What to Do to Support Students Who Are Chronically Absent from School?

Two new reports—from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and from Attendance Works—explore chronic student absenteeism and its consequences for student achievement and graduation.  Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must begin reporting data about students’ chronic absence in their accountability reports.  Attendance Works even posts an online interactive map from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution where a person can find chronic absence data about one’s own school district.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing not just days but also weeks of school.  Attendance Works defines chronic absenteeism as, “missing 10 percent of school—the equivalent of two days every month or 18 days over a 180-day school year.”  While all school districts record students’ absences from school, until recent years most have not tracked each individual student’s accrued absences over the semester or the school year. Now school districts are required to watch and intervene when individual students’ attendance patterns become worrisome.

What is clear is that, while there are a number of ways researchers measure students’ chronic absence from school, the problem is serious:  When students miss too much school, they learn less, they fall behind, and they are more likely to drop out without graduating.  And students who are poor are more likely to miss school.

Writing for Attendance Works, Hedy Chang, Lauren Bauer, and Vaughan Byrnes explain: “Especially hard hit are children who live in poverty, have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or experience homelessness or frequent moves.  When chronic absence reaches high levels in a school or classroom, it can affect every student’s opportunity to learn, because the resulting churn—with students cycling in and out of the classroom—is disruptive for all and hampers teachers’ ability to meet students’ diverse learning needs.”

And before they delve into a data analysis, EPI researchers, Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss summarize past research: “Poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status… changes in adult household composition (e.g. adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g. children looking after siblings)—along with inadequate supports for students within the educational system (e.g. lack of adequate transprtation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.)—are all associated with a greater likelihood of being absent, and particularly with being chronically absent.”

When we think about chronic absence, most of us think about students who cut school to hang out—students who are bored or disaffected.  But other issues are harder to address.  One teacher I know told me about a student who was late every day because she had to wait to come to school until a van came to take her quadriplegic mother to a care center. Another teacher who has been substituting in a huge high school told me he was frustrated because in the five sections of the English class he had to teach every day, it seemed that a different group of students was present each day. It seemed baffling to cope with the churn.

From the University of California at Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute, David Kirp describes a new program in Los Angeles that seems to be paying off: “The Los Angeles Unified School District has invested in a new, low-cost approach to curbing absenteeism that’s been proven to move the needle. It’s a simple, potent idea: Enlist parents as allies in keeping their kids in school.”  Many parents, he writes, are unaware that their children are missing school: “To correct these misperceptions and to enlist parents in keeping kids in school, 190,000 Los Angeles families whose kids met the chronically absent standard in the past will be mailed attendance information five times a year.”  The letters are simple: “Billy has missed more school than his classmates—16 days so far in this school year… Students fall behind when they miss school. …Absences matter and you can help.”  Kirp reports that chronic absenteeism has dropped not only in Los Angeles, but also by 10 or 15 percent in Philadelphia and Chicago after such reporting to parents becomes routine.

The research from EPI and Attendance Works, however, indicates that chronic absenteeism very frequently reflects that students who miss school are facing serious health and family challenges which can be addressed only through additional support by teachers, counselors and social workers to help students find ways to make their own schooling a priority even when other problems intervene.

Two primary school reforms come to mind. The first is to make classes small enough that teachers can really come to know their students and the barriers for students that make school attendance difficult.  This is harder in a middle school or high school, however, where teachers work with likely five classes a day—a total of 125 students even when class size is kept at 25 students.

The benefits of wrap-around, full-service Community Schools (see here or here) become apparent in the context of such challenges.  With medical and dental clinics located in the school, parents don’t have to keep kids out of school because they have forgotten the necessary immunizations. The toothache can be addressed promptly with only an hour away from class. Such schools also employ social workers to help families balance the responsibilities that sometimes put care-giving in conflict with school and to help parents and students address issues like transportation.

These schools are also designed to welcome families warmly and authentically. In Community Schools in Action (Oxford University Press, 2005), the assistant director of the New York Children’s Aid Society National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, Hersilia Mendez describes the role of parent outreach and parent engagement in a Community School: “In its work in Community Schools, the Children’s Aid Society sees parents as assets and key allies, not as burdens; we aim not only to increase the number of parents involved in their children’s education but also to deepen the intensity of their involvement and to encourage greater participation in their children’s future. As we engage parents in skills workshops and advocacy events, we also create a critical link to the home, allowing us to serve and empower whole families… The Children’s Aid Society wanted to erase the mixed invitation that schools often extend to parents—that parents should be involved in their children’s schooling but only on the school’s terms and often in rather menial ways… For an immigrant like me… Public School 5’s warm atmosphere was beyond belief.  The beautifully furnished family room, the smell of fresh coffee, the presence of so many parents at all times, and, in particular, the friendly disposition of the staff were heartwarming. To me, it was an inconceivable atmosphere to find in any school, let alone a New York City public school… The parent involvement model is culturally responsive and provides multiple entry points for meeting parents at their level as well as multiple opportunities to engage with, support, and strengthen the school.” (pp. 42-45)

Extraordinary New York Report Explores Impact of Child Poverty on School Achievement

The role of child poverty in school achievement is a topic that makes people bristle.  Poor children do well all the time, we are told.  Poor children learn just as other children learn, and we should not point the finger at their poverty as if we are blaming them or their parents.  I believe that most people who care deeply about the injustices in today’s public school policy know that poor children do, in fact, learn and thrive all the time, excel at school, and contribute later as our society’s leaders in the whole range of citizenship, leadership, academia and business.  But a half century of data is also incontrovertible: in the aggregate, scores on standardized tests correlate with family wealth, and students living in deep poverty are likely to find their academic lives affected by their economic circumstances.

An urgently important new study from New York’s New School for New York City Affairs, A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About New York City’s Lowest-Income Elementary Schools, updates a 2008 study that opened the public’s eyes to the role of chronic absenteeism in school achievement in New York—where more than 90,000 students—20 percent of elementary school students in New York City Schools—were discovered to be chronically absent—missing a month or more of school every year.  “A groundbreaking 2008 report by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School cast a penetrating light on the then-underappreciated but shockingly widespread problem of chronic absenteeism in the city’s public schools.  It found that chronic absenteeism—defined as being missing from school for at least 10 percent of the academic year—was particularly widespread among the city’s lowest-income students, hindering their success in school.  The new report updates and refines that original research.  It shows that despite measurable progress in recent years, a dispiritingly high 19 percent of elementary-grade students are still chronically absent from school.  Moreover, it describes what we for the first time define as ‘persistent chronic absenteeism’—widespread absenteeism that has continued for at least five consecutive school years, a problem plaguing nearly 130 schools with elementary-level students.”

In the years since the 2008 report, a task force appointed by former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has worked with the schools and successfully reduced chronic absence, but the numbers remain alarmingly high:  “Despite the good work done in New York City to reduce chronic absenteeism, the number of chronically absent elementary school students still hovers around one in every five students; some 87,000 children from grades K to 5 were chronically absent in the 2012-13 school year.

In the new report, researchers from the New School considered the gound-breaking 2010 research by The Consortium on Chicago School Research that identified 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in that city and then looked at similar research conducted in 2012 in Philadelphia.  They set out to discover whether a group of “truly disadvantaged” public elementary schools could also be identified in New York City: “Using 2009 U.S. Census American Community Survey data aligned to school catchments, Center staff identified the 10 percent of schools with the highest levels of family poverty and male unemployment.  This yielded 77 elementary and K-8 schools serving particularly high-poverty families in neighborhoods already known to be low income.  Using Department of Education data, we looked at the statistical effects of transient and homeless students and families receiving government support.  We also mapped the number of public housing complexes and homeless shelters in each school’s catchment.  And we obtained geographic data from the Administration for Children’s Services, allowing us to measure the intensity of investigations and foster care placement in the area each school was serving.  We then layered on numbers that gave us a picture of the health and climate of each school, including principal turnover, teacher turnover, student mobility, suspensions and analysis from the Department of Education’s Learning Environment Surveys.”

The results: “We saw almost immediately that poverty alone is not destiny.  Although each school was serving students living among some of the highest levels of poverty in New York City, the similarities ended there…  PS 140 Eagle School in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx is one of the five schools in our group struggling to make headway academically.  The school shoulders 14 of the 18 risk factors, including high unemployment and high student mobility.  The neighborhood poverty rate is nearly 85 percent and almost 18 percent of the school’s students are in temporary housing.  Principal Paul Cannon says his children do not really know what poverty means. They don’t feel deprived, at least not yet. Visiting his school, this does seem clear.  The children giggle and eagerly participate in class, hands up and answers tumbling out when Cannon quizzes them on a vocabulary word or a science term.  They clearly love their principal.  Whole lines of children squeal and give him two thumbs up as they pass in the hallway…  But there are some dark numbers underneath that cheer.  Some 40 percent of Cannon’s students are chronically absent, year after year, and PS 140’s academic progress is stalling.”

Several innovations are being implemented by the new mayor, Bill de Blasio and his appointed schools chancellor, Carmen Farina.  The New School researchers judge the plans promising, but they offer suggestions based on their research to ensure that new programs—as implemented—succeed in reducing chronic absenteeism. The researchers urge the Chancellor and her administration to recognize that the city’s “truly-disadvantaged” schools need to be prioritized to qualify for the wraparound services as part of 100 new Community Schools the district has pledged to launch.  These are schools with health, dental, and mental health services provided right at school—along with social and employment services to support parents, Head Start and Early Head Start programs or other preschool services right in the school building, and enriched after school programming.  The researchers warn about major challenges to implementation, however: “The reality is that many truly disadvantaged schools may lack the administrative capacity they need to be included in the first wave of the city’s new community schools.”  Strong leadership will be required for such school transformation.

Researchers strongly recommend that the de Blasio administration prioritize further development of  “the Worker Connect infrastructure, which allows city agencies to share valuable information about families with which they’re working to improve coordination and services.  The city’s Department of Education is only now becoming part of this system.  As they do, the hope is that schools will be able to work more easily with other important agencies, including the Department of Homeless Services and the Administration for Children’s Services, which may have huge influences in their students’ lives.”

The new report is accessible, rich, and filled with stories of the work to reduce absenteeism in particular schools. It has a section on the implementation of a large student and family mentoring program and another on the challenge of homelessness in a huge city like New York.  It examines a number of models for Community Schools and explores the challenges including the coordination of collaborating social service agencies and funding streams.  It’s implications reach far beyond the schools in New York City.  I urge you to read it.