Attendance and Absenteeism: What School Leaders Need to Know

By Mel Riddile

Author’s Note: In keeping with our observation of September as Attendance Awareness Month, this is Part 3 in a series of articles on Attendance and Absenteeism.

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball—it is hard work, requires effort and persistence, and it often goesunrewarded and unrecognized, but schools cannot be successful without it.

As I recently pointed out, having the right attendance laws and procedures in place is important in the short-run. However, in the long-run, our school had to build a safe, orderly, and student-centered school culture that attracted students. We had to become a place where students felt wanted and where they wanted to be. We had to be the kind of school in which each and every student was both known and valued. We had to be the kind of school that students wanted to attend and hated to leave. We had to be a school that had to work to get students to leave the building at the end of the day, not one that had to work to get students to attend.

To be that school, we had to provide a safe, clean, orderly, warm and inviting school environment built on quality relationships. In addition, we had to create a culture of success in which students came to school expecting to succeed while knowing that their teachers would not stand bye and allow them fail.

We learned from experience that when kids miss school they miss out, and when kids miss out, we all suffer. In our school, attendance, along with school wide literacy, was a priority. We served large numbers of under-resourced students who needed extra support and encouragement in order to attend school on a regular basis.

USA Today reports that research suggests that as many as 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year, raising the likelihood that they’ll fail academically and eventually drop out of high school.

The findings, from education researcher Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University and supported by Attendance Works estimate that 10% to 15% of students nationwide are “chronically absent” from school, missing enough class time to be at “severe risk” of dropping out.

Based on my experience as a school leader in four different decades:

  • I agree that attendance is a key to student success and school effectiveness.
  • If students refuse to attend, we have no chance of raising achievement.
  • I have never found a high-performing school that had poor student attendance.
  • This is not a rural or urban problem.

Balfanz provides school leaders with high-leverage research because it is both timely and it is relevant to our daily practice.

Regular school attendance is so fundamental and so basic that we often incorrectly assume that it is being adequately addressed.

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball—it is hard work, requires effort and persistence, and it often goes unrewarded and unrecognized, but schools cannot be successful without it.

Attendance is a key indicator of school personalization. Students will attend schools that are 1) safe and orderly, 2) welcoming and inviting, and 3) success-oriented. If students feel comfortable and secure, they will attend. If students feel wanted, they will attend. If students can say “in this school, it’s hard to fail. The teachers won’t let you fail. They won’t give up on you,” they will attend.

In fact, from experience, I know, that not only will the students attend, but you will develop what I refer to as a “problem of success.” Where you previously heard complaints that students never come to class, you will begin to hear complaints that the students won’t leave the building at the end of the school day.

What School Leaders Need to Know About Absenteeism

  • Balfanz’s research indicates that students who miss 10% or more of school are on-target to drop out.
  • Create a safe, orderly, and inviting school environment that supports learning, encourages attendance, and promotes positive student behavior.
  • Poor attendance “costs schools money” in the form of lost state aid.
  • Even schools with good attendance–“95 percent average daily attendance is typically considered good”—could have a significant number of students who miss more than 10% of the days.

“Think about it like this: If you had 100 students in your school, and 95 percent showed up every day, you’d still have five absences a day. That’s 900 absences over the course of the 180-day school year, and that could mean as many as 45 kids missing 20 days of school.”

Action Steps for School Leaders

  • Know your school’s attendance rate by year, by month, by grade, by ethnicity, and by gender.
  • Develop a list of chronically absent (10% or greater) students and keep the list up-to-date. Review the list at every staff meeting.
  • Involve parents. Require chronically absent students to attend a parent conference each time the student is absent without a doctor’s note.
  • Use your roto-dialer or auto-call system to make wake-up calls each morning to your poor attenders.
  • Instead of suspending students for truancy consider an in-school alternative.
  • Show that you truly value instruction and learning by limiting interruptions and out-of-class time like assemblies, pep rallies, and field trips.
  • Because student attendance correlates highly with teacher attendance, stop taking teachers out of school during the school day for professional development. It sends everyone a message that school is not important.

The Bottom Line for School Leaders

Students will attend school when they feel wanted and when they believe that they can succeed. Most importantly, school leaders must build a culture in which all students are known, valued, and expected to succeed.

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