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Why aren’t students showing up to school?

  • Joanna
  • September 27, 2022

The number of chronically absent students — those missing 15 or more days per year — in U.S. schools doubled to 16 million in the 2021-22 school year. Prior to the pandemic, about 8 million students were chronically absent each year, according to new findings from Attendance Works. Two of the nation’s largest districts, New York City and Los Angeles, have reported up to 40% chronic absenteeism at the end of the 2021-22 school year, according to the 74. Other districts — even high-performing ones — across the country faced similar rates of absenteeism, and we’re all but certain that this trend will carry over into the 2022-23 school year.

The challenges students are facing that lead to chronic absenteeism aren’t going to go away by themselves. Many districts were optimistic that attendance would stabilize after the CDC stopped recommending quarantines after COVID-19 exposure. Even without quarantines, chronic absenteeism rose from 19% pre-pandemic to more than 30% in the 2021-22 school year.

“When you think about why students aren’t showing up to school, people often think about solutions for lost instructional time rather than solutions focused on getting students to school, so they may prescribe ‘more school’ for students who are struggling to get to school,” Rebekah Richards, Chief Strategy Officer of Graduation Alliance, said. “When we think about the root causes of why students aren’t in school and start to address those root causes for individual students, then we’ve got our antidote to chronic absenteeism.”

We collect barrier data from students and their families as part of our ENGAGE Attendance Recovery Program, which gives districts insight into why students are chronically absent, disengaged, or at-risk. When looking at the data, we identified three main categories all barriers fall into: academic performance, academic resources, and social-emotional factors. Some of the biggest barriers we’ve identified at the student level include:

  • Struggling to grasp course material
  • Being behind on credits
  • Not knowing how to navigate academic support resources
  • Not having access to safe, reliable transportation to and from school
  • Not knowing how to or feeling uncomfortable approaching their teachers
  • Struggling with mental health issues
  • Having sibling care responsibilities
  • Working to help their families
  • Experiencing food and housing insecurity

School districts are tackling the chronic absenteeism challenge and working to get students back in school in creative ways. Washington recently passed a bill allowing students to receive excused absences for mental health days. A school in Nebraska implemented a new policy that requires students to have three or fewer unexcused absences in order to attend its homecoming dance.

While these are creative ways to improve attendance, they won’t work for every student. Students who aren’t struggling with their mental health won’t benefit from mental health days. Similarly, those who are chronically absent due to factors outside of their control may not be able to keep their unexcused absences under three, even if they want to attend homecoming.

One way districts can help tackle the chronic absenteeism crisis is by partnering with a team of re-engagement experts to identify the barriers preventing students from attending school and then providing appropriate interventions to help those students increase their attendance with the end goal of fostering academic success while returning back data that allows districts to bring their resources to bear effectively and efficiently.

Some districts are attempting to do this on their own. Large districts may have the resources to do a strategic outreach campaign to students and their families, but not every district has that capacity. Additionally, a neutral third party often acts as a buffer between families and the district, which can make families feel more comfortable sharing their concerns about their child’s education. Families often don’t know who to talk to at the district level, and a third party can help them find the appropriate person within the district to whom they can voice their concerns.

Graduation Alliance’s attendance recovery program acts as this neutral third party for school districts of all sizes and helps districts identify their student population’s unique barriers to attendance and engagement. Our dynamic data dashboard gives school leaders both a program-wide and student-specific view of barrier data, allowing them to identify trends within their student population and specifically target students who are in need of interventions.

With that data, districts can also begin to triage students who need additional support and district resources to improve their attendance and, ultimately, their academic performance. Several large urban districts that worked with Graduation Alliance were able to determine McKinney Vento eligibility for students who hadn’t previously been on their radar. ENGAGE referrals are read the McKinney Vento definition of homelessness when they are surveyed and are asked if they identify with that definition.

Graduation Alliance can provide support to chronically absent, disengaged, and at-risk students through our dropout recovery services, as well as ENGAGE. These programs meet students where they are and provide the level of support they need to find success. Our ENGAGE program partners with students up with Academic Success Coaches who help them set and work toward academic and personal goals, answer questions about school and help them stay motivated in the district’s instructional offerings. Our dropout recovery program provides an entire alternative pathway to graduation for high school students who are not succeeding in district offerings.

“We’ve talked a lot in this country about learning loss and the long-term effect that gap in learning over the last couple of years is going to present for this generation — not just in high school, not just in graduation rates, but also in terms of post-secondary attainment. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but it starts with getting students to school. The focus on chronic absenteeism is very well placed right now because in order to start solving that learning loss issue, we have to first solve student attendance. It all starts with showing up,” Richards said.

For more information about Graduation Alliance’s dropout recovery program, please fill out our request for information form.