VOLUME 2, ISSUE 2 • May 2011
Student Absence: a Hidden Barrier to Success
Regular school attendance is vitally important to academic achievement, overall school success, and ultimately, school completion (Chang & Romero, 2008; NREL, 2004; Roby 2003). Studies of students who do not graduate reveal that leaving school is “merely the culminating act of a long withdrawal process from school” (Epstein & Sheldon, 2002, p. 40). While there is a dearth of Canadian research in this area, recent studies from the U.S. indicate that most schools do not know the extent to which students are chronically absent at their school (Chang & Romero, 2008). School attendance data are often overlooked, poorly monitored, and fail to elicit a timely and coherent response at the school level (Center for New York City Affairs, 2008; Chang & Romero, 2008; NREL, 2004). Further, Chang (2010) notes that the practice of measuring school-wide attendance and reporting daily averages can mask the true picture of student absence.
WHAT IS CHRONIC ABSENCE?
Establishing a common definition of chronic absence is an important step in addressing the problem. Clarifying the language enables educational stakeholders to share and analyze data across schools, districts and beyond. Chang and & Romero (2008) recommend adopting the following definition of chronic absence:
• 18 – 36 days per 180 day school year (excused and unexcused absences)
ABSENCE IN THE EARLY GRADES
Absence in the early grades (kindergarten to grade two) is particularly significant, as missing school impedes a young child’s ability to develop essential social and academic skills (Chang & Romero, 2008; Epstein & Sheldon, 2002). Epstein & Sheldon (2002) have identified early absenteeism as “an important predictor of dropping out of high school” (p. 309). Among children living in poverty, the risk factors increase dramatically. For these children, “chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of fifth grade” (Chang & Romero, 2008, p. 8).
WHY ARE STUDENTS ABSENT?
Factors associated with student absence are complex and highly contextual (Center for New York City Affairs, 2008). Well-established risk factors include family background, home dynamics and relationships, past school performance, and personal, school and neighbourhood characteristics (NREL, 2004). Absence is often linked to poverty, where poor access to health care, reliable transportation, stable housing and other resources pose barriers to attending school (Center for New York City Affairs, 2008; Chang & Romero, 2008; NREL, 2004). A broader view of absenteeism has emerged in recent literature, focusing on how school quality, structure and culture impact student engagement and motivation (NREL, 2004). Students are more likely to attend when they view school as a safe and welcoming place, have positive relationships with peers and adults, and are met with challenging, high-quality learning experiences (NREL, 2004; Smink, 2005). Student perceptions of their academic and social competence in high school were found to be significant predictors of school absence (NREL, 2004). Brush & Jones (2002) found that students of all backgrounds wished the same of educators: “Respect me for who I am, require me to do my best, and give me the help I need to achieve it” (p. 3).
Promising practices to ameliorate student absence are multifaceted and highly varied. However, schools that engage families and communities in promoting holistic, student-centred approaches are most effective in reducing absenteeism (Baker & Jansen, 2000; Chang & Romero, 2008; NREL, 2004).
Key Practices: Systems Level
• Multidimensional approaches designed to change behaviour and remove barriers
♦ create a safe, engaging and welcoming school
♦ regularly evaluate school policies and practices promoting attendance (Smink, 2005)
♦ assist with transportation, physical and mental health issues (Sheldon & Epstein, 2002)
♦ monitor and respond to attendance issues with families and communities (NREL, 2004)
• Preventative measures
♦ frequent, positive communication between families and school
♦ timely response to chronic early absence (NREL, 2004)
♦ qualitative and quantitative data to make informed decisions (NREL, 2004)
• A continuum of student supports
♦ universal, targeted and intensive responses (NREL, 2004; Government of Alberta, 2011)
♦ identify and respond to higher levels of absence among vulnerable populations
Key Practices: School/Classroom Level
• Focus on learning
♦ provide compelling instructional reasons for students to attend
♦ personalize learning to match student interests and abilities
♦ provide culturally responsive curriculum (NREL, 2004)
• Build positive, caring relationships with students
• Educate parents and students about the importance of regular attendance
• Dedicate staff to focus on attendance issues; establish a school level contact for families
Recent research has highlighted the prevalence of chronic absenteeism across US schools. The situation is particularly grave for students living in poverty (Chang & Romero, 2008). While a national portrait of absence in Canada remains elusive, the focus on attendance has raised awareness of this hidden barrier to success. As a result, schools are developing comprehensive, intentional approaches to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to come to school every day (Chang & Romero, 2008). As schools work to strengthen bonds with families in need and engage students with relevant, challenging curriculum, we may succeed in raising achievement levels of our most vulnerable students (Center for New York City Affairs, 2008).
Baker, D., & Jansen, J. (2000). Using groups to reduce elementary school absenteeism. Social Work in Education, 22(1).
Brush, C., & Jones, B. (2002). Student voices: Why school works for alternative high school students. Salem, OR: Oregon, Department of Education. www.ode.state.or.us/stusvc/whyschworks.pdf
Chang, H. (2010). Five myths about school attendance. Education Week. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/09/15/03chang.h30.html
Chang, H. & Romero, M. (2008). Present, engaged, and accounted for: The critical importance of addressing chronic absence in the early grades. National Center for Children in Poverty. NY, NY
Government of Alberta. (2011). Supporting social participation of all students: Regular attendance. www.learnalberta.ca/content/insp/html/regular_attendance.html
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NREL). (2004). Increasing student attendance: Strategies from research and practice. www.nwrel.org/request/2004june/Attendance.pdf
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Sheldon, S. B., & Epstein, J.L. (2004). Getting students to school: Using family and community involvement to reduce chronic absenteeism. School and Community Journal, 4(2).
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Smink, J. & Reimer, M.S. (2005). Fifteen effective strategies for improving student attendance and truancy prevention. National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. www.dropoutprevention.org
Wagstaff, M., Combs, L., & Jarvis, B. (2000). Solving high school attendance problems: A case study. Journal of At-Risk Issues, 7(1).