Today’s Student Engagement Challenges and How City Leaders Can Help


  • Brandis Stockman
June 30, 2023 - (4 min read)

During the pandemic, as schools nationwide grappled with the challenges of remote learning, social isolation, and disrupted routines, many students fell through the cracks and became disengaged from school. Today, with pandemic-related school closures and virtual learning largely in the past, many anticipated a quick return to “normalcy” in schools. However, current research indicates a significant increase in student disengagement across the country, potentially impacting communities both today and in the future.

City leaders can and should act as a collaborative partner to support student engagement in their communities. Many cities have found success in addressing student engagement through:

  • Leveraging city leaders’ voice and visibility to bring awareness to the issue
  • Partnering with entities already involved in the work, such as local school districts or community-based organizations
  • Participating in attendance awareness campaigns
  • Dedicating resources to the cause, such as staff time, connections to local businesses, attendance incentives, or funding
  • Providing paid time for city staff to mentor or tutor youth on a weekly basis
  • Advocating for and/or implementing Full-Service Community Schools, a local engagement strategy aimed at accelerating student success through coordinating, leveraging, and improving the accessibility of resources

Cities Addressing Today’s Student Engagement Challenges

  • Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10% or more school days, is a critical issue in the wake of the pandemic. This issue poses a significant threat to a student’s educational progress and future prospects. It is estimated that over 16 million youth were chronically absent from school in the 2022-23 school year, more than double pre-pandemic numbers.
    • In Hartford, Connecticut, the mayor joined forces with the superintendent to create a comprehensive strategy to address chronic absenteeism, including a multi-tiered approach to supporting youth and families. As a result, the district has seen a decrease of 8.3% in 2022-23 chronic absenteeism rates as compared to the 2021-22 school year.
  • Unsurprisingly, many youth have not been able to meet academic milestones due to the educational disruptions of the pandemic. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that at the end of the 2020-21 school year, 1st through 6th grade students were on average 5 months behind in math and 4 months behind in reading, and students in underserved communities were found to be even further behind.
    • The City of Avondale, Arizona is a key member of Read On Avondale, a collaboration facilitated by the local United Way to achieve the goal of increasing 3rd grade reading proficiency by 25% by 2026. Recognizing the impact school day attendance has on academic achievement, the mayor’s office supported an attendance awareness campaign and leveraged city resources to encourage engagement – the fire department’s weekly “bus runs”, where fire trucks drove ahead of school buses to get youth excited to attend school, was particularly successful in increasing both attendance and awareness in the community.
  • Youth-serving professionals across the country are reporting that even when students are attending school physically, they may not be mentally or emotionally present. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021 indicates a dramatic rise in youth mental health issues. In 2021, nearly 60% of female students and nearly 70% of LGBTQ+ students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
    • The City of Seattle, Washington recently allocated $4.5 million of the city’s general funds to address youth mental health concerns. The city is working closely with the school district to implement a pilot program at five schools, such as training for staff and services for youth which include both clinical and non-clinical trauma-informed approaches.
  • With housing prices soaring and the rapidly increasing cost of transportation and food, many families are struggling to make ends meet. When youth are dealing with housing and/or food instability issues, it can be difficult for them to attend or focus during the school day.
    • In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, basic needs support is a key component of the city’s Full-Service Community School strategy. A team of staff employed by the mayor’s office in collaboration with the school district work directly with families to address the root causes of student disengagement, which includes addressing the basic needs of families.

Look for more resources and case studies on NLC’s Supporting Strong Student Engagement page, the gathering point for resources created with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and in partnership with Attendance Works, Coalition for Community Schools, and Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium.

NLC is looking to add case studies describing the work cities are doing across the country to support student engagement. If you have a story you would like to tell, please email

About the Author

Brandis Stockman

About the Author

Brandis Stockman is the Program Manager Education and Expanded Learning for the Center for Leadership, Education, Advancement & Development at the National League of Cities.