Attendance Awareness: How to Defeat an Overlooked Barrier to Equity

Imagine a teacher starting the school year off with 27 energetic fourth-grade students. She’s worked all summer to refine her curriculum, creating engaging lesson plans and diagnostic assessments. All students are present on the first day of school, and there is a positive energy as they build their classroom culture.

As days turn into weeks, the teacher notices there are never 27 students present after that first day. It might not seem like a big deal, but once she begins to analyze student learning data, she notices a pattern. When students miss even one school day, they fall behind. And the problem quickly snowballs because the missed material is necessary for understanding new lessons.

The teacher is falling further and further behind the curriculum pacing guides due to the absences. She sets up an elaborate system of folders, websites and areas in the classroom to help keep students on track and engaged after an absence. Despite her best efforts, the problem persists. Sound familiar?

This teacher is only one person, and one person alone cannot solve a problem affecting millions of students and costing schools millions of dollars each year. The technical term for this is chronic absence, when students miss 10 percent or more days of school. While all schools take attendance, the data usually are not adequately recorded to determine exactly who is missing and how many days they are missing. Chronic absence puts students in academic jeopardy, disproportionately affecting students of poverty, students of color, students with disabilities, and those with long-term health conditions. And it can start in preschool.

September is Attendance Awareness Month, and it provides an opportunity to act on this important issue. An easy, yet powerful, step teachers can take is to talk about the importance of attendance with students and parents as often as possible. Tell them that missing school even once is a big deal. Ask them to let the school know if there are barriers to attendance such as medical appointments or transportation issues. For more ideas and resources, see the Attendance Toolkit from Attendance Works.  

Imagine if the teacher above could assign mentors to students who seem to be struggling, offer meals to students who lack food security or transportation vouchers to those who can’t afford the rising costs of public transit. Imagine if a mobile health unit could visit the school a few times a year to offer checkups and vaccinations, or if parents could come to the school for legal advice or to learn English.

This vision is possible through the community school strategy, a vehicle to coordinate a range of resources and services to mitigate the issues impacting student attendance, among other barriers to learning. Schools from Texas to Pennsylvania are harnessing this powerful solution to combat the effects of poverty and to keep teachers and students focused on one thing: learning.

For more on community schools, see the Fall 2015 edition of the American Educator magazine and these series of videos from the American Federation of Teachers. You can also download the Community Schools Playbook: A Practical Guide to Advancing Community Schools Strategies.

 

For more on Attendance Awareness Month, see this toolkit from Attendance Works.

For resources and lessons related to community schools, see these collections:

We can’t teach students when they aren’t in school. Let’s work together to help overcome the barriers to attendance. What will you do this September to increase awareness of this important issue? Let us know in the comments below.