How school districts are luring back ‘lost’ students

The district’s partnership with the club is an example of the extensive steps many educators nationally are taking to track down students missing school and reverse unprecedented levels of disengagement. But those efforts are rubbing up against the sheer scope of the problem. Chronic absenteeism has hit 40% in the nation’s two largest districts, New York City and Los Angeles, and it is reaching dangerously high numbers in many districts in between.

“The pandemic radically changed norms about going to school,” said Emily Bailard, CEO of EveryDay Labs, a company that partners with school districts to improve attendance.

Elsie Briseño Simonovski, the Buena Park district’s director of student and community services, sometimes scours apartment complexes with granola bars in her pockets to round up children who might otherwise not make it to class. She escorts families to gas stations to fill up their cars — courtesy of a state grant that covers fuel costs if parents show they’re taking their kids to school.

Yvette Cantu, the district’s chief academic officer, said even high-achieving students have racked up more absences than usual during the pandemic. Such students often thrive on positive feedback from adults, she said, something they missed during closures and quarantine.

A growing issue

In some districts, chronic absenteeism far exceeds the 10% a year that typically defines the problem.

In March, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released data showing that over a million teachers — nearly half — had at least one student during the 2020-21 school year that never showed up for class.

Some educators say they haven’t seen any improvement since then.

Jenevieve Jackson, a digital photography and video teacher in the Orange County Public Schools in Florida, has some students who have only been in class twice the entire year. Others have racked up over 80 absences.

“Many of the absences are for no reason. The students who were not that excited about school in the first place are even less motivated,” Jackson said. The district hired “intervention teachers” to help struggling students, she said, but they’re often used to cover the massive teacher and sub shortage and to proctor exams.

For the time being, schools are struggling to address the problem in front of them.

“It’s going to be really hard in the short term until behaviors and school norms stabilize,” said Todd Rogers, a public policy professor at Harvard University who studied absenteeism and launched EveryDay Labs.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said, “so the goal is to do everything you can that works.”

Community outreach

In the Metro Nashville Public Schools — with a 30% chronic absenteeism rate this year — Carol Lampkin, the district’s director of attendance services, said students are less likely to come to school if their teachers are absent, a problem that has intensified with staff members out because of COVID.

The issue has fueled creative approaches to reminding parents of the importance of keeping their children in school.

Staff members recently gathered at a local Baptist church as part of their newest strategy — offering information on COVID vaccines, housing and transportation assistance in hopes of pinpointing the reasons children miss school.

Families whose children have at least half a dozen absences were more likely to get an invitation or a knock on the door, urging them to attend the event.

“The idea was to take the heavy lift off of the schools,” Lampkin said. “Our schools, our teachers, our principals … are dealing with so much.”

Lampkin thought grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, served while DJs spun family-friendly tunes, would be more effective at getting frequently absent students back in class than stern warnings about truancy.

Sonya Thomas, executive director of Nashville PROPEL, a parent advocacy organization, said she appreciates what the district is trying to do, but she thinks officials could be overlooking important reasons students are absent.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with affordable housing,” she said. She urged educators to ask themselves, “What does the school culture look like when [students] enter the building?”

She’s worked with families whose children have been suspended multiple times this year for dress code violations.

“We’ve got to dig deeper. Is that child being bullied at school?” Thomas asked. “Is that child feeling like they’re not doing well?”

Research backs up Thomas’s concerns.

Back in Buena Park, Simonovski has developed her own method of recognizing schools for reducing absenteeism.

Instead of just giving awards to those with the highest attendance – which meant a lot of repeat winners – she highlights schools showing the most improvement.

Winners get what she described as a sort of “Publishers Clearinghouse” ceremony – balloons, certificates and trays of treats.

That tells schools, that “we’re paying attention,” she said, “and we’re celebrating these checkpoints with you.”

Linda Jacobson writes for The 74 Million, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news site covering education in America.

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