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Combating Chronic Absenteeism with Positive Learning Environments

Michael Nutter

October 30, 2019

To reduce rates of chronic absenteeism, schools need two things: accurate attendance data and a commitment to building supportive learning environments.

Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2002, chronic absenteeism — defined as missing at least 10 percent of scheduled school days for any reason — has become a common measure of school quality.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that nearly eight million students were chronically absent during the 2015-2016 school year. Among other reasons, this figure is significant because chronic absenteeism correlates strongly with academic achievement gaps and deficiencies in students’ development of social skills. Further, since chronic absenteeism disproportionately impacts outcomes for low-income students and students of color, poor attendance rates can exacerbate educational inequality.

Since data on chronic absenteeism tends to be more readily available than data on other key performance indicators, tracking chronic absenteeism can provide districts with valuable insights into how they should approach the generation of better academic outcomes. To that end, a recent report published by the American Institutes for Research and Attendance Works lays out four ways to build a positive school environment that not only improves attendance, but ultimately helps students excel.

1. Promote Physical and Emotional Health and Safety

The scholastic environment can cause undue stress for many students, undermining their ability to pay attention in class and encouraging unhealthy coping mechanisms. Schools can reduce stress by providing access to healthcare services, maintaining a safe and sanitary physical environment, and ensuring that students are free from bullying and physical violence.

Crucially, monitoring physical safety is not enough. It is essential that students feel understood and supported, and that school policies are perceived to be fair. Monitoring students’ emotional safety is an especially important component of supporting students with disabilities and students of color, as students from historically marginalized groups often struggle to adapt to environments that inhibit their self-expression or cultural identity.

2. Foster Belonging, Connectedness, and Support

Relatedly, students are more likely to stay engaged and eschew harmful behavior if they feel they are able to build meaningful relationships with their peers. In order to foster a sense of belonging, extracurricular activities, academic programs, and various other opportunities for participation must be designed to be inclusive — all students should be encouraged to embrace different cultures and backgrounds. Further, students of all ages are more likely to take productive risks in class and ask for academic support when they are able to develop positive relationships with faculty members.

3. Develop Faculty Members’ Social and Emotional Competence

To ensure educators are attentive to students’ needs, schools must invest in developing the emotional and social skills of their faculty and staff. Social and emotional competence refers to the way educators, staff, and family members engage with students. It includes both explicit actions and subtle, unconscious behaviors that develop over time.

Negative, even traumatizing encounters can result from explicit disciplinary measures or the implicit bias adults display in their day-to-day behavior, and as such, it is incredibly important for schools to work with every staff member to develop their social and emotional skill-sets.

4. Provide Challenging, Engaging Curricula

In order to keep students engaged, it is essential for a school’s curriculum to provide ample academic challenges. The American Institutes for Research and Attendance Works report defines academic challenges as “opportunities for students to engage in personally relevant learning that stretches them.” More than just injecting curricula with sufficient rigor, challenging students involves setting high standards and helping students meet these standards. Especially among younger children, chronic absenteeism can be an indication that a child’s developmental needs are not being met.

Cleveland as an Exemplar

Ultimately, building a positive learning environment is one of the most effective ways to reduce chronic absenteeism. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) typifies the effectiveness of this approach. In a previous piece, we covered how CMSD leveraged this approach to build a comprehensive support system for its students. After the district launched an attendance improvement program during the 2015-2016 school year, the proportion of CMSD students with “on-track” attendance increased from 43.0 percent to 58.6 percent.

For districts looking to replicate CMSD’s success, adopting Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform can help administrators easily and accurately track attendance and other essential data. Armed with this data, districts throughout Ohio can follow Cleveland’s lead and transform insights from their attendance data into effective strategies for building supportive, inclusive, and equitable learning environments that, in turn, drive meaningful improvements in student outcomes.

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