School districts and educational organizations must step up to reduce chronic absenteeism

As we clear the three-year anniversary of the COVID outbreak, the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us. Cases and hospitalizations are down, including by as much as 50% in recent weeks in Los Angeles County. People are gathering and traveling again.

But not everything is as it was – or should be. Our schools continue to face a combination of challenges resulting from its unprecedented disruption: learning loss that was worst among lower-income, Black and Latino students; rising mental health challenges among students, especially teenage girls; and ongoing chronic absenteeism, which exacerbates both learning loss and educators’ ability to provide much needed social-emotional supports.

New numbers out this week show just how great a crisis there is around the most basic part of our education system: students being in class. An analysis by School Innovations & Achievements of 30 school districts in California found that close to one-third of students were chronically absent, meaning they miss more than 10% of school.

This is a crisis number. There is no other way to state it.

Chronic absenteeism increases the likelihood a student will not be reading proficiently by third grade or be held back a grade. It is a singularly clear predictor of whether a student will drop out. And right now, one-third of students in California aren’t attending school often enough to learn what we all hope and expect them to.

It is tempting when faced with crises to look to the trendiest new solution – so tempting that it has its own definition: shiny object syndrome. Educators are certainly not immune, often pivoting to a latest tactic instead of diligently sticking with the basics that we know work. These solutions may not seem as exciting, but they are often much simpler and more effective, both in outcomes and cost. And we are at a moment when simple and effective has become significant and essential.

At Green Dot Public Schools California, our experience has largely mirrored this statewide rise. Before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism across our 18 middle and high schools in Los Angeles hovered around 13%. In 2020-21, it jumped to 20% and then in 2021-22 climbed alarmingly to 37%.

Based on our experience, what can really make a difference are resources available to all students – the tried and true tactics known as universal supports. Through a combination of smart data use and these universal supports we have begun to move the needle in the right direction.

We were fortunate that before the pandemic, we set up an organization-wide data report that enabled us to track chronic absenteeism in real time, based on attendance data all schools collect. The harder part, after having the data, was to develop a way to use it strategically and routinely, both across our organization and at individual schools.

Based on the data, we were able to identify which students were chronically absent or, just as important, at risk of becoming so. This enabled us to tailor messages to those families, rooted in our restorative beliefs that prioritize respect and relationships over punishment and punitive actions. For example, simple nudges via text message that express care and offer support are much more effective than messages focused on blame and compliance.

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This is a crisis, however, and more intensive efforts are also needed – but they, too, can be the tried and true. This school year, we piloted “targeted summer outreach” that involved personal phone calls to students who were historically chronically absent the previous school year, reminding them about the first day of school and proactively identifying and helping to solve barriers to attendance. The result? 80% of those we reached were at school on the first day – a significant showing given these were all students most likely to start the school year absent and then become chronically absent as the year progressed. Our efforts also helped to increase the likelihood that students would improve their attendance from the year prior. We then replicated the process twice more during winter and spring breaks, reaching hundreds of students during each outreach window.

Our goal at Green Dot is to reduce the rate of chronic absenteeism among our students to be below 10%. We still have a ways to go, but with proactive and restorative communication, coupled with attendance data – information we gather on every student, every day – we have a core piece of the solution. And so do other schools, which collect the same information. The challenge is to use it well and wisely and to stick with what may not be shiny but will ensure our students are in class – where learning happens and the path to success begins.

Leilani Abulon is Chief Programs Officer for Green Dot Public Schools California. She began her career with Green Dot as a founding teacher at Animo Inglewood Charter High School and served as an Area Superintendent.

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