BLOG: Turning Chronic Absenteeism in to Chronic Attendance by Creating a Welcoming Climate and Culture in Schools

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. ACNJ board member

by Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D.

In many states, chronic absenteeism—defined as students missing 10 percent or more of enrolled school days—is one of their high-priority areas for improving student behavior and achievement.  It makes sense.  Students who miss school a lot are more likely to lack reading skills, have lower test scores, and increase the likelihood of exclusionary school discipline, and drop out.

To give you a sense of the scope of the problem, in New Jersey, 700 out of 2400 schools had 10 percent of their student missing at least a day of school every two weeks.    Because of the link between student attendance and educational success, Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) led the charge to improve chronic absenteeism by advocating for legislation that would require action plans that included parent input to be developed by any public school with 10 percent or more of their students identified as being chronically absent. The bill also required that districts would become responsible for including their chronic absenteeism data in their school report cards. The bill was signed into law in May 2018. NJSA 18A:7E-3 Efforts are being made to understand who these children are, and understand if there are cohesive subgroups of children most affected (e.g., recent immigrants, particular ethnic minorities in a community, households with single parent and/or parents with economic or health challenges).  This is valuable and important, but is only the first step.

It is not enough for students to attend school. They must feel welcomed at school. This point was clearly articulated in focus groups that ACNJ held with high school students attending Newark public schools. Discussions with students, parents and staff revealed a wide disconnect between some school policies and the day-to-day reality of teachers, students and families.

Filling the seats has economic ramifications, but only filling the heart, mind, and spirit has social-emotional and educational ramifications.  Finding ways to get students back into buildings that truly have missed them, and are ready to embrace them, is the second-order change we need. ACNJ’s focus group participants noted the importance of strong relationships between schools and students. A single adult in school could make a positive or negative impact on their attendance. Students appreciated when teachers took the extra step to connect with them.  

What Is The Solution?

What is the solution?  It’s not to create special welcomes as much as it is to ensure that the culture and climate of the school is welcoming of all students and families.  When the school doors open each morning, they cannot open more widely for some youth than others.  When youth enter, the smiles that greet them cannot be wider and more sincere for some groups than others.  As the school day unfolds, some students cannot be treated with more understanding and fairness than others, and when students find their way into difficulties, corrective measures cannot be delivered differently for some than for others. Kids have exquisite “fairness detectors” and know when they are getting a bad deal.  This plants the seeds of discouragement and begins to lay a pathway out of the education system.

The National School Climate Center has championed the importance, for academic success, social-emotional and character development, and the prevention of harassment, intimidation, and bullying and other problem behaviors, of creating a positive climate.  When we think of chronic absenteeism, an essential part of the long-term solution goes beyond getting kids to not be absent.  It involves getting ALL students to feel engaged in school and therefore to want to be present.  This truly is a public education and public health issue and must not be overshadowed by our attempts to identify and bring back individual students with frequent absences. Of course, there are and will be cases where the absenteeism is largely due to issues in the home.  Nevertheless, in those situations, it is even more important for those affected students to feel as if the school is their oasis, not their holding cell.

Create a Positive, Welcoming School Culture and Climate

SEL4NJ, the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for New Jersey, has identified the most important elements of a positive school climate (www.SEL4NJ.org):

  • Inspiring—schools should connect to students’ aspirations and actively encourage them to reach for the stars 
  • Challenging—schools are places of learning, therefore not “easy” places; student appreciate appropriate challenges, especially when they know that occasional failure puts them on a path to lasting learning
  • Supportive—challenge must be accompanied by support; schools benefit from collective efficacy, where students are encouraged to help one-another and not compete for grades rationed on a curve
  • Safe and Healthy—ultimately, we are our others’ keepers, and so students must be upstanders for all classmates, and respect themselves by attending to their own good physical and social-emotional health, as well as others’
  • Engaged—students are engaged when learning is active, problem-focused, helps them create meaningful products, and encourages diverse collaboration
  • Respectful—a basic posture of respect for others is a minimal expectation in school building and its modeling is essential- student-student, student-adult, and adult-adult, including parents; schools must be especially attuned to how intimidating and unfamiliar school can be to many immigrant and/or resource-poor parents
  • Communities of Learners—classrooms should set and pursue goals for learning together, and so should adults in the building- groups of teachers, student support staff, security personnel/school resource officers, office staff, grounds and maintenance personnel, school administrators, supervisors and board members- everyone should have ongoing goals for improving themselves and their contributions to their schools

Public education is about opening the doors to learning and citizenship for all.  Meeting this sacred responsibility is possible when our schools work to have a positive school culture and climate.  If we build this, kids will come.  And when they can’t, once we help them with family hurdles and they do come, they will stay.

Maurice Elias has been a member of the ACNJ Board of Trustees since 1981.

For more information and resources on chronic absenteeism in New Jersey, check out ACNJ’s school attendance page

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