Present and Engaged

Principals can leverage attendance to ensure positive outcomes as students return to school.

Topics: Pandemic Leadership, Student Engagement

This fall, principals are in a unique and influential position: They have the opportunity to create a culture of engagement that encourages students to show up even when it’s difficult to do so. And they can use chronic absence data to guide broad, building-level plans that promote recovery and reduce the educational inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Chronic absence (missing 10 percent of school days or more) is a proven early warning sign of academic trouble throughout a child’s academic career. Research shows that children—especially those living in poverty—who miss too much school in kindergarten and first grade often struggle to read proficiently by the end of third grade. And by middle and high school, chronic absence is a predictor of lower achievement and eventual dropout.

High levels of chronic absence in a school should be a red alert that students are facing major challenges just getting to school and that positive conditions of learning aren’t in place. When chronic absence affects a large number of students, it should indicate to educational leaders that they need to bring staff and community partners together to diagnose and address the systemic barriers inside and outside the classroom that are contributing to absenteeism.

Principals can make a difference by taking a team approach and using data to inform decisions and actions, as well as creating engagement with students and families as schools reopen. Attendance data offers crucial real-time information about whether students are responding positively to school activities and are on the path to learning.

We offer several strategies to ensure that principals can integrate attendance into their school-level recovery plan.

Absenteeism During the Pandemic

As many as 1 in 6 students were chronically absent prior to the pandemic, according to a report released in February from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center. Available data for the 2020–2021 school year, however, shows that chronic absence has grown substantially.

Data from Connecticut, the first state to release chronic absence data for the 2020–2021 school year, shows that:

  • More than 20 percent of students were chronically absent, compared to 12 percent the year prior.
  • Chronic absences among ninth graders spiked to almost 30 percent for students learning remotely.
  • The number of students missing 10 percent of school days or more in first to third grade remained elevated, especially among demographics hardest-hit by COVID.

A study conducted by FutureEd and EveryDay Labs found that more students in five major urban districts were not only chronically absent, but the extent of “extreme chronic absenteeism”—students missing at least 50 percent of school days—rose significantly in the 2020–2021 school year.

Absenteeism rose faster among younger students, and disadvantaged students experienced the biggest increases in chronic absence rates. While perfect attendance rates also increased, the study says that this is likely a mirage created by the fact that most states and districts made it easier for students to be marked present during distance learning. Declines in enrollment further complicate the numbers.

As a result, the U.S. Education Department issued guidance to state educational leaders in February requiring states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absence data as a condition of waiving accountability requirements for the 2020–2021 school year.

Establish Priority Student Groups

Principals can use data to identify which groups of students in the school community lost out on opportunities to learn at school in the 2020–2021 school year, learn what continues to cause absences, and find out what might be done to improve attendance.

Compare the percentage and number of students who are chronically absent this year against the prior year. Examine data by grade and student group (ethnicity/race, disability, free and reduced-price lunch, and gender). If possible, review chronic absence levels for students in distance learning separately from in-​person learning to find out if the mode of learning has an impact on attendance.

Look for decreases in chronic absences as well as increases. Explore what might be creating any “bright spots” of relatively lower chronic absence or improved attendance; perhaps these students are engaged in a promising practice.

The expansion of distance and hybrid learning options has made it necessary to look at additional metrics to identify who’s at risk for missing school in the fall. We recommend that principals also look for students and families who are no longer enrolled, lack working contact information, have limited or no connectivity (devices and internet access), and lack a caring relationship with a school staff person.

Knowing which students are in groups that have missed too much instruction helps schools tailor outreach and support to address the particular challenges they and their families face. But engaging kindergartners and families who have little experience participating in a formal classroom will be different from supporting a high school sophomore who has never set foot on the high school campus.

Planning will be required to effectively reach students of immigrant families who speak languages other than English, as well as Black, Latinx, and Native American students whose families might be distrustful because of their own negative experiences with public school systems. While it is important to avoid stereotypes, understanding common challenges can help your school develop programmatic solutions targeted to students from specific groups.

Establishing and Strengthening Supports

Accurate, actionable, and available data on attendance and absenteeism can be used to inform a multitiered approach to nurturing student attendance and participation. A multitiered approach recognizes that a majority of students will respond with better attendance to schoolwide strategies that promote engagement but aren’t necessarily about attendance. As a result of COVID-19, supports such as access to computer equipment, internet connectivity, and facilitation of at-home learning should be considered fundamental supports going forward. Tier 1 supports, such as reaching out after absences and recognizing good and improved attendance, are attendance-​focused but still universal.

The three tiers of intervention sit atop foundational supports—the building blocks good schools use to promote attendance.

Some students will require more personalized (Tier 2) support, such as partnering with families to create student success plans, recruiting into expanded learning programs, or providing a mentor at school who can encourage daily attendance. A smaller number of students might require more intensive case management and wraparound Tier 3 support, which might involve other agencies such as health, housing, and social services, or as a last resort, the legal system.

Principals can rally the school staff to make attendance a high-visibility value by creating a culture of engagement and celebrating progress toward consistent on-time attendance. Equip your staff to help families understand what their children are learning in school and what they miss if they are absent. They might not realize that missing just two days of school each month can cause a child to fall off track academically.

Examine whether your multitiered approach addresses the realities of a high-​priority student group. For example, incoming preschool and kindergarten students and their parents might benefit from a school visit or meeting other incoming families.

Taking a Team Approach

Improving attendance is not a solo endeavor. Principals must ensure that the school has a team that can organize and facilitate a school’s attendance strategy and ensure that it is an integral component of the overall approach for improving student outcomes.

Successful school teams will perform five core actions:

  1. Organize a multitiered attendance strategy that begins with prevention and early intervention.
  2. Examine attendance and absenteeism data to assess which groups of students have higher or lower levels of absence.
  3. Identify barriers and inequities that prevent students from attending school. Use both qualitative and quantitative data to gain insight into reasons for absences.
  4. Mobilize everyone in the school community to address attendance.
  5. Determine whether the strategies in place are making a difference.

A team approach will lay the foundation for attendance and achievement by helping the entire staff build relationships and communicate with students and families effectively. Principals can facilitate success by picking the right people, establishing group norms, defining roles and responsibilities, and scheduling regular meetings and agendas.

The First Weeks Back

Leverage the first weeks back to school to advance a prevention-​oriented, tiered approach. Tap into Attendance Works’ “Pathways to Engagement During COVID-19” toolkit to support planning and create community.

Key strategies include reestablishing routines and rituals; paying attention to physical, behavioral, and mental health and wellness; clearly communicating the school’s strategy for ensuring health and safety; and building relationships. Every student in a school could, for instance, receive a “Welcome to my class” call from their teacher. Making parent-teacher home visits is a proven strategy to help teachers find out about families’ hopes and dreams and offer support.

Principals could also consider holding two- or three-week kindergarten bridge programs to allow young children to practice their new school routines, meet their teachers, and get to know their classmates. While such programs existed before the pandemic, they are now especially important given the large number of children who have little or no experience with a formal group education setting.

Given the challenges faced by families, taking a positive, problem-​solving approach rather than a punitive one will be essential. Paying special attention to students and families who struggled with attendance last year and helping the entire community celebrate showing up to school can help attendance rebound and ensure the success of the recovery process.

Hedy N. Chang is executive director of Attendance Works.

Catherine Cooney is director of communications for Attendance Works.