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How to fix chronic absenteeism in America's schools

(AJ Watt via Getty)
(AJ Watt via Getty)

About a third of students are on track to miss at least 10% of school days this year.

Why are students missing school, and how can we bring them back?

Today, On Point: How to fix chronic absenteeism in America’s schools.

Guests

Scott Hale, principal of Johnstown High School.

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.

Also Featured

Todd Rogers, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Co-founder of Everyday Labs.

Aaris Johnson, director of home visits and re-engagement at Concentric Educational Solutions.

Transcript

Part I

DAN YERGERT: Hi On Point. My name is Dan Yergert and I’m a high school teacher on the outskirts of the Denver area in a town called Brighton.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Hi there, Dan. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti and this is On Point. Now, Dan is one of the slew of listeners who had stories to tell. When we asked you if you’d seen an increase in chronic absenteeism in your schools.

YERGERT: One of the things that I discovered through some attendance data is that at my high school, where we have about 1,700 students, we had about 800 students last semester in the fall 2023 semester that qualified as chronically absent. And a lot of those students were almost never at school at all.

CHAKRABARTI: So some quick math here. That’s 47% percent of the students at Dan’s school, they were chronically absent in the fall of 2023. 47%. Which by the way, means those 47% were missing at least one out of every 10 days of school. It’s a huge number. In fact, the number of chronically absent students nationwide is twice as high now, twice as high as it was before the COVID shutdowns.

And you guessed it, poor attendance is linked to every sort of educational risk you can think of. Higher dropout rates, reduced career prospects, higher probability of being arrested. So here’s more of what you’ve seen, teachers and parents, in your schools.

(LISTENER MONTAGE) 

LISTENER #1: I have been a first-grade teacher for, this is my 30th year. I am in northern Idaho right now. Absenteeism is huge. The kids miss out on key learning, their friendships, their recess and lunch and PE. And parents aren’t always seeing it quite as important as they used to.

LISTENER #2: Seems also that students more often than not, are more than willing to miss class for anything. And especially, since COVID.

LISTENER #3: I think with social media, the reduction in their attention span, they don’t want to do homework, and I think it’s because they just want to be doing anything but school. They want to be on their devices doing TikTok, Snapchat.

LISTENER #4: As a teacher, I can tell you that when you call students’ parents, most of the time, they don’t really know that their kids are missing.

LISTENER #5: My son teaches high school math. And sometimes it’s because those students have to stay home to provide childcare for their younger siblings.

LISTENER #6: I understand the importance of attendance and what chronic absenteeism can do, but I also find the guidelines since COVID, very confusing. And in our case, extremely contradictory.

LISTENER #7: Parents don’t get their kids to school. Or when we call and say, you drop your kid off and then he doesn’t come to class ever. We get responses like it’s my job to drop him off, and if you can’t keep him there, then that’s your problem. I don’t know, man. It’s wild.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, it is. But the question is, what can we do about it? Because this is a problem that needs effective solutions. So let’s start today with Scott Hale. He’s the principal of Johnstown High School in upstate New York in Johnstown, New York, in fact. Principal Hale, welcome to On Point.

SCOTT HALE: Hey Meghna. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell me a little bit about what attendance was like in the high school before COVID. I would say that we really haven’t changed much pre or post COVID. We just had an issue with chronic absenteeism as a whole. We saw a change in our community, a change in our demographics, and attending school became a struggle for many in our area.

So even post-COVID, we saw an uptick in our numbers. But we were sitting around 35%, 40% at the high school level of chronic absenteeism.

CHAKRABARTI: 35%to 40%. Okay. So high, no matter what. So what are some of the changes that you were talking about demographically or the which led to, I guess, a variety of reasons why students were missing so much school.

HALE: So I’ve been lucky enough to be in this district over 20 years, and we saw the socioeconomic status of our students. Our free and reduced lunch students increased significantly. So when I started here, we were around 15% of our students getting free and reduced lunch, and now we’re up to about 60%.

60% of our students receiving free and reduced lunch. What we were looking at it was a generational thing. Where we saw families who didn’t necessarily value education, or students coming to school and being educated.

CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more. So what we were doing, we saw, we started to take a punitive approach pre-COVID.

So there were those letters that were going home, threatening social services, child Protective Services, going to the house, visiting the home, being more punitive in nature. Working with our local politicians to take away the ability for students to receive a license, or potentially going after the parents and taking things away from the parents, as well.

And the punitive approach just was not working. So we really had to take a step back and rethink our approach. And really, we ultimately came up with what I believe, and I have wholeheartedly bought into this, was working with Attendance Works and really looking at a multi-tiered system of approach to help build a bridge between the community and the school and our students. And really strengthen relationships as opposed to harming those relationships and those bonds.

With families that you may have had previously.

CHAKRABARTI: Now Attendance Works is a non-profit initiative that’s trying to work with schools and states trying to decrease that rate of chronic absenteeism. We’ll hear from the executive director in a couple of minutes, but Principal Hale, can you describe to me some of the kind of impacts that you’ve seen on the students who are chronically absent, who are missing 10% or more school days throughout the year.

HALE: So really as a high school principal, ultimately you want your kids to be college and career ready. And obviously it affected graduation rate significantly. It affected them being educated. And them being prepared for that next step in their lives. When you see the dropout rate increase, when you see the graduation rates significantly lower than your schools and surrounding area, you knew that attendance was definitely one of the main reasons that high school students were struggling.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want to go back to something you said earlier about the change in the socioeconomic dimensions in the community that the school serves. Because if I heard you correctly, you said that you felt there was an increase in the percentage of parents or families who didn’t really, let’s say, prioritize school. That’s a serious thing to say. Aren’t there also other factors that go into, that we need to take into consideration when we’re talking about families who may be struggling to make ends meet? Because in the montage, for example, that we started the show off with, there was a parent who said, “Look sometimes,” or a teacher who said, “Look, sometimes my kids are absent, high school kids are absent because they’ve got to stay at home to take care of their younger siblings who are sick.”

Do you see that kind of thing as well?

HALE: Absolutely. That was, so we changed a couple of things. I think it was the older siblings taking care of their younger siblings. So what we did is we went to a universal start time throughout our district. We had schools starting at the high school at 7:45 a.m., and our elementary schools were starting at 9 a.m.

So what was happening is a lot of our students were tardy to school because they were taking their younger siblings or taking care of their younger siblings and bringing them to school. We changed our universal start time this year and we’ve seen a nice uptick of students who are making it to school on time, who were taking care of their younger siblings and getting them to school.

So that was one of the other changes that we really took a deep dive into, of students being late to school because of their younger siblings or not coming at all because of their younger siblings.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if some of the students who are chronically absent also, are they working as well or are there other factors that are keeping them from showing up regularly?

HALE: I don’t think when we took a deep dive, we didn’t see work as one of the main obstacles of students being chronically absent. I think the largest one now that we struggle with is social-emotional of our students and our teenagers. They have a lot of stress on them. I think we can attribute some of that to social media and to other environmental factors that they struggle with.

CHAKRABARTI: And so how is that being, how do you have to, how can you try and deal with that as an educator? Because yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

HALE: So yeah, our superintendent, Dr. Crankshaw is fantastic when it came to supporting our school and our district through this initiative with attendance with our social emotional well-being of our students.

Throughout our district, we have what’s called our SEAL team. We have put many supports in place in all of our buildings K-12, pre-K through 12, and SEAL stands for social emotional academic learning. And what we have in my building is we have a school psychologist. We have a social worker.

And to give you a little background, we have 600 students in our building. But we put a lot of a lot of thought into how we wanted to support our students’ social, emotional, well-being, so I said school psychologist, social worker, a community outreach specialist, a counselor through our family counseling center and two school counselors.

So we put a lot of supports in place to make sure that our students, well-being is on the front burner.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you think this can be turned around? It sounds like there’s a lot of challenges that the school was facing even prior to the pandemic, and I’m sure that COVID didn’t help at all, but what do you think it’s gonna take to turn it around?

I think we’re already seeing the benefits of all supports we put in place. We’ve increased our attendance, our chronic absenteeism by around 7%, 8% for high school. And almost 10% for our elementary schools. And the reason I say, use the elementary schools as an example, and I think that’s where you set the foundation.

Most of our students who are chronically absent at the high school level, if you were to look at trend data and you were to look at where they were at the elementary schools, they were chronically absent in the elementary schools as well. So through these initiatives that we’re putting forth, we are definitely seeing huge improvement throughout the whole district.

And then at the end of the day, our graduation rate has increased significantly. And I think that’s attributed to attendance and the relationships we’ve built through our mentoring program.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about the fact that chronic absenteeism in American schools, that means students missing 10% or more of school days. That rate has doubled across the nation, and a number of you told us that maybe mental health issues are playing a role in school absenteeism.

(LISTENER MONTAGE)

LISTENER #1: I’m a high school teacher. I teach social studies. I’ve noticed that there are two to three students in each of my class periods that struggle with chronic absenteeism from class. Oftentimes the reason that they’re gone is because of anxiety and depression, and that’s usually the most common answer that I get from them.

LISTENER #2: I’m a school adjustment counselor. We have seen a huge increase in chronically absent students. I work at the high school level and a lot of this is really due to mental health, anxiety, depression. Not being able to get out of bed, not having the proper outside mental health supports.

LISTENER #3: I have a senior in high school who is absent more now than before the pandemic. I think people are stressed. I think the kids are stressed. The amount of work and future planning, sometimes it’s just a little overwhelming and sometimes a day to do nothing is in order. I do feel that mental health is important. If you need a mental health day, take it.

CHAKRABARTI: So that was Susan from New Hampshire. Beth from Massachusetts and Stephen from Utah. I’m joined today by Scott Hale. He is the principal of Johnstown High School in Johnstown, New York. And joining us now is Hedy Chang. Hedy is executive director of Attendance Works. It’s a non-profit initiative, hoping to help districts and states decrease their chronic absenteeism.

And Hedy joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to On Point.

HEDY CHANG: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, describe the scope of this chronic absenteeism problem nationwide. Is it really happening everywhere?

CHANG: Yeah. Unfortunately, as you mentioned it, it doubled, so it’s almost went from eight to about 15 million kids.

Almost 30% of all our kids. But the impact is not just on the 30% who are chronically absent. It’s also on the kids who are in schools where 20% or more of the kids are chronically absent. Because then the churn is affecting teaching, learning, the setting of classroom norms. But before the pandemic, only about a quarter of all schools had 20% or more higher.

A quarter of all kids were in a school with 20% or more chronic absence, and now it is two thirds of all kids.

CHAKRABARTI: Two thirds. Okay.

CHANG: And you see this happening in urban, rural, suburban, towns, whatever, all these different places are affected by chronic absence and have schools with high and extreme levels of chronic absence.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m very glad that you said that, Hedy, because we did receive some feedback from listeners who said people who listen to public radio aren’t the parents that you need to be reaching out to. And I thought first of all, that’s a really narrow view.

Of who listens to On Point and second of all, wow, what a presumption that it’s just certain groups of Americans, maybe lower socioeconomic groups that are the ones with the chronic absenteeism increase. And that’s just wrong. This is a problem that’s happening everywhere. It sounds like regardless of district, average income, race.

What not. So what did you wanna say something there, Hedy?

CHANG: I just wanted say, chronically absent kids, they do come from all backgrounds. White kids still make up the largest number of chronically absent kids. African American kids, Latino, kids of all backgrounds. I will say some kids particularly, and this connects to what Scott was talking about earlier, kids who are living in poverty are much more affected.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And this is why I wanna ask you about the impacts of the pandemic, right? Because as we know, one of the things that the pandemic did, I mean I said this for two years straight on this show, is that it put up a mirror to our society and made it impossible to look away from the challenges that many Americans were already facing, right?

When it came to not being able to make ends meet, when it came to, maybe it’s just really difficult, even just to get to school, etc. Etc. The pandemic doubled or even tripled the amount of difficulties that some Americans were facing in comparison to others. What were the other things you think that the pandemic and particularly the duration of school closures in some places, how did they contribute to the increase in absenteeism we’re seeing now, Hedy.

CHANG: Yeah. What we know that gets kids to school is when kids and families feel school is physically, emotionally healthy and safe, that they feel a sense of belonging, connection, support. They feel academic challenge and engagement, and they’re surrounded by adults and students with the well-being to invest in the relationships that make all of those positive conditions for learning possible. The pandemic eroded these positive conditions, if you think about it, during the pandemic, because it used to be that you could be in a kind of a rough neighborhood and if school was high quality and was a safe place, kids would actually show up to school more. Because that was the safe place.

But now we’re saying to kids and families, we did this for two and a half years. School’s not so safe for you because we’re worried about this COVID pandemic. Any sign of illness, you should stay home, right? Then we, and you do see, there’s research we did with Connecticut where they looked at the kids who are in virtual learning and the kids who were in-person learning, and they found that virtual kids were just not coming to school so much in virtual learning. Now we try to stand up virtual learning very quickly, but there is a way in which that virtual connection is not the same thing as in-person connection. So if we want kids to feel and families to feel belonging, connection, support, then you have to have that in place and that got eroded.

For some kids who, because, again, it exacerbated challenges that existed before the pandemic. Some kids might not have actually felt these conditions before the pandemic. But now during the pandemic, many kids face those challenges. Now, I also want to say, during the pandemic, especially the year where we were back fully in person, ’21, ’22.

But we had two, Delta and Omicron and kids were missing right and left and being quarantined for long times. Kids lost out on key parts of learning. Learning is scaffolded. So then they come back highly anxious, because they don’t feel like they can be successful in class.

In addition, kids haven’t been around other kids. So knowing how to negotiate conflict, bullying has been a challenge. So now you’re contributing to those issues of anxiety. Kids have both been disconnected, don’t necessarily have other peers and adults they feel connected to, and we’ve made conditions that make learning feel harder.

And maybe the relationships to your peers harder.

CHAKRABARTI: Principal Hale. Let me hear from you. What do you think about what Hedy Chang has been saying? And have you seen those shifts in the relationship that kids and families have with the school?

HALE: Yeah, absolutely.

And Hedy, I can reiterate the supporting executive functioning piece that you said. It was one thing that I thought we missed in those years that we didn’t have students in school. And that’s something that through our mentoring program, we are really stressing that executive functioning piece for our students.

The relationships that they lacked for the year and a half that they were gone or not in the building or connecting through a computer screen. It was such a challenge. It was such a challenge to teachers. It was a challenge to families. It was a challenge to our students, and I really feel like we’re starting to bounce back from that fully.

CHAKRABARTI: Hedy. Let me turn back to you here and you’ll have to forgive me. Because I want to be brutally frank about something. And correct me if my understanding is wrong here, but the things that you described about the erosion of the core relationships and the sense of safety that students have had with their schools.

The erosion that was caused by prolonged building closures is a significant contributor to this increase in absenteeism. Now, schools were closed for different durations depending on the district and the state that you lived in here. In this country, you’re in San Francisco there, that was a district that was closed amongst the longest in America.

So is there a relation, is there any correlation between the duration of those closures and essentially the cutting off of the kinds of relationships that students relied on and how much chronic absenteeism is increasing now in those districts?

CHANG: I think there is some evidence of, there’s a relationship between the two.

I will also say, this was an extremely difficult time with people trying to figure out how do they balance keeping kids healthy and safe, and families not dying because of a pandemic and how long you should keep it closed. What I would say though is I really think this is where data was helpful.

So I think about Connecticut for example, which at the time put in, had data systems so that they could track what was happening for kids in-person and in virtual learning. And they could then see when virtual learning wasn’t working and actually reach out to kids. So they would come back.

And that also meant they had a pretty robust measure of what was attendance. So it wasn’t just you showed up for one of the problems that happened during virtual learning, is sometimes because we didn’t want to penalize kids and families for facing difficulties. We made it really easy to be counted as showing up.

But it meant that if kids counted because they just showed up for 10 seconds on Zoom, that you didn’t notice. They were chronically absent, and you didn’t reach out and support them. So another problem with virtual learning is we actually then lost all the cues because the key to chronic absence is noticing early on, so you can take steps and intervene in the same way that they’re doing in Johnstown.

CHAKRABARTI: I completely agree with you about it was a very scary, confusing time, especially at the beginning of the pandemic about what to do. But I don’t want to shove down the memory hole, the fact that many other countries, peer nations in the United States, got kids back into school much faster than some states here did.

And with this chronic absenteeism and other educational measures that we’ve seen in the years following the pandemic. The impact on children is very long term. About how long some schools were closed here in the United States. And we actually heard that from listeners, as well, in terms of them seeing, these are educators who reached out to us.

We’re seeing a shift in the attitudes that children themselves have about the relevance and even importance of school. So here’s a couple of them. Here’s Megan from Corvallis, Oregon.

Megan’s an attendance clerk at a high school there. And her school has convened roundtable discussions with students to ask them directly why they’re staying home so often.

MEGAN: And the most commonly cited reasons were that the pandemic proved schooling could be done from home. They no longer need school for social interactions with social media and school unity or spirit seems to be a thing of the past. When we asked what we could do to encourage better attendance, we got crickets.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Megan from Corvallis, Oregon. Here’s Dan Yergert, a high school teacher in Brighton, Colorado. You heard him at the top of the show as well. He’s also a graduate student and he’s researching chronic absenteeism. He’s interviewed chronically absent students, and he says many of them don’t even realize that not attending regularly is a problem.

YERGERT: We have a couple of students who perceive that they’re doing fine, even though they might have been absent for 70 periods in the last month or something like that. Partially because a lot of these students were in middle school during COVID and so little was asked of them. That in comparison, they feel like they’re actually doing quite a bit now.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s one more. This is Tracy from Clearwater, Florida. She’s got a son who’s a senior in high school and she says she doesn’t just think students have diminished motivation, but some teachers too, because of the stress of the pandemic.

TRACY: My child’s in honors classes. He has five of them and he states consistently that one teacher actually teaches the others. He sits at his computer, there are teachers at their computer. And there’s no instruction at all from the teachers. So he calls it adult babysitting and really feels that the value is not there. And I feel this does lead to that absenteeism because they’re not actively being taught.

They feel like they can just do their assignments at night when they’re out of school, submit them because everything’s online and still get the credit and be fine. So how do we bring the spark back also to the teachers who were demoralized by the pandemic so that the teachers can impact the students and their desire to learn.

CHAKRABARTI: So Hedy, what I want to ask you. We’re going to get to all the sort of concrete and let’s say programmatic solutions. That schools can try. But this core question that Tracy in Florida is asking, like how to bring that spark back in terms of wanting to be in school, not just for the teachers who have been working so hard, but for students as well.

How would you start doing that?

CHANG: I think it’s about relationships. When we really, and so one of the things, there are four things they talk about that this is something that Bob Balfanz talks about, that when kids come to school, they feel a sense of connectedness. And what is that connectedness?

One is you feel that there’s an adult who cares about you. Two is you have kids, peers, who you’re connected to. Three, you’re involved in something pro-social, something where you’re at school and you are making a difference with other students. And the last is you feel welcomed. And cared for and invited to be on campus.

If we could put those four things in place, and that starts with relationships, and it means we have to build relationship building into the structure of how schools operate. And I also think for young kids, this is about families too. One of the things that I’ve seen is so challenging, is both because of the pandemic, but because also of concerns about school safety.

Families and kids aren’t on school, families don’t drop their kids off on school campuses. They drop ’em outside and then kids walk in. We don’t, it’s harder to build that relationship between the parent and the teacher, but we know things like relational home visits where teachers have a chance to go and visit families before school starts can make a measurable difference.

We know that when you can have kids for being peer mentors to each other, that can make a difference. It’s about creating those relationships. So we see each other, we hear each other, and we see how we are actually better together.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Hale, before we just take our next break here have you seen, as you said, you’re starting to turn things around, has relationship building been a part of that?

HALE: That is the thing that we are magnifying. It’s what we are spotlighting is relationships. Through Attendance Works, we did come up with our mentoring program with our teachers. And what we do is students who we see could potentially be chronically absent or are chronically absent.

We assign them to mentors. And I think the biggest thing, we talk in broad terms all the time. We say they, them, families. It was really honing in on the individual student, and that’s what the mentoring program did. Our mentors have about three to four students who they mentor throughout the school year, and they build a strong relationship with these kids.

I will tell you, I had a student who had a 44 average in math. And through the mentoring program, he jumped his average up to an 81.48 and he attributes that to the relationship that he built with his mentor and someone showing that they care about him.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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