School Climate & Safety

Want to Tackle Attendance Apathy? Students Will Show You How

By Olina Banerji — March 04, 2024 5 min read
Photo of teenage boy outside of school.
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As principals grapple with a lasting pattern of chronic absenteeism, they quickly come to terms with one stark reality at the heart of the problem: Students, for a variety of reasons, just don’t want to come to school anymore.

“Social media culture has manifested itself in a way where students see social media influencers make millions without graduating. There is an apathy [towards school] because kids may think they don’t have to go to college,” said Bracken Healy, the superintendent of Passaic Valley Regional High School in Little Falls, N.J.

Even without the pervasive influence of social media, it’s not hard for students to slip into chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days in the year. A family illness, lack of transportation to the school, the new phenomenon of school refusal, and extended vacation could take borderline students beyond the threshold easily. Even skipping one or two days a month adds up.

Absenteeism numbers are a shifting target too, which makes it complicated for administrators like Ryan Broderick, the assistant vice principal at Bristol Central High School in Bristol, Conn., to come up with one strategy for student engagement.

“The longer a school year goes, more students move in and out of the district. Who is considered chronic—at what point in the year—keeps changing.”

Broderick’s school district uses a data tracker to place students into different categories of chronic absenteeism, ranging from borderline to severe, and designs interventions accordingly. In Broderick’s school, chronic absenteeism numbers fell from nearly 30 percent in the 2020-21 school year to 21 percent this year. About 240 students are still chronically absent from a total of 1,220.

Broderick credited the nearly 10 percent point reduction to a series of engagement tactics that includes recruiting high school seniors to mentor incoming students. The connections built at the start of the year, Broderick said, help new students navigate a new school better. Healy has also relied on his student counsel and pivoted to a new schedule, with fewer periods each day and time built-in for students to pursue their own interests in school.

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen enrollment go up from 981 to over 1,000 students. More kids show up to school football games. There’s a better environment in school after the schedule changed, and kids want to be at school more,” said Healy.

More freedom, more choices

Both Healy and Broderick, in their own ways, invested time in listening to students and families, before rushing into solutions to address absenteeism.

Healy started with bringing together a group of 12 student ambassadors who advised him on what kept students away from school.

“We heard the same thing every time. Students weren’t looking forward to the same thing every day. If they had math the first period for the whole year, they would skip it by coming in late. We realized we could shift these periods around,” said Healy.

Passaic Valley High didn’t just shift the math period around; it changed the whole school schedule to give students a break from going to the same class, at the same time every day. The new schedule eliminates one class period everyday and had built in a “flex period,” a 54-minute study hall where students can either catch up with their assignments or pursue their own interests.

A new, common lunch period for every student gives them the option to eat at the same time. Within school, the administration has set up different eating areas, including the gym, to incorporate spaces for every grade to eat together.

“We allow students to step outside the campus to get lunch. It breaks up the monotony of the day,” said Healy.

Stretching the periods from 43 to 54 minutes also meant that net instructional time went up. Initially, said Healy, teachers had to adjust to teaching longer periods, but now enjoy the extra time they have. “They find students are more energized, and have a better attitude,” said Healy. Passaic Valley’s new schedule also makes space for students to come in late or leave school early, during their flex period. It’s one more way, said Healy, to incentivize attendance.

Prevent the patterns

Not all factors in absenteeism are easy to fix. If an older student has to watch their younger siblings, or has to work to support their family, principals can’t change that situation on their own. Still, said Broderick, it’s important to identify these patterns early and work with parents on solutions.

“Attendance is personal, and no parent wants their child to be labelled chronically absent. If a student starts to miss school, there’s usually a familial or academic reason to it, and we reach out to families to find out what help they need,” said Broderick.

His school district has created a community closet—a space for families to find new clothes, which is also outfitted with a washer and dryer to help families that can’t access them. It’s also arranged special buses in the winter to ferry students to school on snowy days.

Broderick and his team’s “rising seniors” program helps to deepen connections within the school, too. A group of 60 to 65 seniors are chosen every year as mentors after interviews and put through two days of leadership training, where they learn community-building activities. These seniors then engage new students through similar activities, introduce them to their classes, and help them with their schedules throughout the year.

“The idea is that orientation shouldn’t be a bunch of administrators sharing PowerPoint presentations. By the end of orientation, new students know at least a few seniors by name and already have a relationship with them,” said Broderick.

This student-led orientation has another advantage—the 65 senior students own the program now and feel a kinship with the rest of the student community, which, said Broderick, makes them show up to school more often.

Both Healy and Broderick said they had to change their own outlook on chronic absenteeism, realizing that every student’s journey back to regular attendance is unique.

“We have over 1,200 students, and each student has their own story,” said Broderick. “It’s important for us to listen to all of them.”

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