A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Seven effective steps to improve your school’s attendance
From culture building to analyzing data, here’s what works for one school
By Jeremy Brooks | November | December 2023
In this article, I will explain why truancy is something we should all be concerned about. I will give you seven effective steps to improve your school’s attendance. These strategies enabled our school to maintain a rate below the state average for chronic absenteeism and achieve a 6 percent increase in average daily attendance.
“I hate school” is the comment made most often by students who have chronic truancy or chronic absenteeism concerns and whom the education system is failing. In kindergarten and first grade, students generally like school; they can often be seen smiling at recess playing with friends or raising their hand with excitement, anxiously waiting and hoping to be called on by their teacher to share an answer. The resentment or dispassion for school is something that typically builds over time. If students commonly start off excited and happy to be in school, how do they begin to hate school and become chronically late and/or absent, and how can we fix it?
As indicated previously, early grades are critical foundational years that help set the stage for future success in school. A common saying states: “In kindergarten to third grade, students are learning to read and they are reading to learn thereafter.” Students with chronic attendance concerns begin to miss critical instruction that builds early literacy skills. They miss opportunities to learn crucial foundational math concepts, they lose out on opportunities to learn social skills, to practice impulse control, emotional regulation and more. Educators in kindergarten through third grade notice that students who experience school truancy begin to encounter academic challenges and show a decline in their enthusiasm and fondness for school. Over time, that joy that disappears turns into displeasure with school, which later becomes a hatred toward school.
Before proceeding to examine tools to fix school attendance, we need to define what it means to have school truancy concerns like chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student who has missed 18 days or more of school during an academic year (Gottfried, 2019). If a typical school year is 180 days, that means students who are chronically absent are missing 10 percent of the school year. Despite the state average for chronic absenteeism in California hovering around 30 percent, data obtained through a public records request by ABC News reporter Arthur Jones revealed that the absenteeism rate in Los Angeles schools had surged to 45.2 percent by the end of the 2021-22 school year. As staggering as those rates are, I have personally heard some say some schools experience chronic absenteeism as high as 60 percent.
Some argue that school chronic absenteeism is not a critical concern that schools need to address, and some have even doubted that school attendance is an issue that can be fixed. However, such an explanation tends to overlook the fact that if students are not in school, they simply can’t learn, and failing to receive an education is linked to a host of adverse and harmful outcomes. Meta-analysis research of school absenteeism conducted on 75 different studies provided evidence that indicates chronic absenteeism is correlated with school dropout and later life problems such as poverty, health problems, martial problems, substance abuse, mental illness and more (Gubbels, van der Put and Assink, 2019).
Education is a human right, and we education leaders can fix school attendance concerns. So, let’s explore effective measures to enhance your school’s attendance, which enabled my school not only to maintain a rate below the state average for chronic absenteeism but also to achieve a remarkable 6 percent increase in average daily attendance.
Step 1: Build a positive school culture
The importance of building a positive school culture cannot be understated. Ensuring a warm welcome for students as they enter the campus is crucial. Smiling adults convey a sense of care and concern, positively impacting students’ perception of staff and teachers. Students should feel valued, and if they are absent, students should be reminded by their teachers that they were missed. It is important to get students connected to the school through athletics, arts, music and after-school programs. Students need to also feel safe at school and know that if they are concerned about anything they can seek help by going to their teachers, counselors, administration or other site staff. At my school site, we have anti-bullying agreements, and we use Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to help create a school atmosphere that is positive.
Step 2: Bolster parent and family engagement
Parents and families are a school’s number one partners. When it comes to school, parents and families are essential in impacting healthy school attendance. Parents must be made aware of the importance of school attendance and its impact on learning. At a previous school site, I helped build a parent university program which promoted family engagement and provided parents and families with opportunities to learn how they could utilize tools to check their student’s attendance, grades and to communicate with their child’s teacher. Other ways to help keep parents and families informed include weekly or monthly newsletters, school social media pages and events like “Donuts with Dads and,” “Muffins with Moms.” Schools can also utilize opportunities to inform parents and families of attendance-related matters through parent and family stakeholder groups such as Parent Teachers Association (PTA), School Site Council and English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC).
Step 3: Implement consistent expectations and consequences
Schools must establish clear expectations for faculty, staff, parents and students, which should be communicated through the parent student handbook and displayed in classrooms. Students must also be held accountable when there are chronic attendance concerns. For our upper grade students, we implemented a tardy system where students who accumulated three or more unexcused tardies would serve a 30-minute after-school detention once per week. The consistent reinforcement of regular on-time class attendance reinforced to students that attendance is a serious matter and it helped foster a sense of responsibility to attend school on time. For our students who have severe chronic attendance concerns, we utilize a Student Attendance Review Board (SARB). The focus of SARB is to help connect students and, their parents and families with resources to help improve attendance. With consistent follow-up, I have witnessed significant improvements in school attendance for students who had persistently struggled with attendance issues year after year once they were placed on a SARB contract.
Step 4: Monitor and analyze attendance data
If ignorance is bliss, ignorance is also negligence in the age of the information revolution. Schools should be consistent in collecting and analyzing attendance data. Our school worked with our IT department to automatically receive weekly attendance updates on students who are most frequently tardy and absent from school. In addition, we routinely run other reports on average daily attendance and student discipline. These reports allow us to quickly identify students who are at high risk for truancy and to provide them with targeted interventions.
If students commonly start off excited and happy to be in school, how do they begin to hate school and become chronically late and/or absent, and how can we fix it?
Step: 5: Implement incentives and recognition programs During a meeting, PLC trainer David LaRose once said to me something to the effect of: We often focus our attention on what to do when students do not come to school, but what are we doing to make students want to come to school? We cannot forget about the importance of rewarding students for consistent attendance. At academic assemblies, our school gives out perfect attendance certificates, but waiting until the end of a semester or trimester is often too long to have a tangible impact on a student’s excitement for good attendance. Our site implemented a weekly recognition program that fits perfectly with our PBIS program. One student per grade level who has had perfect attendance for the previous several weeks is randomly selected from each grade level to come to the office to receive a prize. Not only do the weekly prizes encourage consistent attendance, but they also cause students to be excited about attendance. A prize is awarded to one class from each grade level with the highest average daily attendance. Step 6: Provide interventions and supports I have had countless meetings with students, parents and families regarding attendance, and every family who I have met with regarding truancy has had unique challenges that sometimes impact school attendance. It is vital to listen to students and their families to try and establish interventions that best support students to attend school on a regular basis. In addition, we utilize a Coordination of Services Team (COST), made up of school administration, a psychologist, counselors, behavior analyst, attendance clerk and teachers. Together we provide interventions and supports that range from counseling to tutoring, after-school program assistance and more. Step 7: Offer engaging and relevant learning experiences Finally, students are interested in school when the content and skills they are learning are taught in relevant and meaningful ways. It is important to provide professional development to teachers that allows them to build engaging experience in their lessons. Teachers can help students want to attend school by providing hands-on learning, project-based learning, and student-centered learning experiences that differentiate instruction for each student’s learning style. Some argue the attendance concerns we are seeing at present are not something that can be fixed, but I firmly disagree. Fixing the kind of truancy and chronic absences we are seeing is a team effort. I have been fortunate to be a part of a team of great education leaders who are highly dedicated to serving students. To really address the attendance concerns we are seeing also takes a systematic approach, and the seven steps I have listed above are effective. These steps helped my school site, and they can help your school, too. Remember, education is a human right, and we as education leaders have a duty to improve school attendance. Our actions as leaders on the issue of school attendance can impact whether students drop out of school or stay in school, in addition to the expenses linked to numerous unfavorable life consequences. Let us work together to transform schools into places students love rather than avoid, fostering a positive learning environment for all. References Gottfried, M. A. (2019). Chronic absenteeism in the classroom context: Effects on achievement. Urban Education, 54(1), 3-34. Gubbels, J., van der Put, C. E., & Assink, M. (2019). Risk factors for school absenteeism and dropout: meta-analytic review. Journal of youth and adolescence, 48, 1637-1667. Jones, A, (2023, April 17). Students are chronically absent across the country. COVID seems to have made it worse. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/students-chronically-absent-country- covid-made-worse/story?id=95936160 Jeremy Brooks is a K-12 school administrator and president of the San Joaquin Charter of ACSA. Jeremy also serves as the ACSA Region 7 Public Policy Committee Chair.