A Priority: Address Chronic Absenteeism

Chronic Absenteeism: The First-Order Challenge Facing Our Nation’s Schools

Principal Manko and students are all smiles! (Photo courtesy Joseph Manko)

Principal Manko and students are all smiles! (Photo courtesy Joseph Manko)

Principals like me in schools around the country face a daunting challenge. While the national conversation focuses on test scores, school performance, and academic growth, one key question that has been absent is — how do we move kids academically, when they don’t show up to school?

Chronic absenteeism – missing over twenty or more days of school in a typical 180-day year – is rampant across the country and particularly so in high poverty schools where obstacles like inadequate housing, transportation, unforgiving work schedules, and improper health care make regular attendance difficult.

In my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, some schools have chronic rates of close to 30%. That means that one third of the students are missing over 10% of the school year – begging the question of how meaningful academic growth is even possible.

This week the White House and U.S. Department of Education have been shining a light on both the scale of the problem and potential solutions through My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentor initiative and a national conference on Every Student, Every Day. (Learn more about these and related efforts by following #EveryStudentEveryDay on social media.) 

So how can schools combat the issue of chronic absenteeism? Solutions will of course differ community to community, but in my experience, the answer lies in diligent, consistent, and sometime tedious work, including:

  • Making School a Desirable Place To Be – You can’t underestimate the power of making school a positive place. Schools that have strong, engaging teachers; that are connected to the community; and that offer a litany of before, after and during school activities often have higher attendance rates.
  • Creating a Unified Front – Attendance is a team sport. It can’t just be delegated the attendance monitor. As a principal, I need to know the daily attendance and to collaborate with teachers who are the first line of connection, to communicate with families.
  • Tending the Big Data Clean-Up – Improving attendance depends on having good tracking systems and reviewing them at multiple points throughout the day. Often kids marked as absent are really in attendance – they came late and the teacher forgot to change it. Stemming chronic absenteeism requires accurate data every day and while cleaning up and checking data isn’t fun, it’s the only way to know what is really going on.
  • Doing Old Fashion Home Visits – Tracking data often means tracking down kids who are missing over the span of several days. When many phone numbers don’t work, old fashion home visits often provide the best strategy for contacting kids and families and building relationships to solve the problem.
  • Determining Root Causes – There is a story behind every issue of chronic absenteeism – serious health issues, a broken car, a foreclosed home. While schools cannot solve these problems alone, there are often agencies or support organizations that can help to mitigate them. Each situation requires lots of empathy, a rolodex of resources, and sense of the possible to improve difficult situations.
  • Creating a Community Schools Approach – Schools that can provide some kind of wrap-around services for students and families or which partner with community organizations are simply in a better position to address the health, housing, and transportation that challenge our families.

Chronic absenteeism is the symptom of larger, deeper problems that can often only be addressed by addressing the larger, non-academic needs surrounding our students and their families. The fact of the matter is that if we want our schools to move students academically, we all have to commit to the hard, first-order work of getting them in the door.

Joseph Manko is the Principal of Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, and a Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


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