School & District Management

Spurred by Statistics, Districts Combat Absenteeism

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 01, 2010 8 min read
Two children rush to make it to class on time last week at Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. The district has been at the forefront of efforts to reduce absenteeism in schools.
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As policymakers debate the merits of new tests and intervention strategies to improve student achievement, some districts are exploring a more basic warning sign: Are students even showing up?

A growing consensus of research points to chronic absence—defined by the national policy group Attendance Counts as missing 10 percent of school or more—as one of the strongest and most often overlooked indicators of a student’s risk of becoming disengaged, failing courses, and eventually dropping out of school.

“Attendance doesn’t really rise to the top” in school improvement discussions, said Jane Sundius, the director of the Education and Youth Development Program at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, which coordinates and supports attendance and discipline-related research in the city. “We get into the cycle where [intervention] has to be about student achievement, so we get into the habit of just counting bodies for attendance. But all of a sudden, we have research that shows, in fact, attendance is a really remarkable indicator. It’s easy to understand; it’s available on every child, every week, every day; and it both predicts failure and acts as an early warning alert.”

Percentage of 2008-09 Dropouts Chronically Absent in the Three Years Prior to Dropout


SOURCE: “Gradual Disengagement: A Portrait of the 2008-09 Dropouts in the Baltimore City Schools,” Baltimore Education Research Consortium.

Studies by Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; Mariajosé Romero, senior research associate at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University in New York; Young-Sun Lee, an associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College at Columbia; and others have found that frequent absences, even as early as the elementary grades, sharply increase a student’s risk of eventually failing and leaving school.

Signs Overlooked

Most districts collect attendance data on their students, but few know what to look for when they review it, said Hedy N. Chang, the director of Attendance Counts, a national policy group, and a co-author of “Present, Engaged, and Accounted For,” a 2008 report on chronic early absenteeism.

Attendance monitor Deidre Reeder checks attendance at Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. The district is among several across the country that are stepping up efforts to combat chronic absenteeism.

Compounding the problem, Ms. Chang said, the average daily attendance counts that schools must report as part of state accountability systems can hide chronic absenteeism. Because averages don’t track individual students, dozens of students can miss weeks of school without triggering accountability measures.

She prefers that schools monitor the percentage of time each student spends in school rather than days missed. For example, if a student has missed 10 percent of the first month of school, this handful of days normally would not trigger alarm, but Ms. Chang’s research suggests that the student is still at greater risk of being chronically absent by the end of the year.

“If you’re waiting for a kid to be 20 days absent, by that time it’s too late,” Ms. Chang said. “The whole value of monitoring this is you can see when there’s a problem.”

Causes of chronic absenteeism include illness—asthma is one of the most common—missed buses, broken cars, and just playing hooky. In kindergarten and 1st grade, which have the highest rates of absenteeism outside of high school, parents often let their children stay home because they don’t understand that academic expectations have stepped up in those grades since they were students, Ms. Chang and Ms. Sundius said.

Older students may be more selective about which classes they miss, according to students at Baltimore’s Polytechnic High School who attended a forum on attendance this week.

Ly-Anh McCoy, a Polytechnic senior, argued that students don’t skip the classes of the interesting teachers, the ones who seem to care more about students.

“Kids don’t go to the ones who don’t teach us,” Ms. McCoy said. “Some teachers might show you a problem on the board, but they’re just teaching to the board, they’re not really explaining it to you.”

Gabriel McKinney, a sophomore, added that it’s easy to skip a class here or there, and, while he hasn’t, most students he knows do—the adults don’t tend to follow up. “If someone sees you out of class, you might get a detention, but no one tracks you down,” he said.

He said he would like his high school to be more like his middle school, with a few more people checking up on students. “They were really hands-on; they knew all the students,” he said.

Many communities are taking notice. Georgia requires districts to report the percentage of students who miss 15 days or more of school. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in August launched a pilot study of chronic absenteeism aimed at testing five potential interventions at 25 local schools. California’s Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco districts, and a community schools network in Grand Rapids, Mich., have all started initiatives to study and address chronic absenteeism beyond truancy and average daily attendance.

Building Up in Baltimore

Most experts say the district furthest along is Baltimore. Maryland requires schools to report any student who misses more than 20 days of school, its official definition of chronic absenteeism. A year ago, district officials, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, as well as more than 100 representatives from foundations and corrections and social service agencies, joined forces to create the districtwide Baltimore City Student Attendance Work Group, which studies the problem and suggests solutions.

Researchers in the working group found that more than one in 10 of the district’s elementary students, nearly one in five middle schoolers, and more than 42 percent of high school students missed a month or more of school in 2008-09. Researchers from the consortium, or BERC, at Johns Hopkins released a report in August that found that, among students who dropped out in 2009, absenteeism increased steadily over the three years before they left, while remaining steady for students who graduated.

Ms. Reeder walks 4-year-old Markell Foster to his prekindergarten class at Franklin Square after driving him to school. As part of her job as attendance monitor, Ms. Reeder sometimes transports students to school, drives them to doctors’ appointments, or bangs on students’ doors when they fail to show up for class.

This year, Andrés A. Alonso, the chief executive officer for the Baltimore school district, also released a report showing that chronically absent students scored 15 to 20 percentage points lower on state assessments than did students who attended school more regularly—a bigger achievement gap than the one separating poor students and English language learners from better-performing peer groups.

The district has moved to require an attendance monitor in every school, as well as districtwide incentives for students to come to school more often and education for parents and teachers on the importance of attendance, according to Sue Fothergill, coordinator for the Baltimore City Student Attendance Initiative, which evolved out of the working group.

More recently, Ms. Fothergill and Stephen Plank, research co-director for BERC, said the team has started to sift through the data to find schools that don’t fit the city’s grim attendance statistics.

Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School is one that rose to the top in that analysis. The school is surrounded by boarded-up buildings; an average of nine out of 10 of its students live in poverty; and one in five, on average, is highly mobile, yet the school boasts daily attendance above 96 percent and test scores above the state average. Principal Terry Patton and her staff weave attendance strategies into every part of the school. They track any child who has missed a day, and they look for patterns, both for individual students and across classes.

Deidre Reeder, an attendance monitor at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, makes her first of three rounds at 8 a.m., ducking into classrooms to check attendance. For the students who aren’t there, she gets on the phone to parents, grandparents, whoever is available. “I call every parent, ask them the reason why they are absent, and tell them we need a note, and tell them we are striving for 100 percent attendance this year,” she said.

“If some children have missed a day or two, then I go out and get in my truck, because I know I’m going to be making a stop,” Ms. Reeder said. “People will hear me knocking on the door, and the kids just start getting dressed.”

She lives in the community, has a child in the school, and she and the rest of the office staff take no excuses.

During the H1N1 flu outbreak last year, Ms. Patton called the doctor of any child who called in sick to confirm the diagnosis. The school also has partnered with the Total Health Care clinic across the street to provide classes on asthma prevention and to help students get health appointments close to school. Staff members often walk students to appointments rather than have parents keep the child home.

For students habitually late or absent, the school holds focus groups of students and parents and sends out regular surveys to talk about problems that prevent regular attendance. Some parents haven’t been able to get their children up and dressed on time, or they have run out of clean school uniforms. So now, the office provides alarm clocks to families that don’t have them. It keeps spare uniforms and a washer and dryer for students; it partnered with a local barber to offer haircuts and grooming each Monday.

“I can’t wait until it gets to the point where we can track everything about the child right away, so we don’t lose so much time and we can react right away,” Ms. Patton said.

The district and its partners are moving to increase that sort of tracking in other schools, Ms. Fothergill said, with new data dashboards that will give principals and attendance monitors daily and weekly comparisons of their students and the district averages.

The district also is getting the students involved in spreading the word about the importance of school attendance. Ms. McCoy was part of a team of students who developed posters for the district intended to persuade fellow teenagers to attend school regularly. In a warm gym full of antsy middle and high school students at the unveiling of the posters last week, Ms. McCoy got the biggest response to an advertisement relating attendance to earning.

“We know we have to face it every day. Graduating high school and attending college means you’ll make a million more dollars a year,” she explained. “It’s important for students to know that and make conscious choices about coming to school.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Districts Begin Looking Harder at Absenteeism


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