Contributed by Colin Egerter
School may be out for the summer, but this summer vacation ends early for educators who have to prep for the new school year. Soon enough, teachers will begin to prepare for the school year by modifying lesson plans, and creating an welcoming environment for all students to learn and grow. This planning is important, but it doesn’t help those students who miss so much school that they don’t reap the benefits of their teacher’s preparation.
Chronic absenteeism has gotten so bad that in 2016, the Department of Education labeled it “a hidden educational crisis.” Chronic absenteeism rates are correlated with lower grade point averages and graduation rates. This problem doesn’t just apply to one demographic either. As seen below, chronic absenteeism is seen in all areas of the country. While most prevalent in high schools, elementary and middle schools are certainly not immune.
So how can schools combat absenteeism? Here are some tips and tricks other schools and studies have found successful in keeping students in the classroom:
- Give students something to look forward to: Georgina Aye, principal at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, told The Baltimore Sun that the secret is “to give students what they want.” She began an early college program that allows students to graduate with college credits, one of the main reasons Woodlawn reduced their absenteeism rate by 14 percent in 2017. She also found that students wanted to graduate with a skill that would transfer to work immediately after graduation, and as a result plans to introduce “heating, air-conditioning, and plumbing classes.” Career/technical education could be the important link between schools and certain at-risk students.
- Keep parents in the loop: Todd Rogers of Harvard University did a study that examined parental awareness of their child’s absences. They found that parents severely underestimated the amount of absences their own child had from school. For this reason, the study sent updates of total and relative absences to a variable group of parents in addition to the school’s normal communication five times a year. They concluded that mailing absence updates lead to a slight increase in attendance.
- Provide an interested mentor: The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University created a report in 2013 analyzing Michael Bloomberg’s attempts at mitigating chronic absenteeism. The most successful program implemented was the NYC Success Mentor Corps. Schools used data-driven technology to identify “early warning” students based on slipping grades or previous frequent absences, and assigned these individuals a mentor early in the school year. Mentors would meet one-on-one and in groups to celebrate their student’s strengths as well as “identify the underlying causes of absenteeism, [and] work with the student to solve those issues within their capacity.” The results concluded that students with these mentors gained on average nine days of school per year.
- Make cleanliness a priority: We all know that hygiene amongst children is hit-or-miss despite a teacher’s best attempt at to keep classrooms sanitary and free of germs. Students get sick, and that often leads to staying home. The American Journal of Infection Control published a study detailing the importance of hand washing. They gave a few classrooms a hand hygiene intervention consisting of an education program and hand sanitizer, and the results were astounding. Absences were reduced by 51 percent over a span of three months.
Chronic absenteeism is by no means an easy problem to solve, as any number of factors can cause a student to be unable to go to school. Researchers have categorized the causes of absences into four categories: student-specific factors, family-specific factors, school-specific factors, and community-specific factors, revealing that there is no one size fits all solution. But not having a simple fix leaves the door open for creativity and dialogue, two important steps in turning chronic absenteeism into an afterthought.