One-on-one outreach shows promise in cutting school absenteeism
An empty elementary school classroom in August 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, regular school attendance has plummeted, and experts say students’ lack of connection to school is one of the biggest factors. Some states are exploring ways to bring students back to the classroom. (Brittainy Newman/The Associated Press)
When outreach worker Leah Marks shows up at homes in Sanford, Maine — a small manufacturing city 18 miles inland and a world away from tony Kennebunkport — the kids know it’s time to walk with her to the school bus.
Her walks often involve snow and ice this time of year. But what they really involve is connection.
Marks, outreach coordinator for the Sanford schools, said a boy she walked in the morning went from missing 45 days last school year to missing just one so far this school year. Marks said his single mom is raising him and two siblings, one with a disability, and the family was struggling to get him to the bus on time.
But with the walking support, he chats up his friends and looks forward to greeting the assistant principal at school. “Chris is just so proud of his improvement, and so is his mother,” Marks said of the child.
She said having their children walked to school is reassuring for parents. It means “being able to tell a parent who is seeing their kid off to school that ‘we’ve got them’ and we will see that they get breakfast.”
Experts say students’ lack of connection to school is one of the biggest factors leading to high absenteeism across the country. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, regular school attendance has plummeted.
One-on-one connection is key to bringing the kids back, education workers say, but it’s painstaking and requires funds and commitment. Some states, including Maine, are spending more money or implementing programs to tackle absenteeism.
Nearly 30% of public school students were chronically absent nationwide in the 2021-2022 school year, compared with about 16% in 2017-2018 before the pandemic, according to Attendance Works, a nonprofit that addresses chronic absences, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student missing a tenth or more of the school year for any reason.
In Maine, the number of students considered chronically absent fell slightly last school year, from 31% in 2021-22 to 27% in 2022-23, according to the Maine Department of Education. Department spokesperson Marcus Mrowka said while state officials are “encouraged” by the drop, the numbers are still too high.
He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to parents keeping kids home at “the first sign” of illness, and cited other factors including “increased stress, mental health and other well-being issues” for students feeling less engaged in school.
Maine is using $10 million in federal emergency funds to implement programs for attendance, Mrowka said.
For attendance to rise, schools must be safe and academically engaging, and students must feel a sense of belonging and that adults care about their well-being, according to Attendance Works.
“Relationships are absolutely essential to every piece of this,” said Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works.
“The pandemic eroded these conditions for a huge number of students. When we closed schools … we said it’s not healthy to be at school. Now, we are saying, ‘You can be back at school, it’s healthy.’”
When we have a lot of churn in the classroom, it affects the ability of teachers to teach and other kids to learn.
– Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works
In addition to homes with financial or social challenges, Chang said sometimes even affluent parents don’t recognize the necessity of school attendance because the pandemic and remote learning appeared to show them that “you can always make up the work.”
“When we have a lot of churn in the classroom, it affects the ability of teachers to teach and other kids to learn,” she said. “I think we need to think about how our actions have consequences. Sometimes your family might need time together and something really challenging is going on; there are times when it’s really discretionary and we need to think twice.”
Connecticut had an almost 22% chronic absenteeism rate in 2022, up from 9% in 2017, according to Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center. The state in 2021 launched the home-visiting Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, known as LEAP, which came out of the governor’s office and serves students who feel disconnected from school.
Initially, the program was not intended to be directed primarily at absenteeism, but as absenteeism escalated, the program pivoted, according to Mike Meyer, director of family and community engagement in Stamford public schools.
Sometimes, Meyer said, the program pays teachers extra to do home visits with students and their families after school or on weekends. But the program has begun hiring outreach workers to intervene with families who are “really struggling, having challenges getting their kids to school.”
Stamford schools have partnered with the Stamford Youth Services Bureau, a city agency, to address absenteeism. Lily Villanueva, a family outreach worker contracted by the school district from the nonprofit Domus Kids, set up a study group for high schoolers who were chronically absent. Since then, the failing grades of students in the group have turned into passing grades and two are headed to college, she said.
One student, the son of a Haitian immigrant, also connected with an after-school video game program at his school. “They looked forward to going to school that day so they could go to their after-school program,” she said.
“I try to build a relationship with the family,” Villanueva, 26, said in an interview. “It’s all about trust and getting the families to open up to you. We have even gone so far as picking up students from their home and transporting them directly. We do that so we can help them build their routine.”
Kari Sullivan-Custer, director of the Connecticut LEAP program, which initially used $10.7 million in federal pandemic funds for the absenteeism program in 2021, said the program is targeting 15 school districts. In 2023, the state legislature appropriated $7 million in federal funds to carry the program through 2026.
She said the program targets districts with free lunch programs, or multi-language learners. “They tended to have high levels of chronic absence,” she said.
The District of Columbia found that career-focused programs help high school students connect to skills they enjoy, which keeps them coming back to school, said Clifton Martin, state director of career and technical education for D.C. schools. The program, which began last year, includes cybersecurity/IT training and general nursing.
“We found that those students are more engaged; they are more excited to be in this environment around other young people with similar interests.” He said the students who participate in the career programs “have about a 5 to 7% increase in attendance compared to those who don’t participate.” Absenteeism, he said “is going in the right direction,” partially due to the career programs.
Attendance Works numbers for D.C. show the chronic absentee rate in 2022 was about 44%, up from almost 27% in 2017.
Some school districts are hiring private companies to help address chronic absenteeism. In Maryland, several districts have hired Concentric Educational Solutions, a Baltimore-based tutoring and outreach company, to help with student engagement, according to David Heiber, founder and CEO of the company. The company is now working in 12 states, he said.
Heiber said he can relate to the problems his company tries to address. “I started Concentric because I was one of those students,” he said in an interview. “I was kicked out of five high schools, my parents died and I went to prison.”
But he went back to school, became a teacher, got a Ph.D. and then became an administrator, before founding the firm.
Heiber said that knocking on doors is an effective way to connect with students and families, but that many districts don’t have the personnel for it. He says his company can do that, at a cost of about $70 a visit and a general total of about $175 to $350 per student for several visits, depending on how many visits are made.
The company, he said, addresses “what I experienced and what I saw.” Before he was kicked out of school, he was an all-state athlete in cross country, he said. But even that wasn’t enough to keep him engaged.
“If I was an all-state athlete and I managed to fade, imagine what’s happening to students who [don’t have] that,” Heiber said.
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