Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow: Addressing the School Attendance Problem
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2023 Issue
By Crystal Carranco
When we talk about school attendance rates, we’re actually talking about students who are not in attendance. This is not a new issue in education, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have only added to this growing problem. During the 2021–2022 school year, for instance, more than 70% of public schools in America saw an increase in chronic student absenteeism. Pre-pandemic, and still, there are many factors that have contributed to poor attendance.
One such factor involves misconceptions around the importance of elementary school, which is something I have seen first-hand as an early childhood educator. These early grades are often seen as “play” grades, when in fact they are the most important years with regard to reading acquisition. According to HealthyChildren.org, children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read at the expected level by the time they reach third grade.
Ultimately, students attending school is out of teachers’ control, but that doesn’t diminish the urgency and anxieties they have to meet their student’s needs.
In fact, the circumstances are more frustrating when often the solution can be so simple: sometimes parents just don’t realize how many days their kids are really missing. But even sporadic absences add up! Missing only two days a month means a student has missed 10% of the school year.
On the flip side, schools have to check themselves too. Is your school a place where kids want to be? Is your teaching engaging? Is your school supporting the whole child and, equally as important, is it supporting the whole family?
My school really looked inward this year to troubleshoot the attendance problem. In September, we used our school social media outlets to share graphics from Attendance Works, informing parents of the statistics surrounding poor attendance. Then the next month we had a popcorn party with the principal for students who had missed no more than one day of school during the month.
This resulted in improved attendance, but also inspired parents to start asking questions about our new focus, creating an opportunity for us to inform. We decided to host a “town hall” meeting at the school, where we discussed initiatives, curriculum, and attendance. The meeting was met with resounding positive feedback from parents who appreciated the communication and clarity.
Throughout November, individual classrooms worked to spell the word “attendance,” earning a letter each day the entire class was present. Classrooms that were able to complete the entire word received a group reward.
Since then, our school leadership team has met monthly to discuss future incentives. We are learning as we go, and hope to derive a plan that is equitable for all students; possibly one that allows students to earn points for the days they are in class, rather than disqualifying them completely for absences (that they ultimately can’t control). The point is, we recognize there is an issue and we’re trying to circumvent poor attendance where we can.
Identifying Root Causes
Although our efforts are addressing one factor, there are other reasons for poor attendance, some of which can have far more serious implications, such as embarrassment surrounding academic deficits, bullying, transportation issues, and physical or mental health conditions. If you’re a teacher, you know what I mean when I say, “Maslow before Bloom.” We know that in order for a child to effectively participate in the educational process, they must first have their most basic needs met.
Educators should focus on identifying the root cause of absences, building strong systems of support, and using positive practices. The first step is simply communicating with families about absenteeism, addressing common misconceptions, and educating stakeholders about the long- and short-term effects. When you know better, you do better!
Families can help by making every effort to schedule medical appointments outside of school hours, limiting unnecessary early check-outs, avoiding planning extended trips during the school week, and not keeping their child at home unless they are truly sick. It is also important that families communicate with their child’s school if there are other factors contributing to absenteeism, so the school can provide support.
Parents and educators should always assume good intentions on both sides; every one of us is doing our best for the student. When schools include parents in their child’s education, it helps to remove many misunderstandings and ambiguities about daily life in school, and also encourages children to be more engaged. Let’s all work together so children can attend school today and achieve tomorrow!
Crystal Carranco is an Assistant Principal at Stagecoach Elementary in Cabot, AR, and previously taught first grade for 10 years. She is passionate about working alongside and supporting teachers, and serving our most at-risk student populations. Crystal is a 2022 ASTA and AAEF Advocacy Fellow.