At schools across the country, one of the biggest obstacles to student learning is chronic absenteeism. While student attendance has always been a challenge in schools that serve predominantly economically disadvantaged students, the pandemic worsened attendance numbers with chronic absenteeism rates reaching an all-time high.
To combat the issue, the LEAD Academy team took an aggressive and comprehensive approach that resulted in reducing their chronic absenteeism rate by half. During the 2021-22 school year, 42% of students were chronically absent. After implementing a new set of strategies during the 2022-23 school year, LEAD Academy saw a dramatic impact with the chronic absenteeism dropping to 22%.
What is Chronic Absenteeism?
So what does it mean to be “chronically absent”? Chronic absenteeism is when a student misses school for any reason—excused or unexcused—which includes not attending school for the minimum 3.5 hours in a school day. The chronic absenteeism rate is the percentage of students missing 10% of instructional days in the school year, so in a 180-day calendar year, students missing more than 18 days would be classified as chronically absent.
“Kids can’t learn when they aren’t in school, but it’s much deeper than that,” said Dr. Tony Majors, principal of LEAD Academy during the 2022-23 school year. “When students see value in coming to school, they’re personally invested in their educational experience at a higher level, which leads to new opportunities and creates an environment of better academic performance.”
There are a variety of factors that contribute to students being absent on a regular basis, but the majority of those reasons are related to family obligations, a lack of investment in school, working a job, and a general apathy toward the importance of being in school every day.
“We are a place that understands that relationships drive excellence. Having our kids and our families invested in our mission and showing up every single day allows us to deepen those relationships and connections and, in turn, helps students feel seen and families feel a part of the process so they can reach whatever aspirational goals they have for themselves.” – Courtney McEwen, Director of College and Career
Sharing the Responsibility of Student Attendance
While LEAD Academy made some structural changes like adding new positions that were dedicated to overseeing chronic absences, they also broadened the responsibility of ensuring students come to school to every staff member in the building. From teachers making calls to students’ families to remind them of the importance of daily attendance to operations team members conducting home visits, everyone has a role to play.
“It is our collective responsibility to invest in our students and families being here,” said Courtney McEwen, director of college and career at LEAD Public Schools. “That’s how we help students achieve their most ambitious secondary plans. We care that they’re here, and if there’s a reason that they’re not, we have to ask how we can support them.”
These intentional relationships between staff and students not only give students the opportunity to share if there’s something going on in their personal life that is keeping them from coming to school, it also helps students understand the value of coming to school and what is at stake if they are chronically absent.
“One thing that cannot be overstated is that we recognized when they were absent,” said Dr. Majors. “Whether it was asking them where they were yesterday when they entered the building or another staff member saying, ‘We missed you yesterday,’ the students knew that they were seen.”
Another way the LEAD Academy team attacked the issue was by raising the bar of accountability. In addition to following all of the normal state procedures, school administrators moved up the timeline for addressing a chronically absent student so they could reach families sooner to emphasize the urgency and get the student back on track.
“We were very transparent that once a student is truant on their 11th day of unexcused absence, we will be filing a truancy petition,” said Dr. Majors. “We held our own attendance review boards on campus so parents were required to come in sooner to address the attendance issue and get into the nitty gritty of why their child is missing school and being put on a contract.”
While these strategies made an impact on reducing chronic absenteeism, the real “game changer” for LEAD Academy was investing in a culture of celebration around attending school.
“‘We want you to be here, we miss you when we’re gone,’ was a really big mindset shift for people, and we celebrated that continuously,” said McEwen. “We celebrated growth in attendance, but also made sure that kids who were consistently meeting our expectations were also celebrated.”
The school held celebrations at the end of every month to recognize students who were at school 95% of that month, with larger celebrations hosted at the end of every quarter. They also incentivized students with treats and LEAD Academy swag—a strategy that may sound simple but should not be overlooked.
“School leaders need to be willing to invest in things that might not seem of value to them but have great value to kids,” said Dr. Majors. “Invest in time and personal relationships, invest in the goodies—it still matters to kids.”
The secret sauce to LEAD Academy’s success in cutting chronic absenteeism is striking the balance between accountability and celebration. We look forward to seeing how a second year of this multi-layered approach makes an impact on student attendance, and in turn, improves student academic outcomes.