K-12

Students can’t learn if they don’t show up at school

Districts are paying more attention to “chronic absenteeism” in their efforts to improve student learning

Third-graders at Alamosa Elementary School in Albuquerque practice reading with first-graders in Carrie Ramirez’s classroom.

Third-graders at Alamosa Elementary School in Albuquerque practice reading with first-graders in Carrie Ramirez’s classroom.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Danielle Burnett, a truancy prevention social worker in Albuquerque Public Schools, spends her days figuring out why students miss school. Her job is to identify the underlying reasons and help families change course.

Some students don’t show up because their parents can’t afford school uniforms. Burnett can get these students vouchers for free pants and tops.

Many parents keep their children home for minor colds or stomachaches. Burnett encourages them to send kids to class unless they have a fever or are throwing up, and she reminds them that the school nurse can help with health decisions.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of educating parents about the importance of attendance. In the early grades, parents can be lulled into thinking class time isn’t that important — even though these grades lay the foundation for students’ literacy and math skills for the rest of their lives.

“The culture of attendance is huge,” Burnett said. “If parents weren’t taught that it’s important, then their kids are not going to be taught that.”

Burnett spends half her time at Alamosa Elementary School, where about one in four students have missed more than 10 percent of school days so far this school year, according to attendance data Burnett tracks. Researchers say that hitting this threshold triggers a cascade of negative effects. Missing that much school — roughly two days per month — hurts a student’s chances of reading on grade level, passing classes and graduating.

Besides the 26 percent of Alamosa students who are already chronically absent, Burnett’s data show that another 27 percent are considered at risk of becoming so.

Related: Q&A: Attendance advocate says littlest learners missing so much school they are being left behind

A communitywide effort to reduce chronic absenteeism is underway, however — as are similar efforts in many other states, as what was once a hidden problem has been brought into the spotlight. Schools historically tracked “average daily attendance,” counting the total number of students present on any given day. This masked the fact that a single group of students tends to account for the vast majority of daily absences. This is only the second year Alamosa Elementary has been tracking attendance student by student. And a core element of its initiative is raising awareness about the problem.

Albuquerque Public Schools is a member of Mission: Graduate, an initiative of the United Way of Central New Mexico that brings together schools, government agencies, businesses, nonprofits and community members to collectively work toward common education goals. While the overarching goal is for Central New Mexico institutions to award 60,000 new college degrees and certificates by 2020, organizers say improving attendance as early as kindergarten is an important stepping stone to getting there.

Alamosa Elementary School in Albuquerque emphasizes that “every day matters” as it aims to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Alamosa Elementary School in Albuquerque emphasizes that “every day matters” as it aims to reduce chronic absenteeism.

The organization has produced attendance resources for schools, which include talking points and tips for school and community leaders, and it held a conference in September to help educators create attendance teams and develop comprehensive strategies for their own schools. New Mexico PBS created public service announcements for television and radio (“every day matters”) and community partners are blanketing Albuquerque with the common messaging.

“This work really takes everyone,” said Daphne Strader, Albuquerque Public Schools’ director of coordinated school health, who works to reduce various barriers to learning, including frequent absenteeism.

To teachers, the link between attendance and school performance is painfully clear.

Carrie Ramirez, an Alamosa first-grade teacher, told of one student who misses a lot of class time — sometimes he doesn’t come to school at all and sometimes he shows up just before lunch. This boy started the school year excited to come to class, but Ramirez said that by the end of the second month he was already starting to slump over his desk and disengage.

“He’s embarrassed,” Ramirez said. She sees how he can’t keep up with peers who get the benefit of every lesson, every day.

At the elementary level, students largely rely on their parents to get them to school, and Ramirez knows that the consequences of poverty have a lot to do with student absenteeism. Of the district’s nearly 91,000 students, 69 percent were considered economically disadvantaged during the 2016-17 school year. At Alamosa, all 548 students were, according to Johanna King, Albuquerque Public Schools’ communications director.

“There are just so many other factors that these families have to deal with,” Ramirez said.

But under the guidance of Mission: Graduate, the district is drawing on best practices for improving attendance. Instead of focusing exclusively on students who miss the most days of school, the district has a three-tiered strategy, with all students getting some type of targeted attention. At the first tier, schools are supposed to be fostering a positive culture of attendance for all students and collecting consistent data to track absenteeism. The second-tier prioritizes prevention, and school attendance teams tailor special initiatives for groups of students who miss school regularly. The third tier is the most individualized. Students who routinely miss school get individual assessments and attendance success plans geared toward their unique needs and circumstances.

Related: Sending parents useful information about attendance, course progress has big effects, social scientists find

Besides the districtwide focus, Alamosa is among 10 elementary schools getting additional grant funding from the United Way. This comes with extra support and data-tracking to combat and monitor chronic absenteeism.

These efforts are starting to produce results. School attendance data show that the portion of Alamosa students who were chronically absent from the start of the school year through mid-January is 5 percentage points below last year’s rate overall.

Bonuses for attendance provide a major incentive for students, even those who might only miss a day here or there. Students who don’t have any missed days or tardies don’t have to wear their uniforms on Fridays. Entire classes that have perfect attendance for a given week get a popcorn party.

“I have parents saying ‘My kid is dragging me to school on time,’ ” said Ulrike Kerstges, Alamosa Elementary’s principal. “They want to earn the dress-down day and the popcorn.”

First-graders are laying the foundation for a lifetime of literacy during school, but they have some of the highest absenteeism rates of any grade.

First-graders are laying the foundation for a lifetime of literacy during school, but they have some of the highest absenteeism rates of any grade.

Reducing chronic absenteeism has increasingly been at the heart of school improvement strategies over the last few years. In 2016, the Obama administration highlighted it with a report that it called “an unprecedented look at a hidden educational crisis.”

Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that has led the charge to reduce chronic absenteeism, advocates a strategy similar to the one Albuquerque has designed. Cecelia Leong, associate director for programs, said this comprehensive focus on building awareness, prioritizing prevention and designing case-by-case interventions is a critical shift for school districts, which have traditionally responded only to students with the most frequent absences and the most severe challenges, like homelessness, chronic illness and family dysfunction. Those students, Leong said, deserve attention, but without pairing that work with prevention on a larger scale, schools and districts cannot have a major impact on overall chronic absenteeism numbers.

It’s like public health, Leong said. A widespread focus on prevention can reach far more people and improve outcomes overall.

Related: Chronic absences, poverty impacting outcomes for Mississippi’s children, report says

Leong has seen progress in school districts that have good data systems, committed leadership and a comprehensive strategy for addressing chronic absenteeism. Districts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and New Britain, Connecticut, as well as schools in New York City and Meriden, Connecticut, are among the success stories Attendance Works cites nationwide. John Barry School (grades pre-K to 5) in Meriden, for example, reduced its chronic absenteeism rate from 21 percent in the 2014-15 school year to 9 percent in 2015-16.

Leong said the pace of progress depends largely on the severity of the root causes contributing to chronic absenteeism and the resources available to combat them.

In central New Mexico, Angelo Gonzales, executive director of Mission: Graduate, cites a complex set of issues that make quick solutions difficult. “It’s all the factors that are associated with poverty,” he said. “In a community like Albuquerque, where you’ve got such high poverty rates, there’s a different standard around how quickly we can move the needle on chronic absenteeism.”

In some ways, it’s surprising the problem can be so severe. In the United States children must attend school. It’s the law. And many communities fine parents or guardians for keeping their children out of school without a valid excuse. Students with a number of unexcused absences are called truants. For many years, the attendance focus in Albuquerque Public Schools, and elsewhere, was on reducing truancy, which can be seen as more serious than chronic absenteeism. But researchers have emphasized more recently that it doesn’t matter whether a student has an excused absence or not; missing class puts them at risk of falling behind.

Thirty-six states will soon consider the broader problem of chronic absenteeism as part of their school accountability frameworks, according to a roundup of state plans created by FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank. Many of these plans are still under review by the Department of Education, which is charged with assessing the plans based on the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Leong is convinced it will take creative, comprehensive solutions to make a dent in the chronic absenteeism problem nationwide.

And the stakes are high.

“It’s really hard to achieve your mission as a school district to educate children if they’re not there,” Leong said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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