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The Los Angeles Unified School district is the second largest in the nation, with 633,621 students in the autumn of 2016. If each child attended school one more day per year, the district would have approximately $30 million more to invest in the classroom, according to a report from the District’s Advisory Task Force — a big majority of the district’s revenue is tied to student attendance, as is the case with many districts across the country. Schools are powerfully motivated to improve attendance.
Meanwhile, a smaller budget is far from the worst outcome of chronic absences.
When a child regularly misses school, he or she is missing more than just academic instruction — the child is missing important opportunities for personal growth, social development and community support.
Some of these students can’t read social cues or get in trouble because they don’t know, or haven’t practiced, skills such as taking turns and letting others speak without interruption. Later in life, this will have serious consequences.
Often, students who miss a lot of school are already struggling. They miss out on the support they could get from teachers, counselors and staff, who are all trained to recognize signs of any distress — which can be a red flag for risk potential and mental illness.
Diagnosing the causes of chronic absenteeism
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% of school days in the academic year, for any reason. It’s a matter of growing concern in educational circles.
There are no simple rules for reducing absences because the reasons for chronic absences are so varied and complex. Socioeconomic status, student health issues, bullying, transportation, a school’s culture, parents’ lack of awareness around absenteeism and many other factors can contribute to the problem. Districts should analyze chronic absence data, find local patterns and work with parents, community partners, the broader district and even the city to find solutions.
Some startups and consultancies are developing tools to help administrators track absences, analyze the resulting data and communicate findings within the school community.
Digital platforms like TrueCare’s Attendance and At-Risk program can help school administrators track and communicate with parents around their child’s school attendance. It streamlines the way parents notify the school when their children will be absent and aggregates real-time attendance data that can be cross-checked with other systems. This reporting tool can help teachers and school counselors identify and aid at-risk students.
Additionally, the non-profit organization Attendance Works is a consultancy that provides resources, training and a variety of tools to empower school administrators to implement holistic truancy-reduction programs. Their mission is to create student success and help close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence.
Developing solutions for absenteeism
We spoke with leaders in the country’s three biggest school districts — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — to find out what’s working for them. All three emphasized the importance of parents, dedicated teams and incentives.
Make parents partners
Parents can be great allies. But they can also be part of the problem. Either way, they need to be actively engaged.
Old-school lecturing is not going to help. It may be that parents have their own issues with school: Make it clear that this isn’t about them as parents, but is about finding out what will work for their child. Use social-work techniques, such as open-ended questions, to make personal connections with parents. Some schools hire social workers to do this.
Create a dedicated team
Another common strategy is to form a team to work on absenteeism, whether internal-only or including cross-agency people. Schools should plan within existing schedules to meet twice a week. They should discuss school issues, district initiatives, data trends and individual students with an eye to prevention, intervention and improvement.
Most importantly, they can set up and communicate values and goals to the school community. Goals that aren’t set aren’t met.
Incentivize good attendance
One way to establish positive values around regular attendance is to provide positive rewards. Show that coming to school can pay off. One city partners with local sports teams to get free tickets to games. All three cities offered these incentives:
- Coupons and free meals at local businesses.
- A pass to skip to front of the line in the cafeteria.
- A pass to attend school out-of-uniform for a day.
- Public recognition in school assemblies.
- Certificates and awards signed by the mayor and the school’s chancellor.
- Free points in the school store.
- A VIP pass to school games, dances and other events.
- Free in-school breakfast or cocoa after school with a special person in the student’s life.
Overall, the efforts that schools make to stop absenteeism lean heavily on data, personalized approaches and external partnerships. There’s significant opportunity for the right businesses to innovate in this space, especially given the recent challenges of remote learning. There are a lot of schools out there that need help.