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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

Closing the Attendance Gap

When I became associate principal of our district's middle school in 2011, I felt like a first-year educator all over again. Making the adjustment to a different building and a new principal and swimming in district initiatives that I had heretofore only seen from the periphery had me in survival mode at first. But one concept reinforced during my formal education (and seconded by Stephen Colbert) was to take advantage of opportunities by saying yes. Following that advice helped me, in my first year as leader, bolster Edgewood Middle School's attendance policies and get our most disadvantaged kids into school more often.
Colbert's address to the 2006 graduates of Knox College, which I'd read and watched online, implored graduates to say yes to things: "Say 'yes' as often as you can. … saying 'yes' begins things. Saying 'yes' is how things grow."
I had a powerful impulse to say yes as an administrator and an instinct to make connections with community stakeholders whenever possible. So when I received a letter from the Wayne County Juvenile Court asking my school to participate in a new truancy intervention program, I agreed—and changed how I viewed school, attendance data, and poverty.

Truancy, Chronic Absence, and Poverty

Truancy is most simply defined as an unexcused absence from school, but it can incorporate related issues like skipping class or leaving school grounds without permission. Studies have linked truancy to serious delinquent behavior in youth and undesirable characteristics in adult life (Baker, Sigmon, & Nugent, 2001).
During my first few months on the job as the associate principal, I became immersed in dealing with truancy at Edgewood. Our school population is predominantly (87 percent) white. A slight majority of our students (52 percent) are economically disadvantaged, and 17 percent have disabilities. Students attempted to call themselves in absent from school, wandered the halls to hide in bathrooms (or fight in the locker rooms) during class time, and left school grounds to take advantage of the "five-finger discount"—also known as stealing—at the local store.
Students were also "chronically absent." Chronic absence can be more difficult to define, especially because schools don't seem to dig into this data rigorously. A common standard for chronic absenteeism is missing 10 percent or more of the current school year or missing a month or more of school in the previous year (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012). What makes chronic absence so challenging is that it can either accompany truancy (in the form of many excused absences, excessive tardiness, or frequently leaving school early) and discipline problems—or exist by itself. Chronic absence often flies under the radar. A student misses a day here or there and falls behind without tripping any alarms.
When educators only pay attention to district (or school) attendance averages, we fail to recognize the urgency of the truancy problem. For example, my district, the Wooster (Ohio) City School District, recently topped 95 percent attendance for the first time (Ohio Department of Education, 2012). Cause for celebration? Yes and no. Although our attendance numbers have generally improved as a result of several factors, a persistent gap in attendance remains—what we might call the poverty gap. For instance, for the past three years the attendance of economically disadvantaged students in Wooster district has consistently been about two points lower than that of more advantaged students. The gap is clearer in upper grades: At Wooster High School, in 2009–10, economically disadvantaged kids had only 90.7 percent attendance, compared with 94.6 attendance for other students; the gap was similar in 2010–11.
Looking at such data and at research that suggests a statistically significant relationship between student attendance and student achievement in Ohio (Roby, 2003), I realized that the fight to keep kids in school is linked to the drive for increased student achievement. I'd never thought about the fact that, as researcher Robert Balfanz says, "A school can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90 percent" (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012). I saw that even as our district saw positive movement in our overall attendance numbers, poor attendance had a disproportional impact upon our poorest students. And economically disadvantaged students stand to benefit the most from being in school every day (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012).
Sadly, poverty and school absence or truancy often feed each other. The conditions that students living in poverty face (poor nutrition, lack of access to health care, even a lack of gas in the car at month's end so that a child who misses the bus can't catch a ride) exacerbate poor attendance. And slipping school attendance often leads a person back down the poverty path. The good news is that by taking an all-in approach to the problem, we can begin to close the attendance gap, bend the overall attendance curve, and help our most vulnerable students and families.

Moving to Early Intervention and Strong Enforcement

Edgewood Middle School's approach to truancy was part of the problem, because it wasn't quick or firm enough. We sent an informational attendance letter home at five days of total absences (excused and unexcused) and again at 10 days total absences and required a medical note for all future absences past the 10-day mark. It wasn't until a student had 10 ten days of unexcused absences that a hearing would be scheduled between the administration, the student, and a parent or guardian. With truancy proceedings taking place once 15 days of unexcused absences had been reached, the 10-day hearing was too little, too late. Parents rarely attended this hearing, and by the time truancy proceedings were launched, a student might have 20 or more absences on record.
Now, at three days of unexcused absences, I refer students to the director of intervention services (a social worker with our county's juvenile court). Two years in, this change is going a long way toward addressing truancy and chronic absence. Our school's overall attendance rate has improved by 0.4 percent. More important, individual students are getting the help they need.
In one serious case, I found myself meeting with Rhonda, a shy girl of mixed ethnicity, and her parents. Because we began addressing the problem early, by the time we went to court, we had developed a relationship with Rhonda and her family. We had learned more about her struggles with depression and selective mutism. So when Rhonda sat in court refusing to speak even as her parents begged her to, I could advocate for the family. Rhonda is now on medication, receiving counseling, and attending school regularly.
Within the first week, the paperwork began to roll in as our attendance secretary noted students who crossed the three-day threshold. I was determined that we would meet with every child who could possibly be at risk for truancy—and we did. This was a struggle at first, partly because we used fax machines and paper copies; we later moved to online communication, which helped. Today, I simply e-mail the director of intervention services with the names of the students who've missed three times, attach screen shots of their contact information and attendance record, and schedule a meeting at the school one week from the time of notification.
This meeting is attended by, at a minimum, a member of the school administration (typically me), the interventionist, and the student. We invite parents through an official letter from the juvenile court (this gives the meeting more weight). I make every effort to include parents, but if they don't show up, we hold the meeting with the student.
We schedule these meetings in 15-minute slots, although some inevitably run over. Presenting ourselves in a firm, nonthreatening manner, we open a crucial but previously nonexistent line of communication with families. If parents or guardians are present, we create with them an agreement that features a few actions that everyone present has agreed might help—everything from "student agrees to set a more reasonable bedtime" to "parents agree to call the school asking for a ride when they don't have transportation." We ask (rather than require) both the student and parents to sign this agreement. I've never had anyone refuse. School personnel have aided families by purchasing alarm clocks, investigating bullying concerns, and offering (on a very limited basis) a ride to school.
If a student has incurred 15 days of unexcused absences, we begin truancy proceedings. The school sends a truancy packet to our central office, and after the superintendent signs off, it is sent to the prosecutor's office and an initial court hearing date is set. We filed for truancy on 20 students last year, all of them economically disadvantaged.
The prosecutor and the court have made a concerted effort to respond quickly to our truancy filings. It used to take months to get on the magistrate's docket; now it takes weeks. An administrator is present at every hearing. Once proceedings move to the courtroom, I let the magistrate play the heavy. I present a "just the facts" account of the student's attendance and note any positive interactions I've had with that youth for the record. Because charges are also leveled against the parent, if a parent has attended our prior intervention meetings, I often take the opportunity to state that the school has been pleased with the level of cooperation from home. This doesn't change the outcome of the ruling against the student, but it has led to dropping the charges (and, more important, eliminating subsequent fines) against parents.
In many cases, we forge a stronger relationship with a family through the process, while getting what we need (enforcement for truant behavior). In one instance, a mother even asked me to take her daughter back to school after the delinquency hearing and thanked me profusely as it saved her taxi fare. Unorthodox? Maybe—but it turned an encounter with the legal system into a positive.
Juveniles found to be delinquent can face a range of potential punishments. Typically, our students are placed under a court order to attend school and referred to the county's Truancy Enforcement Monitoring Program. A probation officer is assigned, and if the student is absent without providing appropriate documentation from that point forward, the student must usually make up the time at the juvenile detention facility. If truancy proceedings take place in spring, the magistrate typically issues the order for the remainder of the current school year and all of the following year.
Nearly all attendance issues—and most disciplinary issues—cease once we have the student on report. By ensuring that the court's decision is carried into the following year, we also help a middle schooler get off to a better start, which is especially important for at-risk young people transitioning to high school.

Beyond Preventing Truancy

Beyond truancy intervention, service coordination, and regular school counseling, we're experimenting with other programs that help students connect to their middle school. We've engaged with students at the College of Wooster and other community members to create mentoring and homework help programs. My school also hopes to build a better master document of truancy and chronic absence, linking to data on students' socioeconomic status and containing information on each student's needs. This should lead to better information sharing between internal stakeholders and a personalized approach to each situation.
As Edgewood Middle School continues to be proactive regarding attendance, I know we'll move our attendance data in the right direction—and help kids. By moving aggressively to close the attendance gap, we're taking a necessary step to provide our kids a pathway out of poverty.
<NOTE>Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.</NOTE>
References

Baker, M. L., Sigmon, J. N., &amp; Nugent, M. E. (2001). Truancy reduction: Keeping students in school. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, 1–15.

Balfanz, R., &amp; Byrnes, V. (2012). The importance of being in school: A report on absenteeism in the nation's public schools. Education Digest, 78(4).

Colbert, S. (2006, June 5). Stephen Colbert's address to the graduates. Alternet. Retrieved from www.alternet.org/story/37144/stephen_colbert's_address_to_the_graduates

Ohio Department of Education. (2012). Wooster City School District 2011–2012 school year report card. Retrieved from www.ode.state.oh.us/reportcardfiles/2011-2012/DIST/045120.pdf

Roby, D. E. (2003). Research on school attendance and student achievement: A study of Ohio schools. Educational Research Quarterly, 28(1), 4–15.

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