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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

It is now late October. Have any of your students already missed more than a month of school? Are any on track to? Can you even know?

Educators understand the importance of school attendance -- as we often say, "You can't teach an empty desk." And schools have mechanisms in place to track it, including average daily attendance (ADA) and truancy. But neither of those measures addresses chronic absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year -- approximately 18 days a year, or just two days every month. And across the nation, 5 to 7.5 million students are chronically absent.

While this issue is more often discussed at the middle and high school level (and is quite important there, as chronic absence in middle school is a clear predictor of dropping out, and by ninth grade, attendance is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores), it surprisingly relevant to elementary schools -- and even preschools -- as well. Nationally, one in 10 kindergarten and first grade students miss the equivalent of a month of school -- in some schools and districts, it is as many as one in four. And new research out of Chicago indicates that the problem is even larger in preschool, with almost half of three-year-olds and more than one-third of four-year-olds chronically absent.

Missing school -- at whatever level -- has consequences for children. The Chicago research found that students who are chronically absent in preschool end the year with lower skills, as measured by the district's kindergarten readiness tool, than those who attend (and kindergarten readiness is linked to later academic success). Other research has shown that chronic absence in kindergarten and first grade leads to lower performance in third grade, which is tied to decreased attendance in sixth and ninth grade and an increased risk of dropping out.

Chronic absenteeism is clearly important to address at all levels. So why don't we talk about it more? Because we often don't know the true situation in our community. ADA can mask chronic absenteeism, and while the definition of truancy varies by state, it typically only counts unexcused absences. Particularly in the lower grades, a child who is absent often has an adult's permission.

What Can Educators Do?

At whatever level you work, the first step in addressing chronic absenteeism is collecting the right data. Attendance Works provides free data tools to help identify patterns of chronic absence (who is missing school?), examine the factors affecting it (why are they missing school?) and assess where your school is on engaging in the practices known to help improve overall attendance.

Once you have identified where concerns about chronic absenteeism lie, you may recognize that certain groups of students have attendance issues that you can work to address as a school community. However, be prepared to take a student by student approach to addressing attendance, helping individual students overcome the barriers they face to coming to school (for example, housing instability, a lack of effective transportation options, childcare issues, bullying concerns and more). Your school or district may want to form an attendance team that meets regularly to discuss at-risk students and follow up on plans to improve their attendance.

In general, be prepared to see students missing school for reasons connected to a number of social issues, particularly in the younger grades. Consider forming school-community partnerships (for example, with community health groups, transit departments or mentoring organizations) to address these issues and help boost attendance.

Prevention Is Key

The best way to address chronic absenteeism is before it becomes an issue. All educators should work to make sure their schools are places that students want to be -- safe, supportive and engaging environments where students feel welcome and valued. Other tips to address attendance issues at a large scale:

  • Communicate with students. Help students see the importance of attendance on their educational futures. Celebrate attendance (for example, with certificates for good and improving attendance and raffling off prizes for students who attend regularly)
  • Strengthen after-school programs. Students in after-school programs attend more school than their peers, according to some research
  • Develop new attendance goals. Often school attendance goals are based on ADA. Add new goals based on chronic absenteeism

Particularly for educators at the younger grades: Communicate with parents. While family engagement is crucial at all levels, it is particularly important in the lower grades. Many parents do not see the impact of their child's attendance prior to high school on their futures. Let them know the statistics (this infographic and this research summary can help).

Particularly for educators at the upper levels: Reach down to feeder schools. Gathering attendance data on incoming students to target interventions appropriately from the first day. This may mean working with feeder schools to ensure they track the right data.

(Tips were adapted from materials by National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and Attendance Works.)

The Bottom Line

Attendance is a critical aspect of student -- and school -- success. And in building a culture that celebrates it, we must look beyond traditional measures to make sure we identify issues with chronic absenteeism. If we don't look specifically for them, they might never come to light.

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