day—it was no wonder she was graduating at the top of her class.
Quite frankly, students must be in school in order to succeed. However, Madison’s accomplishment is quite rare. In fact, there are far too many students who are instead chronically absent, frequently missing school and losing valuable learning opportunities.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of school days in a school year for any reason, excused or unexcused. One in 8 students across the United States were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year, with students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities experiencing even higher rates.
Chronically absent students’ school experience looks very different from those who attend regularly, especially for students already faced with a myriad of challenges. Imagine trying to make progress without nearly a full month of opportunities to learn.
Every school day counts. Each day missed, whether excused or not, takes away from the crucial process of relationship-building between students and educators so that learning can capitalize on individual strengths, weaknesses and interests. And now that state learning expectations are higher than ever, absent students miss the chance to learn foundational skills in sequence and to practice and apply what they are learning. Further, experts agree that school is the safest place for students during the day.
Students who miss school even impact the learning experience of their peers who attend school regularly. The curriculum pace slows as educators review material for those who were out, and meaningful group projects must be rethought to accommodate missing group members.
Chronic absence patterns emerge early, and are associated with poor attendance and performance throughout schooling. Poor attendance and performance can result from habits that we can and must break. As we prepare for the upcoming school year, educators can focus on these seven strategies to address and prevent chronic absenteeism in their schools and classrooms.
- Proactively build relationships with parents and guardians over the summer. Support meaningful educator/family engagement that affirms the importance of daily attendance as essential to success. During the academic year, engage families in effective and consequential ways including providing opportunities for families to support in-class learning and to supplement whole-school engagement.
- Ensure that schools are places where students want to be. Support school climates where all students are affirmed, safe and engaged. Learning should be relevant and reflective of the things that matter most to students. Students should be celebrated as experts of their experience and their voices should be central to discussions about the work required to improve schools and communities. Educators can support inclusive and affirming environments by celebrating diverse contributions (outside of Black History Month), for example.
- Use last year’s attendance data to proactively engage families that may need support. Identify families who are or are at risk of chronically absenteeism and work with them to construct a plan to overcome obstacles to attendance and success.
- Help families develop transportation plans to ensure that their student has a consistent means of getting to school. Often students miss school due to unreliable transportation. Ensure that all students have effective transportation plans, which may include organizing walking buses to safely transport students to and from school.
- Provide families in need with the support required to ensure success. Coordinate with local agencies, employers, faith communities as well as community based organizations to identify and facilitate access to services and supports that will assist families in need.
- Provide incentives to support good attendance. Celebrate students and families who show up every day and on time (while not disparaging those who are unable to do so). Consider opportunities to highlight students and families as well as the strategies they employ in school newsletters or during assemblies.
- Rethink discipline policies and practices that disproportionately push students of color out of school. Suspensions and expulsions contribute to chronic absenteeism and missed classroom time. In addition, students experiencing bullying and harassment may find it challenging to arrive to school on time, each day, or otherwise remain engaged during the school year. Educators should ensure that all teachers and leaders are equipped with the tools and resources needed to ensure all students are safe, engaged and welcome.
The thread that runs through each of the aforementioned recommendations is identifying obstacles to success and working collaboratively to overcome them. We encourage you to take the steps required to ensure that all students show up able to show just how brilliant they are.