School & District Management What the Research Says

5 Things Schools Can Do This Summer to Improve Student Attendance Next Year

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 21, 2024 6 min read
Julian Gresham, 12, left, works in a group to program a Bee-Bot while in their fifth grade summer school class Monday, June 14, 2021, at Goliad Elementary School. Bee-bots and are new to Ector County Independent School District and help to teach students basic programming skills like sequencing, estimation and problem-solving.
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It may seem counterintuitive to focus on student attendance during the summer, but the break can give schools crucial time to connect students at risk of disengaging during the school year.

More than 14 million students—about 1 in 4 nationwide—missed at least 10 percent of school days in 2022-23, continuing higher rates of chronic absenteeism since the pandemic. While there are no national data yet for the 2023-24 school year, some districts with improving attendance report last summer helped give them a boost.

Jessica Hull, community outreach coordinator for Roseville, Calif., public schools, watched chronic absenteeism in the district climb from between 5 percent and 6 percent a year before the pandemic, to 26 percent by the end of the 2021-22 school year. That summer, the district launched a massive campaign to identify the most disengaged students and reconnect them and their families with school.

The campaign has been gaining traction, Hull said. Chronic absenteeism fell from more than 1 in 4 students in the district in 2022 to just under 1 in 5 in 2022-23, and preliminary results suggest closer to 1 in 10 students were chronically absent in the 2023-24 school year.

“In terms of improving attendance, it can be seen as a combination of prevention, problem-solving, and mitigation,” said Robert Balfanz, research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, who has been studying a network of school districts working to improve attendance and graduation rates. “So districts can think along all three dimensions in terms of things they can do, to start the year with strong attendance.”

For example, Balfanz noted some districts launch a back-to-school “attendance challenge,” to encourage students to be in school every day in the first month—which studies have found is a key period for students to develop yearlong attendance habits.

Grace Spencer, product manager and an attendance management expert for the technology firm SchoolStatus, said about 30 percent of the districts she works with have launched attendance education campaigns in the past year. Parents and students have responded better, she said, to helping them understand the effect of missed school on grades and social development before students start school, rather than targeting disciplinary notices after students begin to miss class.

“Absences add up faster than you think, and parents don’t realize it,” Spencer said. “Parents need to know the one most important thing they can do to help their kids succeed is to get them to school every day on time.”

Schools can do these five things this summer to improve student attendance in the school year ahead.

1. Review attendance data to target students at risk of absenteeism.

As Roseville schools enter another summer break, Hull said teachers and outreach workers are crunching the school year data to identify which students missed the most school and fine-tune their approach.

“As we go through the data this summer, we’re specializing a lot of our outreach, and we’ll go into more specialization of the [district’s] website,” she said, to link families to supports to overcome the most common attendance barriers, such as transportation.

While reviewing data, Balfanz urged administrators to consider the size of the attendance workload and broaden responsibility for attendance.

“If a school has 100 to 200 chronically absent students, and a district has thousands, a few people cannot address this,” Balfanz said. “Schools and districts might have a [Positive Behavior Intervention and Support] team for behavior, a [Multi-Tiered System of Supports] team for academics, and an attendance team for attendance, a well-being team for mental health—each with one to three or four people—but if you bring them together into a unified student success team, then you might have eight to 10 people who can take a holistic approach to student success.”

2. Reach out to families at home.

Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works, an advocacy group that partners with districts to reduce absenteeism, said districts that are most successful at reducing chronic absenteeism reach out to high-risk students individually during the summer, with home visits from teachers and staff.

“You don’t go in saying, ‘Hey, you were chronically absent.’ You just go in saying, ‘Hey, how are you? I wanted to see, are you connected to all the summer learning activities?’ You just build a relationship,” Chang said.

For example, the 15 school districts in Connecticut’s Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP, conducted home visits with students who had high absenteeism in the prior school year. Students who received home visits in the summer of 2021 improved their attendance by 7 percentage points on average in the following school year.

3. Leverage your summer programs.

    While many summer learning programs enroll students based on academic needs, Chang said these programs should also target students who have been chronically absent during the year. A 2023 study of summer learning in San Francisco found programs that blended academic and social-emotional services for low-income students significantly reduced unexcused absences, chronic absenteeism, and suspensions the following year—and greater benefits for students who participated in the summer program for multiple years.

    “One of the challenges of why kids might not be showing up to school is that they’ve gotten less engaged in the learning process itself: Learning is becoming boring,” she said. “You could use summer programming to re-instill that joy of learning.”

    It’s particularly important to include chronically absent students in “orientation” or “welcome” camps in early grades and in transition years into middle and high school—the years in which absenteeism tends to increase.

    “You really give kids and families a chance to get to know a new school, maybe even practice the walking to school, the routine of school, make sure teachers know who they are and that they meet other kids,” Chang said. “That can be an opportunity to connect kids to school and message the importance of showing up every day.”

    4. Ensure students return to school healthy.

    Years after COVID-19 outbreaks shuttered schools nationwide, Hull said normal childhood illnesses remained one of the leading causes of chronic absenteeism.

    “When we talked to families last summer about [absenteeism], one of the biggest pieces we heard was, parents don’t know how sick was too sick for school,” Hull said. “It was such an extreme response during the pandemic—if you had a cough, you went home; if you had a runny nose, you went home; maybe you had to keep a kid home for five days—and as the state relaxed rules people just still didn’t know what to do” during outbreaks of seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses which have surged in recent years.

    Beyond clarifying sick-day rules, Chang urged school districts to do more to ensure students return to school with updated vaccinations for traditional childhood illnesses as well as seasonal influenza and COVID-19. A 2024 study of school nurses suggests better health access—such as school-based clinics and immunization drives—can help reduce the number of illness outbreaks during the year, and help prevent students from missing days at the start of school if they don’t have proper immunization records.

    5. Plan to start your school year off right.

    Balfanz advised districts to use the summer to “think through what steps they can take at the start of the school year, to build a strong sense of school connectedness among students. Key to this is both supportive adult-student relationships, and student-to-student relationships—both of which often need shared experiences–to cement.”

    Class service projects and extracurricular fairs, for example, can introduce students to their teachers and help them form social connections in the school.

    Roseville public schools has started scheduling its most popular activities and speakers for the year around the weekdays most associated with absenteeism.

    “Friday in general is a low day for attendance; lots of people doing three-day weekends and such,” Hull said. “So we’re creating different assemblies and events, to build more excitement around what happens at school on Friday, making sure students, really do want to be there.”

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