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Cleveland Schools Making Progress in Fight Against Chronic Absenteeism

Michael Nutter

August 1, 2018

Though there remains plenty of work to be done, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has made considerable progress in combating rampant chronic absenteeism. Here’s how.

According to the most recent federal data, nearly eight million K-12 students — roughly 16% of the total student population — were chronically absent during the 2015-2016 academic year. While the average rate of chronic absenteeism has improved in states like Connecticut, where the number has dipped below 10%, nearly 20% of students in Ohio miss more than one out of every ten school days.

Chronic absenteeism has been a particularly pronounced problem in Ohio’s large urban districts. Just two years ago, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) discovered that over half of its nearly 40,000 students were missing at least 18 days of school per year.

Such high levels of absenteeism can have serious detrimental effects — research from Johns Hopkins shows that a 1:1 correlation between missed school days and point losses on state tests. In other words, a student who misses 18 days of school is statistically likely to score 18 points lower on a standardized assessment than a student with zero absences.

But despite the severity of its absenteeism problem, CMSD has managed to reduce its rate of chronic absenteeism by 20% in just 24 months, thanks in large part to a great deal of community support. As PBS NewsHour education correspondent Kavitha Cardoza reports, “In Cleveland, it has [been] an all-out effort.”

Getting Parents Involved

At the Patrick Henry School in East Cleveland, administrators have found success in securing parent support for the school’s attendance initiatives through a few simple community-building activities. “A lot of parents expressed that they didn’t feel welcomed in the school in prior years,” says Patrick Henry Principal Brittany Anderson.

Anderson has always made a point of personally welcoming students and parents as they walk in the door every morning, but she has recently started laying out coffee and pastries once a week, as well. As modest a gesture as this may seem, Anderson believes that it has gone a long way toward creating a warmer, more open environment. “At first, it was just a way to get [parents] in [the door],” she admits. “But then the coffee clubs turned into a way for the parents to talk to teachers. That way, we can have…conversations with our parents without it feeling formal.”

For Diamond Gadomski, a parent of three Patrick Henry students, Anderson’s extra effort means a lot. “When you come in, you see smiling and friendly faces with stuff to give you — hot treats or whatever — it makes you feel good,” she explains.

When it comes to curtailing chronic absenteeism, the benefit of engaging parents like Gadomski shouldn’t be undersold. Research published in Nature: Human Behaviour shows that an initiative aimed at increasing parental awareness of the importance of student attendance reduced chronic absenteeism in the eighth-largest district in the nation by 10% in just one academic year.

Whatever It Takes

While causes of chronic absenteeism like inclement weather and poverty are harder to combat, CMSD is doing everything in its power to ensure that students are able to get to school on a regular basis.

For instance, as CMSD Director of Attendance Lorri Hobson tells Cardoza, “We provide uniforms to any family who needs [them], and what we’ve discovered [is that] attendance improves for as much as six weeks after [students] receive the uniform.” Similarly, the district has partnered with a number of organizations in the greater Cleveland area to help provide low-income families with “everything from a bus pass, to emergency shelter[s], to legal help.”

The Importance of Good Data

Despite a chronic absenteeism rate that remains over 30%, CMSD’s progress should serve as a beacon of hope for the roughly one-fifth of American public schools dealing with chronic absenteeism rates above 20%.

Ultimately, districts hoping to emulate CMSD’s success need two interrelated things: good data and better funding. As the U.S. Department of Education makes clear, “When our teachers, principals, policymakers, and others have access to robust data on the extent and nature of chronic absenteeism, we are all in a better position to provide students with the support they need to stem this crisis in our schools.”

Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform is specifically designed to provide such access. CheckPoint makes it easy for superintendents and district treasurers to track a wide variety of critical student data — including attendance data. Accurate recordkeeping is the only way for schools to ensure that they get the maximum amount of funding from both state and federal authorities, making a tool like CheckPoint an invaluable resource in any effort to reduce chronic absenteeism.

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