In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education characterized chronic student absenteeism as a hidden educational crisis. So what constitutes chronic absenteeism? Most states define it as missing 10% or more of the school days in a given academic year — whether the absences are excused or unexcused — which translates to approximately 18 days.
This level of school absence is associated with a variety of adverse consequences, including individual course failure, risk of not graduating, and poor socio-emotional outcomes. Beyond these familiar outcomes, Michael Gottfried (2015) has also noted “congestion effects” — i.e. a packing together of related problems, such as delayed instruction for other students because teachers must spend time remediating those who’ve returned from an absence, or a loss of revenue for schools whose funding formulas are based on average daily attendance rates. In other words, when a few students are chronically absent, all students are harmed.
According to Hedy Chang and Phyllis Jordan (2017), schools and districts must flip their approach to attendance on its head, moving away from punitive responses and embracing community-based strategies to get more students to school every day. Making this happen will likely require the commitment of numerous community partners.
One promising strategy is to provide mentors for students struggling with attendance. Since the early 1980s, school-based mentoring programs have proliferated in the United States (Weinberger, 2005). In a typical mentoring program, volunteers from business and the general community spend a minimum of an hour a week at school, offering guidance, support, advocacy, help, and advice to students who need extra support. Today, mentors work with youth of all ages not only at school during the school day but also in after-school programs, both at the school and in locations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Before mentors begin their work, school staff should educate them on how quickly absences can affect academic performance. Further, mentors need to understand the many reasons students cannot get to school on time. For some, there is no one at home to get them out of bed, dressed, and on their way in the morning. Others are required to take care of and feed younger siblings. Many young people in lower-income districts are affected by cuts in public school or municipal bus service. Still others have late-night part-time jobs that create morning fatigue.
Once mentors know the source of the problem, they can help students find solutions. For instance, some mentors have bought alarm clocks to help their mentees wake up on time. Others begin every meeting asking how many days during the past week the child missed, and why. If attendance continues to be a problem, the mentor and mentee can set, and pledge to meet, realistic short- and long-term goals. Further, mentors can help students identify other local resources, such as food banks or health clinics, that might be able to help them solve problems that are causing them to miss school. Sometimes, mentors also find it useful to appeal to their mentees’ competitive spirit, such as by challenging them to compete with peers to achieve perfect attendance each week. And as student attendance results improve, sharing the good news at school can keep the momentum going.
Ideally, such efforts can be taken to scale, rather than relying on individual volunteers. For example, that’s what happened at East Technical High School (ETHS) in Cleveland, Ohio. Through a partnership with City Year, ETHS engages AmeriCorps members who sign on to work with students as mentors or tutors over an extended period of time. Further, and inspired in part by that work, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has adopted a comprehensive K-12 social-emotional learning program that has set the goal of ensuring that every student in the district has a caring relationship with an adult advocate.
An all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to combat chronic absenteeism. School administrators, teachers, and support staff cannot solve this alone — nor can parents and caregivers. When mentors get involved, they can play a key role in reducing chronic absenteeism.
Chang, H.N. & Jordan, P. (2017, October 24). We can fix chronic absenteeism. Education Week.
Gottfried, M.A. (2015). Chronic absenteeism in the classroom context: Effects on achievement. Urban Education, 1-32.
U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools. Washington, DC: Author. https://ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html
Weinberger, S.G. (2005). Mentoring a movement: My personal journey. Norwalk, CT: Mentor Consulting Group.
Citation: Weinberger, S.G. & Forbush, J.B. (2018). The role of mentors in reducing chronic absenteeism. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (6), 80.