Three superintendents are called up to the front of the AASA conference session. Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, informs them that they have become 5 year olds, then tells a story of how certain setbacks, including poor resources and lack of consistent transportation, leads the trio to chronic absences, costing them months of their education.
Chang used this scenario at the outset of her Thursday afternoon session, “Enhancing Attendance and Equitable Learning Environments.”
Consistently missing school can harm a student’s academic and professional performance. Children with chronic absences tend to have lower reading and comprehension levels, are more likely to fail classes, not graduate high school, drop out of college and experience job instability. To put this into perspective, 8 million students across the U.S. are chronically absent from school, according to Attendance Works. That’s a lot of students missing out on future opportunities.
Students miss school for many reasons, Chang said. There are the more well-known reasons like bullying, homelessness and feeling out of touch with the lessons and teachers. But then there are overlooked issues such as schools that punish absences, cultural biases and misconceptions that sporadic absences in the younger grades is harmless, she explained.
Schools collect attendance daily, and the evidence points to one clear finding: Missing school greatly impacts a student’s future, and the more time a student attends school, the better.
Currently, most schools recognize that fixing absenteeism is a major issue. However, Chang said, the current approach is ineffective. Many schools limit the number of school days that a student can miss. Schools will send formal notices by the 17th missed day. Schools also count only unexcused absences and do not include excused, illness-related or suspension absences. Any absence is detrimental to student learning and development, Chang said.
There are many different ways to mitigate student absence. This is where Attendance Works comes in. Attendance Works is an informative organization dedicated to informing administrators about the importance of maximized student and staff attendance, as well as providing tips and guides on how to implement increased attendance policies into schools. (You can find more information online at www.attendanceworks.com.)
Their solution is a three-tier program that includes prevention, early intervention, and specialized supports to curb absenteeism. Superintendents are encouraged to create programs and to reach out to teachers to create positive and healthy classroom environments that encourage attendance. They also are encouraged to prepare school responses and legal interventions for special cases. Schools are encouraged to stick with prevention and early intervention since they are more universal and less costly.
Mary Sieu, superintendent of ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, Calif., has implemented Attendance Work’s strategies into her district. Her schools boast a 1.6% suspension rate, no expulsions in eight years and an average 97% attendance rate throughout the district’s schools.
How does Sieu do it? She prides herself on ensuring there are adequate mental health professional staff on site at every campus of her district. Her district also has programs to reduce suspensions and maximize learning time for students with extended absences or behavioral challenges. The district also provides support to children in difficult circumstances, such as those who are in foster care, homeless or have a family member serving in the military. This gives parents and students the resources to be prepared for school and be more successful in the future, as well as establishes a strong district to family connection of trust.
“We communicated all the things that were essential for us to learn about so that the families would feel comfortable,” Sieu said.
(Amanda Zhang is a junior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego and an intern with the AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)