Half of students who are chronically absent are concentrated in just four percent of school districts. These districts, like the ones I taught in Alabama and Virginia, are often racially segregated with many families struggling to overcome issues surrounding inter-generational poverty. For example, inadequate housing causes sleepless nights, exposure to pollutants leads to higher rates of asthma, and food insecurity prevents students from having the ability or energy to learn. These problems disproportionately affected my students, mainly students of color and students with disabilities. Like so many teachers I did everything I could to help my students, but the ones that did not show up for class were always on my mind. I doubled down, as did many of my colleagues, and worked hard on the factors I could control, like keeping students engaged. I tried to build meaningful relationships so students would want to come to my class. However, there were still some who did not show up. Exhausting my personal interventions, I found success seeking out additional supports.
There is no single cause of chronic absenteeism, so I worked with my fellow educators, social service providers, local transportation initiatives, and volunteers to tailor solutions. I would not have been successful in the classroom if not for my school and community working together to engage families. Schools can quickly reach out to parents by installing systems to monitor attendance data. Simple interventions such as alerting parents about their child’s missed assignments have been shown to increase attendance by 17%.
Several students missed so much school they were failing every class. It reached a point that when they skipped school, they were punished with out of school suspension. To prevent this downward spiral, I saw the need to intervene early and secure response systems like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs before each school year began. By actively communicating with my administrators as soon as I noticed a problem, we were able to develop individualized plans to prevent absences from adding up. Many of my classes were bolstered by community mentors my school recruited from local universities. Some of my students who faced the most challenges bonded with these caring adults. Studies show that students who regularly meet with mentors are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school. Not only did mentors increase one-on-one instruction, they provided a window into what life was like with a high school degree.
Tackling chronic absenteeism is too much for any one teacher, which underscores why additional efforts like public awareness campaigns are so badly needed. Attendance Awareness Month is a great time to start talking about the importance of being in class. I encourage you to develop intentional relationships around attendance, reach out to colleagues as well as other members in your community, and advocate for school-wide approaches. My hope is that together we can take action to help the students who need it most.
Stephen Kostyo is a Policy Advisor at the Learning Policy Institute. Previously, he worked on education policy issues as a Capitol Hill Fellow. Kostyo also taught middle and high school science in Alabama and continued teaching mathematics at Charlottesville High School (CHS) where he was voted the 2015 Teacher of the Year.