Tackling Chronic Absenteeism: Get Students Back Into Class

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The best lesson plans and classrooms don’t make a difference if the students aren’t present. Chronic absenteeism poses a significant challenge for students, so what can be done about it?

In the edLeader Panel “Attendance Matters: Tackling Chronic Absenteeism Together,” Dr. Joshua P. Starr, Managing Partner at The Center for Model Schools, spoke with Dr. Jessica Huizenga, Associate Partner at The Center for Model Schools, Elliot Ransom, Co-CEO at UChicago Impact, and Dr. Joe Gothard, Superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District (WI), about how schools can tackle the problem of chronic absenteeism and get students back into class.

Dr. Gothard explained that his schools, like many, saw attendance drop during and after the pandemic. Instead of a districtwide approach, he looked at each school individually, allowing them to personalize their approaches to this issue. Each school is different, as are their communities, needs, and students—something the panelists put a strong focus on throughout the presentation.

Dr. Huizenga stated that schools need to reach out to the individual students about why they don’t attend, as the answers will vary. Ransom explained that the reasons students don’t come to school make sense to each individual student, so schools should look at data from student perspectives.

He also stated the importance of learning conditions. Conditions, such as strong family engagement, were shown to be vital to student attendance, with studies showing that schools with strong family engagement have lower rates of chronic absenteeism. Housing instability and lack of access to social services negatively impact attendance. Those are issues that schools have struggled to address and that, in many areas, have only gotten worse in recent years. The panelists all emphasized safety. If students feel unsafe, then absenteeism goes up. How to address this varies with each community’s needs.

Students will attend school if they’re feeling motivated. One way to do this is by having relationships with their peers, the adults in their lives, and the community. These relationships must be reciprocated with trust and respect. Dr. Gothard’s district made student attendance a community responsibility. In one school, they raffled off a community-donated bicycle to a student who was showing improved attendance. This showed the student that her attendance was recognized and the community cared about her.

Dr. Huizenga encouraged schools to get out into the community rather than trying to get families to come to them. Personalize community outreach by reaching out to key, trusted members of the community to leverage their voices and connect with families.

Students can also become motivated if they feel that what they do matters. Ransom explained that students need to know that the work they do is relevant to their lives both now and in the future, and they also need the work to be a challenge so that they can rise to it.

Dr. Huizenga implored schools to look at what the drivers of chronic absenteeism are and what can help district leaders in those challenges, encouraging schools to work with policymakers to help meet students’ needs. Dr. Gothard explained that schools also need to look at the solutions they’ve already created and how to sustain those, in addition to what still needs to be addressed. While this can add a lot to educators’ plates, schools creating support networks and sharing data can help significantly.

The panelists concluded by encouraging teacher empowerment and listening to the unique voices of students and staff, building connections and relationships. Chronic absenteeism is a serious issue, but by building connections in schools and the community and listening to each individual student, schools can not only get students back into the classroom but also make them want to be there.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, Attendance Matters: Tackling Chronic Absenteeism Together, sponsored by The Center for Model Schools.

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Article by Jon Scanlon, based on this edLeader Panel