Districts Pivot Their Strategies to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism During Distance Learning
Erin Simon had big goals for this school year. The director of student support services for Long Beach Unified School District wanted to reduce the number of local students who were chronically absent, a term that refers to those who miss 15 or more school days of the academic year.
This has been a goal of Simon’s since she joined Long Beach Unified in fall 2013. But it has proven elusive. Her district’s chronic absenteeism rates have actually increased, from 13.3 percent (about 10,000 students) in the 2017-2018 school year, to 15.1 percent (about 11,000 students) in 2018-2019.
Simon was confident that her team’s efforts would help. In the early months of 2020, her team expanded an attendance campaign called “All In,” from four to 25 schools across the district, which is home to 85 public schools in total. The team established a partnership with a local housing project where some of their chronically absent students live and coordinated attendance outreach activities, which included workshops to educate teachers, staff and guardians on the consequences of missing school.
Members of the Long Beach Unified School District “All In” team conduct training on building a culture of attendance and brainstorming barriers to entry (Credit: Erin Simon).
The district also opened 26 Family Resource Centers, where families of enrolled students can receive health-related services from school counselors and psychologists as well as support related to parenting, behavior management, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and attendance issues.
“We encourage students to attend every second of every day,” says Simon. “It’s crucial to academic achievement.”
On March 16, the district closed schools to help contain the outbreak of COVID-19. Distance learning began March 23.
Simon and the rest of the district turned their focus to food security, internet connectivity for families in need and online suicide prevention assessments. But Long Beach Unified—like other schools, districts and the organizations they partner with to combat chronic absenteeism interviewed by EdSurge—haven’t given up on efforts to help students attend school, even without a physical school to attend.
Understanding Chronic Absenteeism
The U.S. Department of Education reported that for the 2015-2016 school year, more than 7 million students—or 16 percent of all students—and 20 percent of high school students are chronically absent.
Research shows that attendance is key to academic success, so preventing absenteeism is critical. Reading and math skills are hindered for students who are chronically absent as early as kindergarten. In elementary school, frequent absences are linked to a higher likelihood of dropout—even if attendance improves over time.
In addition to causing learning gaps, absenteeism also has budget implications. In seven states, including California, school districts are funded through property taxes or state allocations based on school attendance. Districts in communities that don’t generate high property taxes look to attendance revenues from the state.
To address absenteeism, school administrators have turned to outside groups to help implement data-informed intervention and outreach strategies.
Attendance Works, headquartered in San Francisco, has worked with more than 24 school districts—like Long Beach—across 32 states, and facilitates a peer learning network involving more than 35 states.
In 2019, Attendance Works began to coach Long Beach’s “All In” staff to use the organization’s evidence-based Teaching Attendance Curriculum to strengthen prevention and intervention strategies, which include creating a welcoming environment, using effective messaging and recognizing good and improved attendance. The organization also helped “All In” staff design three peer learning network sessions for the 25 “All In” schools.
Attendance Works generates about half of its revenue from foundations. The remainder comes from service fees that amount to $1,800 per day. Its contract with Long Beach Unified for the 2019-2020 school year is for $21,110.
Hedy Chang, executive director and founder of Attendance Works, says that when the new school year resumes, school officials may well find more students at risk for chronic absenteeism due to economic or housing instability. Parents may have lost their jobs, students may need to work to support the family, family members may have died due to COVID-19. And students may be unwilling to return to school in person if they have a health condition or live with someone who is more vulnerable to the virus.
Identifying students at risk of absenteeism requires a mix of tactics. For example, gathering information such as which students lack internet connectivity, who was chronically absent prior to COVID-19 and understanding whether a student comes from a low-income family, has a disability, is involved in foster care or is homeless, can help staff better recognize each student’s circumstance and develop a more effective support system.
Chang says it is important for schools to check that they have updated contact information for students and families, so that staff can reach out and help students and guardians navigate what will be a radically different school year. It is also important to ensure that students have devices to support virtual class, coursework and communication.
Her organization recommends that attendance is taken for every in-person and virtual instructional experience. When schools resume in-person learning, or for those taking a hybrid approach, Chang recommends that schools convene a team of social-emotional and health support staff to reach out and identify students who lost out on significant learning opportunities since schools switched to remote learning. From there, they can develop and implement outreach, engagement and support strategies for these students and families.
Because of COVID-19, the federal government has waived participation rate as an Academic Achievement indicator for one year, but addressing absenteeism is still top of mind for many administrators.
Take, for example, the growing interest in Attendance Works’ services. Its webinars usually host about 500 attendees but that number has grown since the pandemic outbreak. About 4,600 people showed up for a recent webinar, Chang says.
Postcards Prove a Point
On the other side of the country, another effort, housed at Harvard University, is also helping districts tackle chronic absenteeism. Started in 2015, the Proving Ground program helps school districts leverage data to design, plan, implement and test interventions to improve learning outcomes. The program has 59 school district partners, most of them in New York and Ohio.
One of its first successful intervention programs involved weekly postcards sent home to families of students in early grades as absences occurred. The program lasted over the course of 13 weeks during the 2018-2019 school year and included 5,602 students from two unnamed districts. Each card contained a handwritten message including a count of cumulative days missed, information on the lessons missed in class that day, and a guide to help parents understand how the absences impacted their child’s academic progress. Researchers found that this approach reduced student absences by an estimated 7.9 percent.
In fall 2020, the program will launch intervention efforts with all of its partner schools. Interventions will include family engagement including outreach and follow-up designed to foster bi-directional communication between school and caretaker and enable problem solving to address reasons for absenteeism, restorative circles in elementary grades and intensive case management for high-absence students.
Due to COVID-19, Proving Ground aims to support its partner schools through a newly launched app that suggests strategies based on data shared with Proving Ground. The app will help districts improve upon selected strategies over time and allow districts to connect and share information with each other.
For one district that provided Proving Ground with data, it found that students were less likely to attend school virtually than they were to attend in person. Students who were chronically absent before COVID-19 were unlikely to attend school virtually at all.
“We don’t know what attendance is going to look like” in the fall Hersh says. “The key, if attendance cannot be measured in the same way, will be replacing it with something with similar utility. Attendance is an incredibly valuable tool for identifying students in need of additional support early. Failing to replace it would make it extremely hard for districts to support students, especially if they cannot see them in person every day.”
City Year Shifts Attendance Intervention Strategy
Like Simon, the student support services director at Long Beach Unified, Cory Jones, principal of Rosa Parks K-8 School in Sacramento, Calif., was fighting a losing battle to reduce chronic absenteeism at his school. During the 2018-2019 school year, the chronic absenteeism rate at Rosa Parks reached 26.5 percent (about 240 students)—up from 17.2 percent (about 150 students) percent during the 2016-2017 school year.
Before COVID-19, Jones saw improvement in attendance with help from the local chapter of City Year, an education nonprofit that is part of the AmeriCorps national service network, which has approximately 350 partner schools and 40,000 students it interacts with directly through one-on-one and group settings.
City Year Sacramento members participated in school attendance teams, evaluated data trends, identified students in need of support and determined appropriate interventions. Efforts included attendance rallies, incentives and teaching students about the consequences of missing school, and engaging those who needed encouragement and support.
Students who successfully demonstrated sustained improvement in their attendance received attendance graduation certificates and pins. On one occasion, students who came to school on a particular day entered a raffle for the chance to pie a City Year Sacramento member or Jones in the face.
“Research shows that if a child feels a personal connection at school, it raises their chances at school exponentially,” says Jones.
Coinciding with these efforts, Sacramento Rapid Transit provided all students in the city with valid student IDs free bus rides to help overcome transportation obstacles. City Year Sacramento members helped students acquire bus passes through the initiative as well as alarm clocks.
From Jan. 6 to Feb. 24, early data showed about 60 percent of students increased their average daily attendance.
Then, Sacramento City Unified School District closed schools on March 16. “That pretty much sidelined the efforts we were making,” says Jones. “Now that face-to-face interaction, the most powerful part of it, was eliminated.”
As schools transitioned to distance learning, City Year Sacramento turned its focus to family engagement. Members made about 600 calls to parents and students to check in on well-being, ask about obstacles to learning and provide technical support on tools like Google Classrooms and Zoom. They also helped translate district communications into other languages. The list of students contacted was based on those who did not participate in online learning activities.
City Year Sacramento also created about 50 videos and social media posts to engage students. Video subjects ranged from reading stories to health to dance to origami. Members participated in Google Classrooms, managing chat windows, creating activities and warm-ups and conducting small group breakout sessions for homework and academic support.
Healthy Habits at Home video from the City Year Rosa Parks team (Source: City Year Sacramento)
“We will build off of these initial distance learning initiatives for the upcoming school year and be able to provide hybrid and distance learning support,” says Jeff Owen, vice president and executive director for City Year Sacramento.
The national City Year organization does have a history of success with attendance. During the 2017-2018 academic year, students in grades six to nine coached by City Year AmeriCorps members improved their attendance by at least 2 percentage points, which translates to more than three additional days in school or more than 5,900 collective additional days of instruction.
A recent study from Johns Hopkins University showed that the more time a student spends working with a City Year AmeriCorps member, the better their attendance and academic outcomes. Students who spent the median amount of time with an AmeriCorps member—16 hours in math or English and three hours for behavioral support—were 42 percent less likely to fall off track in English, a third less likely to fall behind in math and 41 percent less likely to fall behind in attendance. In addition, students furthest behind in attendance, grades, test scores or social-emotional skills saw the greatest gains with one-on-one support from a City Year member.
City Year services can cost about $200 per student per year for a variety of school-wide and individualized supports, according to Owen. Schools nationwide usually cover about 25 percent of the total cost to deploy the team of City Year members in schools. About 50 percent comes from contributions and grants from foundations, corporations and individuals and another 25 percent is funded by the federal government through AmeriCorps.
Jones hopes that Rosa Parks and City Year Sacramento can continue some of the new efforts and projects once the school returns to in-person learning or a hybrid model.
“This is a time to stretch and learn new things,” he says. “These are things we may follow up on when we return to school.”
Back in Long Beach, the end of the school year saw Simon and her colleagues cross referencing chronic absenteeism lists to make sure families received the support they needed. They assisted families with finding temporary shelters and community resources and provided wellness checks on the staff. “If the staff is not well, they’re not going to serve the students well,” Simon says.
Long Beach will start its school year online only, possibly shifting to in person learning later in the year. Simon and her team have been talking to families by phone, not just to share the importance of attendance, but to empathize with their circumstances.
The focus for her team is on participation over attendance. Once conditions are safer, district staff plan to visit students’ homes. Family Resource Center staff provide telecounseling to students during summer school and virtual guardian workshops on topics such as anxiety and grief.
“If you didn’t build a relationship before COVID-19, you’re not going to hear from those families,” Simon says. “If they trust you, they’ll accept your calls on a more consistent basis. People see that more so now.”