In today’s post-pandemic world, a silent crisis is plaguing communities across the country – an alarming number of students are missing school. It is estimated that over 16 million students are considered chronically absent, more than twice the pre-pandemic rate. This alarming reality has implications not only for youth but for entire communities, and national news coverage is bringing even more attention to these concerns.
National League of Cities has partnered with Attendance Works to create resources for city leaders interested in reengaging students in school by addressing chronic absenteeism. Attendance Works’ founder and Executive Director, Hedy Chang, shares her thoughts about the importance of addressing chronic absenteeism today.
National League of Cities: What trends have you seen in the data related to school day attendance over the last several years?
Hedy Chang: An urgent problem resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic is a surge in chronically absent students (missing 10% of the school year for any reason). Data from multiple states reveals dramatic increases in chronic absence. For example, between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years, chronic absence increased from 12.1% to 30% in California, 19.7% to 38.5% in Michigan, and 13.1% to 28% in Mississippi. Early emerging data for the 2022-23 school year shows that chronic absence remained persistently high even though students were no longer being quarantined. This alarming absenteeism is contributing to lower achievement. New data from the 2023 Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that significant declines in math and reading scores for thirteen-year-olds is occurring at the same time as the number of students who indicated they missed four or more school days in the last month. In fact, the percentage of students who reported missing five or more days doubled from 5% in 2020 to 10 % in 2023, according to NAEP. Students with fewer missed school days generally had higher average scores in 2023 than students with more absences.
NLC: Why should cities want to address the issue of chronic absenteeism?
HC: Attending school regularly is essential to students gaining the academic and social skills they need to thrive. Starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, chronic absence can result in third graders being unable to read on grade level, sixth graders struggling with coursework and high school students dropping out, according to research. Conversely, low levels of student absenteeism contribute to a strong local economy. Good schools are essential for creating a healthy and vibrant city that attracts businesses as well as new residents. And schools with low levels of chronic absenteeism often translate into safer communities. When students are in school, they are more likely to be in settings that support learning and nurture positive relationships with peers and adults while keeping them out of harm’s way.
NLC: Can cities address this issue even if they don’t oversee their community’s school district(s) and if they don’t have available funding?
HC: Chronic absence is a solvable problem, especially if mayors and city leaders work with schools, parents/caregivers, students, and communities to improve attendance and engagement. Local officials are in a good position to raise awareness about the issue and generate excitement around taking action as a community. Mayors and city leaders can leverage city or county resources by using chronic absence data to shape budget priorities. In addition to informing decisions about investments in child care, early education and expanded learning programs – all of which can help families build good attendance and motivate engagement in school, this data can also help cities identify where to allocate resources like transportation and health care that can reduce barriers to getting to school. Another benefit to monitoring chronic absence data is that it can serve as an accountability metric. Ask programs applying for funding to explain what they will do to improve attendance. Use evidence of reduced chronic absence to identify which programs should continue to receive funding. For guidance, refer to Attendance Works’ free data tools.
NLC: How can city leaders support Attendance Awareness Month in September?
HC: Mayors and city leaders can use their platform to launch a public awareness campaign with a clear message about the value of school attendance to students and families. Include remarks in speeches or splash messages on city billboards that emphasize school as a place where students and families have opportunities to connect, engage, learn, and thrive and urge the community to work with students and families as partners to ensure students get to school every day possible. City leaders can also convene a task force on student attendance and engagement to ensure school participation is a community-wide priority or host a community forum to build support for community solutions. Consider using the Attendance Works’ proclamation to declare September as Attendance Awareness Month.