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Leadership Skills and Implementation

Getting Students into the Classroom: Tackling Excessive Absenteeism

By Jennifer Gunn

In order for students to be successful in school, they first have to be in school. Seems logical, right? But for millions of students in the U.S., attendance is a barrier to success with lifelong consequences. Here’s a look at how chronic absenteeism impacts learning, and how schools can begin to turn the tide.

Measuring the problem

According to the U.S. Department of Education, over six million students missed 15 or more days of school during the 2013-2014 school year. This amounts to 14% of the student population — or about one in seven students.

“At least 10% of kindergartners and first graders miss so much school that absences can stall their progress in reading and deny them an equal opportunity to learn,” states Attendance Works. “Chronic absence flares again in middle and high school, when it becomes an early warning sign that students will drop out. The U.S. Department of Education notes that the problem of students missing school often compounds as they get older: “almost 20% of students in high school are chronically absent compared to more than 12% of students in middle school. The chronic absenteeism rate was the lowest for elementary school students, at 11%.”

The impact of chronic absenteeism

In School Leader’s Guide to Tackling Attendance, Jessica Sprick and Randy Sprick explain how chronically absent students can quickly fall behind. Missing just two days a month over the course of a school year can lead to serious disparities in learning and life outcomes. The results of these absences are long-term and profound. Elementary students who are regularly absent are less likely to read on grade level by third grade, which makes them four times as likely to drop out of high school. A high absence rate has also been linked to adult outcomes like living in poverty, poor health, or becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

“Many families do not realize the powerful impact that missing two days per month or more can make in the child’s future. Highest rates of absenteeism are in kindergarten where families may think of it as child care, but there are VERY important educational objectives and outcomes that are now taught in kindergarten,” says Sprick. The problem of absenteeism isn’t just prevalent in low-income schools or at-risk populations. Sprick notes the problem hits schools “everywhere — affluent families may take children out of school for frequent vacations and orthodontic appointments. Whether rich or poor — kids learn more when they are actually in school.”

Building an attendance culture

Jessica and Randy Sprick also highlight the importance of staff buy-in when establishing a whole-school cultural shift toward prioritizing attendance. “To build a culture of attendance in your school, it is important for every staff member — including administrative, certified, and classified staff — to feel a sense of purpose and pride in implementing strategies to improve attendance.”

Think about how absenteeism is addressed in your school. What policies, incentives, messages, and collaborative efforts aim to address the issue? Is everyone involved or is there a lack of connectivity? “Although the attendance team will guide implementation efforts, your teaching staff will have the primary role in selling those efforts to your students and families,” explain Jessica and Randy Sprick. This can occur through a kickoff event, schoolwide visuals, motivational methods, and in-class lessons and activities. This work can be done schoolwide, across grade levels, or within departments. Jessica and Randy Sprick further suggest a professional learning presentation on the data, realities, and effects of attendance issues in your school. “After building the rationale for the importance of this work, plan to present some initial universal strategies within the same staff development time so that the staff leaves with a sense of empowerment to tackle the issue.”

Ensuring accurate attendance data

As the school moves toward a renewed sense of focus on attendance, it becomes critical to maintain consistent and accurate attendance data. The authors offer some useful strategies for more seamlessly integrating attendance procedures into classroom time.

  • Assigning seats to make it easier to see who is in class
  • Using Do Now” activities to keep students engaged while taking attendance
  • Utilizing trusted students to assist with attendance
  • Reminding staff members to turn in attendance

Other questions to consider

Great Schools suggests a list of questions schools should ask when addressing attendance issues. These questions dig into the student’s desire, motivation, and willingness to attend school, considering factors like school culture and climate, safety, community relationships, and parental support.

  • “Does the school provide a welcoming atmosphere for students and parents?
  • Do students feel safe at school?
  • What actions does the school take to follow up on students who are absent?
  • Do teachers call parents when students are frequently absent?
  • Does the school know why students are absent? The school cannot address the problem if administrators don’t understand the causes.
  • Has the school taken steps to forge a positive relationship with local law enforcement, business, and community members to work together to encourage students to come to school?
  • Does the school reward students for good attendance?
  • What can parents do to help the school encourage all students to attend?”

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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