Understanding Chronic Absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism has frustrated educators and communities for quite some time. Over the past decade, research and policy changes have brought this issue into greater focus. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of a school year. Reducing the rate of absenteeism can be a daunting task for a district or community. Fortunately, a path forward isn’t as far away as you might think.

In 2016-17, there were 538 school districts or reporting centers (charter schools, state schools, youth detention centers) with at least an 80% proportional attendance rate in the state of Missouri. At 84%, the St. Joseph School District’s attendance rate ranked number 516 out of 538 (better than only 4.1% of districts). For the past 16 months, the district has been working to better understand chronic absenteeism and engage the community in pursuit of improvement. Meetings were held throughout the 2016-17 school year with the United Way of Greater St. Joseph, the Buchanan County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. Together we reviewed past efforts, current action steps and discussed future partnerships.

Over time, a plan-do-study-act (PDSA) framework for attendance improvement began to take shape. A website was developed in the fall of 2016 to share research about school attendance, attendance data, school board policy and district attendance procedures. This would later become an important part of our communication efforts as the improvement plan developed. To help build awareness in the community, a review of district absenteeism rates was included as part of a high school schedule and graduation credit study in January 2017. This analysis showed high school attendance rates in St. Joseph ranking in the bottom 6% of all Missouri high schools over an 8 year period (2009-present). Further analysis showed a serious issue with chronic absenteeism in grades K-2, with consistently high rates of absenteeism over a four year period.

Policy Development
In support of the SJSD All In Plan, attendance policies from Missouri school districts were researched and Missouri statutory requirements were reviewed. Several district administrators met with representatives from the Social Welfare Board, Buchanan County, United Way, Chamber of Commerce and Mosaic Life Care to discuss replicating elements of the St. Joseph Community Health Initiative to address chronic absenteeism in our schools. In the spring of 2017, district administrators conferenced with representatives from Attendance Works, a national attendance improvement initiative located in Washington D.C. Their input was invaluable as we developed policy recommendations and our PDSA action steps. To ensure alignment to our district’s strategic plan, two SMART goals were developed to guide our planning:

  • The SJSD will increase attendance from 84.0% to 87% in SY18 and achieve 8 points on the APR (this equates to 450 more students in the 90% category)
  • The SJSD will reduce K-12 staff absences from an average of 12.63 days to 11.5 days in SY18.

Attendance Policy Revision
The district attendance policy was revised to include research about chronic absenteeism, attendance guidelines and reporting procedures for grades K-8 and 9-12. Policy changes included standardized procedures for parent communication, attendance letters and revised high school credit requirements. To ensure the high school policy maintained a proactive focus, a data-driven schedule was developed to monitor progress and communicate with students and parents.

Strive for Five
Following extensive research, the St. Joseph School District embarked on a journey to replicate elements of the Challenge Five Initiative from Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. The Strive for Five initiative is designed to educate the community about the risk of chronic absenteeism and encourage students to miss fewer than five days each year. An informational presentation was developed to explain to students and parents how our district arrived at the five day goal.

Building & Maintaining Awareness
To inform the community about Strive for Five, the following actions were taken during the fall:

  • Press conference at Parkway Elementary on August 14
  • Signs for the exterior and interior of each school were delivered before August 16
  • Leaderboards were installed inside schools to chart monthly attendance by grade level
  • Sideline banner and PSA announcements during varsity football games (Central HS)
  • Participation in the Southside Fall Festival Parade on September 15
  • Participation in the Northside Festival parade on October 14

*Action steps of the PDSA plan will be reported in an upcoming post.