The Attendance Playbook: The role of pupil transportation in chronic absenteeism

It’s back-to-school season, which means attendance and chronic absenteeism is top of mind for educators. The reason for the seasonal focus? Absenteeism in the first month of school correlates to poor attendance throughout the school year: half the students who miss 2-4 days in September go on to miss nearly a month of school that year, qualifying those students as chronically absent. By 6th grade, chronic absence becomes a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

And nearly 8 million American students are chronically absent.

Historically, absenteeism has been misunderstood as a failure of parenting, or even a moral failure of the student or family to adequately prioritize school attendance. This flawed understanding of chronic absenteeism relegated schools to punishing truancy as a form of juvenile delinquency, which often worsened attendance and related outcomes. We understand now that there are many factors that can contribute to chronic absenteeism are outside the control of students and parents. Kids may face developmental challenges such as ADHD, chronic illnesses like asthma, mental health challenges like phobias or depression, or even school-related anxiety or bullying that may worsen absenteeism and tip it into the chronic zone.

They may also lack safe, reliable transportation.

Enter the experts—with a more holistic and less punitive approach. FutureEd, a think tank affiliated with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, has partnered with Attendance Works (a national nonprofit) to publish the Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism. The playbook brings a framework to this persistent problem, segmenting students by severity of risk and prescribing targeted strategies for getting kids to school. This approach is familiar to teachers and educators who already use multi-tiered support and intervention methodologies.

On one end of the continuum are Tier I students: those whose attendance patterns suggest a drift toward chronic absenteeism, but who are not yet chronically absent (which is defined as missing 10% of days in a school year). For Tier I students, the playbook prescribes proactive communication tactics, or “nudges,” designed to keep the topic of attendance top of mind with both students and parents, and to encourage and reward improvement.

On the other end of the continuum are Tier III students: those who are already missing 20% of school days or more (twice the rate that defines “chronically absent”). For Tier III students, the handbook prescribes a battery of urgent intervention tactics in cooperation with health, housing, and social services agencies, as well as individualized case management. These are the most challenged students, for whom it often “takes a village” to fix the problem—assuming it’s not already too late.

In the middle is Tier II, students either just above or barely below the chronically absent threshold. For these students, FutureEd addresses mobility as a barrier to attendance for many students, including those most vulnerable—not just the homeless or students in foster care, but students of color as well. Per the playbook, “One in four African-American households and one in six Latinx households do not own a car, compared to one in 15 white households.” Rural students who may live far from district bus routes are also disadvantaged in this equation. And too many students have just one option to get to school; when that one mode of transportation can’t be used, the student simply misses school.

To address mobility as a barrier to attendance, FutureEd prescribes a range of targeted transportation solutions that includes HopSkipDrive. As a team with education and academic pursuit in its DNA, we’re proud and honored to be mentioned in this context, and eager to work with any school or district who would like help with chronic absenteeism intervention.

Great thanks to FutureEd and Attendance Works for elevating this issue in our national dialogue, and for their focus on practical, immediate solutions to the problem. Watch this space to learn more about the role mobility plays in ensuring educational opportunity and success for kids everywhere, and what we’re doing to help bridge known gaps.

Chris BertoletComment