back of a chair at a desk with a classroom in the background
Connecting to curb chronic absenteeism

How relationship-building and supports are replacing an outdated punitive approach

By Kimberly Sellery


andemic-related challenges, quarantines and trauma, ongoing illnesses, disconnection from schools and routine — these are the major causes identified by education leaders and experts for an incredibly high number of student absences across the country in the 2021–22 school year — a challenge that has continued into 2022–23.

In October 2022, Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang predicted a doubling in chronic absence in California and around the nation compared to pre-pandemic years — a significant underestimation. Recent data from the California School Dashboard showed chronic absenteeism increased statewide from 10.1 percent in the 2019–20 school year to 30 percent in 2021–22.


long with health-related absences and school disconnection, Chang noted other compounding factors are contributing to the unprecedented numbers of chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason.

“Absenteeism has also been exacerbated by school staffing challenges including a lack of bus drivers and teacher shortages, health fears and the lack of a regular routine of learning,” Chang said. “These pandemic-related challenges were layered on top of pre-existing barriers to attendance, such as poor transportation, anxiety, trauma, housing insecurity, lack of access to health care and community violence. Communities that struggled economically before the pandemic have been especially hard hit. The highest levels of chronic absence were experienced by American Indian, Black, Pacific Islander and Hispanic students as well as among students who were socioeconomically disadvantaged, involved in special education or English learners.”

While local educational agencies vary in their approaches to addressing chronic absenteeism, one thing is clear: a punitive approach is out and building relationships is in.

The issue
Research abounds on the negative effects chronic absenteeism has on students’ academic and social outcomes. A pre-pandemic study by Attendance Works found that students who missed three or more days in the month before taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress scored an average of 12 to 18 points below their peers who had been in class. A May 2021 study from the University of Maryland found that missing 10 English language arts or math classes in high school reduced test scores by 3 to 4 percent of a standard deviation. Other research has found that chronic absenteeism is a leading predictor of whether a student would drop out of high school.

“What we don’t need is a new initiative just focused on chronic absenteeism,” Chang said during a California Department of Education webinar in January. “What we most need is to take an integrated approach where we are using the data on chronic absenteeism to inform all of these critical investments like universal pre-K, community schools, expanded learning, mental health and professional learning — these are all strategies that, when used well and targeted well, will really help make sure kids are showing up to school.”

stop sign on a school bus with a crossing guard helping students cross the street
California is becoming a leader in providing resources and funding to address a whole child approach to education. The Learning Policy Institute defines this approach as prioritizing the full scope of a child’s developmental needs and understanding that students’ education and life outcomes are dependent upon their access to safe and welcoming learning environments and rich learning experiences in and out of school.
Addressing the immediate problem
“The key to reducing chronic absence is understanding and addressing the challenges keeping kids from getting to school,” Chang said.

That’s a challenge that Sacramento City Unified School District understands well. The district identified a chronic absence problem in 2012, when it partnered with the UC Davis Center for Regional Change and Attendance Works to analyze its data and put some basic attendance monitoring structures in place.

The district’s work accelerated when it was awarded a grant in 2017 through the Learning Communities for School Success Program. The Office of Student Attendance and Engagement was created to centralize attendance monitoring and initiatives. The district partnered with the UC Merced Center for Educational Partnership to implement tools for data collection, including the Early Identification and Intervention System, which operates as an early warning system. For example, schools can look at the previous year’s data and search for trends in absences, then use this information at the start of the school year to begin early outreach and interventions.

What we don’t need is a new initiative just focused on chronic absenteeism. What we most need is to take an integrated approach where we are using the data on chronic absenteeism to inform all of these critical investments.”

—Hedy Chang, Director Attendance Works

The attendance team implemented a positive messaging campaign districtwide and identified the top 20 schools with the most severe chronic absence problems. The schools created site-level attendance teams with the grant funding and the district team worked with each site on specific attendance goals and how to get there.

The district began with a 15 percent chronic absence rate in 2017 and by April 2020, it declined to 12 percent. Jennifer Kretschman, Sacramento City USD’s director of Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and Student Attendance & Engagement, said the district was on track to have chronic absenteeism down to 10 or 11 percent in March 2020 — and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We had been really focused on high-level messaging and shifting from this punitive mindset to a more supportive mindset, and we were seeing results,” Kretschman said. “Then COVID hit and we weren’t able to reach 2,000 kids, and they did not return to school when everyone else did because we had bad contact information. Our office got this huge wake-up call that we really need to focus on caring for our kids and building relationships and having relevant contact information — we had this huge disconnect with our community. So, we did intensive work around home visits.”

The attendance team worked with Sacramento’s Department of Human Assistance, which provides resources and services to low-income members of the community, and other community organizations to track down the missing students. They found all but six families, which they later learned had moved.

The district focused on Tier 1 of MTSS, emphasizing relationship- and community-building, and ensuring families felt more connected to the school sites and the district office, Kretschman explained. “Now we’re in a place where we have 18 focus schools that we are doing intensive work with that has been totally realigned with our main focus on building relationships.”

teacher showing a student something on a clipboard
The early warning system helps the district identify students that are in need of intervention before it becomes a crisis, according to Kretschman. “What we had been doing before is, if you don’t see a kid for 30 days, that’s a red flag, let’s go find them. But they’ve already fallen so far behind. Our goal is to use the data to find them early and intervene early.”

During home visits, school planning meetings and direct intervention plans, the district works with community organizations to connect students and families with the supports they need to enable them to get to school. Sometimes that means assisting families with the basics: food procurement, stable housing, medical attention or job-search resources.

Another data tool used by the district from Everyday Labs helps the team to assign interventions and allows every site to look at an individual student’s trends and patterns. It also aggregates data at the district level.

A pattern that has caught the team’s attention is poor attendance for fifth- and sixth-grade African American and Latino boys. One intervention in the top 10 schools identified with this issue involves a local motivational speaker, Kevin Bracy, who started the 2022–23 year off with an attendance rally. Bracy then meets once a week for six weeks with a targeted group of fifth- and sixth-grade boys, aiming to be a mentor and foster school connection. The district is monitoring attendance for the students before, during and after the program (still in progress at the time of this writing) to evaluate its effectiveness at completion.

We had been really focused on high-level messaging and shifting from this punitive mindset to a more supportive mindset, and we were seeing results.”

—Jennifer Kretschman, Director of MTSS and Student Attendance & Engagement, Sacramento City USD
The importance of school climate
Addressing — and preventing — chronic absence relies heavily on an MTSS structure, a tiered approach that starts with foundational supports for the whole school. These foundational supports are followed by prevention-oriented supports for attendance (Tier 1), more personalized outreach or early intervention (Tier 2) and intensive intervention (Tier 3).

“I think it’s incumbent upon schools, now more than ever, to make sure school is a place where kids want to come, that they have interesting classwork, they have engaging enrichment or extracurricular activities,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director at FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University. “Research shows creating a better school climate is linked to attendance.”

Jordan noted that strategies should vary depending on the student group. “The connection with the family is particularly important in the early grades because there’s rarely a child who just stays home without a parent knowing about it,” she said. “That’s obviously not true with teenagers. I think the connections at school are really key. It could be just showing up because all their friends show up. A qualitative study in Connecticut on home visits found that when they brought one student back to school, that their friends would start showing up, too.”

While important, school climate can only go so far in a region that is still struggling with COVID and other illnesses. In San Ysidro School District, the district closest to the Mexican border in San Diego County, COVID is still causing havoc. The district of about 4,500 students serves a population in which 54 percent of students are English learners and 82 percent of families live in poverty.

I think it’s incumbent upon schools, now more than ever, to make sure school is a place where kids want to come, that they have interesting classwork, they have engaging enrichment or extracurricular activities.”

—Phyllis Jordan, associate director, FutureEd
Prior to the pandemic, San Ysidro SD matched the state average chronic absence rate of 10.1 percent. The district prides itself on its attention to attendance and school climate, working with the San Diego County Office of Education through the Improving Chronic Absence Network, or ICAN. The 2022 Dashboard showed San Ysidro SD with a chronic absence rate of 28 percent — still lower than the state average.

“Each of the teams are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to address the root causes and to use data to inform decisions about attendance,” said San Ysidro SD Superintendent Gina Potter. “Each school ICAN team establishes attendance expectations for their schools, and those expectations revolve around the attendance data and around establishing a robust support system for the families who continue to struggle with recovery or who are continuing to sustain impacts of COVID, or who may not be COVID impacted at all.”

And COVID is still having a large impact on attendance, and life, in the district. “The geographic region of our school district was a COVID epicenter for the first two years of the pandemic,” Potter said, noting it was the highest impacted COVID epicenter as well.

back of a chair at a desk with a classroom in the background
Hispanic and Latino families were disproportionately impacted, she said. More than 55 percent of those who contracted COVID in San Diego County were Hispanic or Latino, and of the 3,260 COVID fatalities in the county that first year, 44.7 percent were among Hispanic or Latino people. “We’re recovering from a state of trauma here in San Ysidro. In addition, the trauma’s not over for us because the COVID variants continued to hit our community harder than any other location in the county and continues to be one of the highest in the state.”

Potter expressed concern over the mixed messages sent by the state. “We want you to stay home if you’re sick, to safeguard others and so that you have time to recover, but we’re going to mark you absent or chronically absent and not excuse it,” she said. “And that, in turn, takes a community in poverty, a community with vulnerable students and vulnerable families, and further exacerbates the trauma that we’ve been through and that we’re continuing to sustain, because that results in reduced funding for our schools.”

Potter is looking to the state for something she believes we all should exercise — empathy and grace. “I feel, as a humanitarian leader, that it’s so important that we recognize the grace that’s needed during this time of recovery, that we recognize the character traits of kindness and compassion and healing ,” she said. “The state is still requiring the mandate that you should stay home if you are positive with COVID or you have symptoms — and yet we really haven’t, as a state, created multiple options for attendance recovery.”

I feel, as a humanitarian leader, that it’s so important that we recognize the grace that’s needed during this time of recovery, that we recognize the character traits of kindness and compassion and healing.”

—Gina Potter, Superintendent, San Ysidro SD
Funding and board support
The most impactful way that boards can show their support for initiatives to improve attendance is through funding.

“Boards of education set the agenda for spending things like COVID relief money,” said FutureEd’s Jordan. “When administrators come to them with a proposal, boards should ask, ‘How is this going to help our attendance?’”

Tutoring, which benefits academic recovery, also helps a student build a relationship with someone, she continued. Having a caring relationship at school helps engage youth. Making sure that part of the budget is going to family outreach or home visits or mail and texting programs, and that the right data is being collected and being shared with schools in an actionable way is crucial.

The board of the state’s northern-most district, Del Norte County USD, has taken attendance into consideration when allocating money for new initiatives. In the 2015–16 school year, the district’s chronic absence rate was just over 24 percent. Del Norte worked to track student attendance and implemented tiered supports in which a multi-disciplinary team works with families to create attendance success plans to help get students back on track. The district was on track for a chronic absence rate of 9 percent before the pandemic, according to Superintendent Jeff Harris. But in 2021, that rate hit 65 percent. In 2022–23, the district has a chronic absence rate of about 45 percent.

teacher smiling with her students in the background
“You’ve got COVID, RSV, the flu and any cyclical illness that comes around,” Harris said. “Even prior to COVID, there were times when we would have individual schools where we would see a 20 percent absenteeism rate, because when it hits a school, we’re such a small community, it hits a lot of people in the school.”

The district is making investments in better systems to track chronic absence, working directly with school staff to develop site-based plans for a tiered-support approach, and adding more staff for student’s mental and physical health needs.

“After the pandemic, the board really made an effort to bolster what was happening at schools in a variety of ways,” Harris said. Those included funding for more mental health staff and doubling the district nursing staff from five to 10 positions. Funding for family liaisons at every school site was also a priority.

FutureEd’s Jordan has researched using COVID relief funding for these efforts, as well as existing funding that can be tapped into once relief funds expire. These include federal Title I funding, which provides support for high-poverty schools and students; Title II, which provides support for high-poverty schools and students; Title IVa, which provides Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants; Title IVe, which supports family engagement grants; and Title IVf, which provides funding for full-service community schools. She also referenced California’s historic investment in community schools as a strong funding stream.

“Better connections with teachers, more engaging curriculum, a welcoming school climate — all of these things are just good for your school,” Jordan said. “They’re good for learning, and they’re good for bringing kids back to school and to keep them coming back.”

Kimberly Sellery is editorial director for California Schools.