Our School Has a 50% Chronic Absentee Issue – And Here’s What We’re Doing About It

I’m an assistant principal at a middle school. I work with students who have so much heart and character. They are so unafraid to speak truth and I really admire that. I also get the honor to work alongside some of the best teachers I know. They get up and teach our students daily because it is a mission, not because it is their job.

Our school is located along one of our city’s poorest corridors. Sometimes, lack of attendance is associated with high poverty, so it’s a hard thing for us to tackle. 

There are kids living with unstable family situations, where adults often aren’t home to ensure that kids are coming to school. There are medical issues like asthma that aren’t being handled because there is no medical insurance, and our school is located in a medical desert. There are kids who feel too embarrassed to come to school because they don’t have clean clothes to wear or because they have untreated eczema. There are issues with homelessness and transience. 

All these barriers get in the way of kids making it in each day. Our daily average attendance rate is about 83%, with our chronic absenteeism rate at about 50% in 6th-8th grades. Four years ago, our district created an early warning system with a heat map showing where our biggest attendance issues were. You could see from just looking at the map: the hottest areas centered on our school and included all our feeder elementary schools. This year, our school is making a big push to focus on attendance. We have a grant, and we’ve formed an attendance team to work on interventions.

We’re trying to approach our students with attendance issues the same way we approach students who have struggles with learning or face other barriers to success. We’re thinking about how we can identify all the obstacles preventing kids from coming to school, and how we can respond by providing cycles of interventions, seeing what is and is not working, and identifying how to layer in the right supports for the right students. 

  • We’re kicking off the school year with a “Strong Start” campaign. Before school starts, we’re welcoming our families with a Party in the Park. It’s just to interact with our community so they can see the school is an okay place to be. We’ll have different resource tables — including our community health partners, who are building a clinic in our high school. We’ll also have some fun activities for the kids to do, so their first experience with us is a positive one.
  • Then, once school starts, we’ll launch a 20 Days of School Campaign, with different attendance incentives for those first weeks. We’ll say things like “thanks for popping in” and give the kids a blow pop. On every sixth day, if they’re at school, kids will get a bigger incentive – like a lanyard or t-shirt – and on the 21st day of school, we’ll have a big attendance assembly.

For information and tips on attendance incentives, check out resources from Attendance Works>

  • We’re working on solutions for kids who have a hard time getting to school in the morning. We’ll be reaching out to students who are often absent and who live close to school, and we’ll be sending out staff to pick up them up on foot. One challenge we face is that a lot of kids live far away, and their family members work. If they miss their bus, they don’t have a lot of options, so we’re looking into how we can offer a sweeper bus to pick up kids if they do miss the bus. 
  • We’re trying to be more intentional about connecting kids with resources they might not know about. A huge reason that kids don’t come is because they don’t have clean clothes. We have a washer and dryer at school, so we’re trying to make sure we let kids know that if their clothes need to be washed, we can take care of that. We’re also working to get the word out about our community health partnership, so families know they can get medical issues addressed at school.
  • We also have a lot of discipline issues, and these issues are super interconnected. When it comes to handling behavioral challenges, we’re trying to make putting kids out of school our last resort. When patterns get established, kids get in the habit of not being at school and therefore don’t want to be there anymore. 
  • We’ll also be meeting with families quite a bit around attendance. On August 31, we will start having bi-weekly meetings with parents of kids who have issues with attendance.  They’ll be offered resources from different community organizations, and we’ll share the efforts we’re making as a school. I see parent meetings as the foundation of any work we can do with kids – I think they’re going to yield important results. 

Check out Attendance Works resources for discussing attendance with families>

I’m interested in learning more about attendance postcards, and how sending those home could make a difference for families that don’t need major interventions. In our early warning system, we have a nudge letter – but it’s a lot of words to send home to parents. I think if we had something small, like a postcard, we would use that more. Most of the initiatives we’re focusing on are meant to disrupt chronic absenteeism. But then there are the kids who just miss school from time to time because they need a day or whatever. A postcard could send the message, “Oh my gosh, you’ve missed 10 days of school already and it’s only September.” 

Find out more about how attendance postcards can support student attendance>

Our main goal this year is to be proactive instead of reactive. What typically happens is that attendance becomes an issue, and then everything we can offer from that point forward becomes punitive. That’s not ideal. And it also doesn’t work. If these methods were working – taking families to court over truancy, for example – then our kids would be at school. Some kids have had attendance problems since kindergarten, so they need help establishing good habits. We want to do everything we can to help remove barriers before they get in the way of students’ attendance and before they interrupt students’ success.

I’d love to know what you’re trying in your schools. What steps have enabled you to remove attendance barriers for students, and how have they worked out? What’s something new you’re trying this school year?