Empty seats: Here’s how two school districts are tackling chronic absenteeism

Feb 6, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 7:44 am
(Pexels Photo)...
(Pexels Photo)
(Pexels Photo)

This is the third of a four-part series examining chronic absenteeism in Arizona schools. Read part one and part two here.

PHOENIX — Avondale Elementary School District Superintendent Betsy Hargrove was in disbelief when data showed her district had a problem with students missing too much school.

“It’s not about missing a day of school. It is truly about missing 18+ days excused or unexcused over the course of a year,” she told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

About one in five students in her district were considered chronically absent, meaning they were missing 10% or more of the school year. Determined to change that, the district began using a three-tiered system created by Attendance Works, a nonprofit trying to improve school attendance.

The first tier represents strategies to encourage good attendance for all students, tier two provides early intervention for students who start missing too much school, and tier three offers intensive support for students facing the greatest challenges getting to school.

The Washington Elementary School District also recently adopted the same approach, with a focus on early intervention.

“If students are having issues with attendance, we want to catch it early so we can find ways to support them or their family to ensure that they’re at school,” Richard Morris, the district’s director of school support, said.

The efforts by the two school districts are producing results.

Last school year, nearly 49% of students in the Washington Elementary School District were chronically absent. Now, it’s down to about 33%. The district’s goal is to bring it down to 10% or under.

Schools in the Avondale Elementary School District have seen a 20%-60% reduction in chronic absences this year compared to last.

Hargrove pointed out students in her district are also outperforming their peers statewide in both English and math test scores. She credits that to improvements in attendance.

She explained her school district’s approach to improve attendance starts in the classroom. Teachers identify students who are missing too much school and dig into the barriers causing that.

“What are the challenges to getting to school on a regular basis and how do we mitigate those challenges?” Hargrove explained. “And then, of course, we celebrate our kids and our families when we’re able to turn that around.”

She added community partnerships also help the district reduce chronic absenteeism.

As an example, she pointed to an apartment complex where many students from the district with particularly high rates of absences lived. The district worked with the complex and local organizations to identify “attendance angels” who met the kids at the bus stop every morning.

“If kids weren’t there, they went to the door, knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, the bus is here. We’re ready to go,’” Hargrove said.

Morris said data analysis plays a huge role in his school district’s efforts to better understand and identify ways to improve attendance.

“And then of course our administrators share what’s working, what’s not working at certain schools,” he said.

Morris pointed to Maryland Elementary School as an example of a school in his district that made it fun to not only go to school, but to get there on time. It adopted the “Don’t be tardy to the party” slogan.

“They would play music in the mornings, and dance with the kids,” he said, adding school staff hung banners with the slogan near the entrances for parents to see as they dropped off their kids.

School staff also started making individual phone calls for the kids with the most tardies and offering help. The school was able to go from having more than 100 tardies a day to just the single digits.

Now, its new slogan is “Never be absent” or NBA.

Statewide, the rate of students who are considered chronically absent skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to a report by the Helios Education Foundation. While the numbers have improved, they’re still not at pre-pandemic levels.

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Empty seats: Here’s how two school districts are tackling chronic absenteeism