In North Lawndale, an urban and low-income neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, Illinois Action for Children’s Community Connections team have found families face many barriers to attendance. Barriers include illness, transportation, lack of social networks, conflicting work schedules, school anxiety, inadequate housing, transience and homelessness.
Understanding Chronic Absenteeism
Chronic absenteeism refers to when a child misses 10 percent of school days. Chicago Public Schools has 180 enrollment days. This means students who miss 18 or more days are considered chronically absent. Students only have to miss one day every other week to be on track for chronic absenteeism. It is easy for chronic absenteeism to go unnoticed by teachers and administrators.
Chronic Absenteeism affects nearly all schools. Urban schools are most likely to have extreme chronic absenteeism, which means the child has missed 30 percent or more of the school year. There is also a correlation between number of low-income families enrolled in a school and levels of chronic absenteeism.
Children who miss school regularly tend to fall behind in classes. Children in kindergarten and second grade with strong attendance have significantly higher scores on math and reading than their chronically absent peers. Furthermore, chronic absenteeism is a leading indicator for high school dropout. This is why it is so important to intervene early and often.
Innovations in North Lawndale
To address chronic absenteeism, the Community Connection Team, led by Rarzail Jones and Kristina Rogers, worked with families one-on-one to understand the barriers to every day attendance. We would call families, set up a meeting either at a local café, their house, or the school, and we would listen. Families shared their struggles that interfered with daily attendance, things like: transportation, unreliable family members, fluctuating work hours, health issues, and homelessness. Some parents spoke about their own frustrations with the school and how that would influence their child missing days. With so many potential barriers, the team would come to meetings with a wealth of resources to share and create goals with the family.
Ask a parent, “What is your favorite TV show?” When they answer, ask them how it makes them feel to miss an episode. Do they continue to the next one without having watched the one prior? Why? How does it make them feel to skip an episode? Compare this to their child’s learning. When children miss a school day, they fall behind. They have trouble communicating this to teachers and parents, but they feel similarly to when you might miss an episode of your favorite show.
Though the two most commonly documented barriers are health and transportation, reality is complex. For instance, a mom may initially attribute her child’s missed days due to transportation. However, after meeting with her a few times, the team may learn that the family moved South because of a domestic violence issue. The event left the mother feeling scared, depressed, and isolated. This made it even more difficult to bring her child to school.
In situations like these, the North Lawndale team will connect the parent to other families. This network builds social capital and helps the parent feel less alone. The team might also assist the mother with her resume so she may gain financial independence and not have to rely on her ex any more. When the parent is ready, the team promotes therapy. Again, while transportation was stated as the initial barrier, it certainly was not the only barrier. This is why it’s essential to build strong, trusting relationships with families.
Ideas for Improving Chronic Absenteeism Levels
- Monitor Chronic Absentee rates, and not just student daily attendance rates. This helps highlight which students need interventions.
- Provide early and personalized support to families with chronically absent children
Messaging toolkit here: http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/messaging-attendance-to-families1.pdf
- Incentivize school-wide attendance
- Have students complete Why I Show Up forms.
Print the Why I Show Up page, fill in your career goal and snap a picture. Tag and share to be featured Attendance Institute’s site. #whyishowup
- Train staff on trauma-informed care
Psychological First Aide can help for when children are dealing with huge barriers at home: http://ssetprogram.org/_static/tsa/uploads/files//pfa_schoolcrisis_%281%29.pdf
- Create a unified message around the importance of attendance throughout the community
- Provide information to families AND teachers about how sick a child should be to miss school.
- Informative flyer, here: http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/toosickforschool-2.pdf
In just two and a half years, the Community Connections team in North Lawndale have worked with over 300 families across four schools. As a result of their efforts, 70 percent of children’s attendance rates have greatly improved. In addition, one of their schools, Charles Sumner Math and Science Academy, received the highest attendance award in the district last year!