Marketing for Student Attendance
Chronic student absenteeism has a serious impact on learning. Here are some ways to keep them showing up.
Among the myriad challenges school districts face in the ever-changing landscape of public education, chronic absenteeism has proven to be a powerful adversary. The U.S. Department of Education found that during the 2021-22 school year, 66% of the nation’s students attended schools with high or extreme levels of absenteeism. That means nearly 14.7 million students were chronically absent. And in the 2022-23 school year, chronic absences remained much higher than pre-pandemic levels, with only a small improvement in overall rates.
According to the Department of Education, any student who misses 10% of the school year is considered chronically absent—and if you break it down, that’s only a couple of days a month in most districts. But when it comes to learning, every hour counts. Research shows that chronic student absenteeism can be severely detrimental to student outcomes. In fact, it can negatively influence reading proficiency by third grade, and by sixth grade, it’s a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school. It also disproportionately affects children living in poverty and can have negative impacts on student health.
This challenge is all too familiar to staff at Attendance Works, a national and state initiative aiming to improve policy and practice around attendance and raise awareness of its impact on learning. “There are all these unexpected connections to the simple act of being in school every day,” says Cecelia Leong, Attendance Works’ vice president of programs. “And there are a lot of consequences downstream for our entire society. As more students become chronically absent, what’s going to happen to your community? You’re going to have fewer graduates ready to take on the jobs that drive your local economy.”
What can you do about student absenteeism?
For starters, it’s vital for school leaders to create awareness around the importance of student attendance. When families are informed about the negative effects of chronic absenteeism, they’re more likely to take attendance seriously and find strategies to help their kids buck the trend. You can do this in fun, creative ways that make students excited to come to school.
Secondly, it’s about making sure your students have what they need to show up. According to an Attendance Works analysis, high-poverty schools are more likely to experience particularly extreme levels of chronic absenteeism. That means at least 30% of students in these schools are chronically absent. This correlation cannot be overstated or overlooked. If families are struggling or under-resourced, student attendance is more likely to suffer. It’s up to your district to find out what information and support these families need.
Chronic absenteeism isn’t an easy thing to fix, and it’s not an issue you can change overnight. But equipped with the right strategies, your schools can encourage and empower your community to support positive attendance habits. “Chronic absence is a problem that can be solved,” says Leong. So let’s look at how you can start to piece this puzzle together for your schools.
Raise awareness on the importance of student attendance.
“I think families oftentimes don’t realize how quickly absences add up,” says Dr. Margaret Marotta, superintendent of Haverhill Public Schools in Massachusetts. “They think a day here or there doesn’t matter. But that very quickly becomes chronic absenteeism.”
When Marotta took the helm in 2018, Haverhill’s chronic absence rates were already concerning—but the pandemic pushed them to all-new heights. “COVID did a number on us,” she says. “And it’s still very hard.”
Haverhill has an incredibly diverse student population from a variety of backgrounds. For example, some Haverhill students miss the first few weeks of school after spending the summer with relatives in the Dominican Republic because airfare back to Boston is much less expensive in late September. Others miss class because they’re translating for their parents or taking care of their younger siblings. And, as in so many other districts, some students are struggling with mental health or poverty and may not have the supports they need to maintain healthy school attendance.
“So there are a lot of reasons why our kids miss school,” Marotta says. “And even though our absence numbers went down last year, they’re still not where we want them to be. We want to attack this because we see a heavy correlation between our lowest-performing students and chronic absenteeism.”
That’s why Haverhill engages students and families through Attendance Works’ annual Attendance Awareness month each September. They partner with Haverhill Promise, a city campaign for grade-level reading that works with the district and community to increase reading proficiency. “These campaigns bring a lot of awareness to people who don’t know what chronic absenteeism is,” says Dr. Jessica Kallin, executive director of Haverhill Promise. “They may not know the effect that attendance has on academic success, on reading proficiency, and on so many other areas—so these campaigns bring in a lot of new partners and new voices of support.”
The theme of this year’s awareness campaign, “Showing Up Together,” asked schools to rally their students, families, and communities to collectively address the effects of interrupted learning. “We began our campaign with a press release reaching out to our state and local delegations, to local leaders, and to school committee members,” Kallin tells us. “And we put together marketing materials centered around our message that this is a collaboration between community members and our schools.”
Outside of press releases and social media marketing, Haverhill also shared informational videos and provided families with materials to help them grow awareness at home. Like many districts, Haverhill used resources found on the Attendance Works website, such as “Student Attendance Success Plans.” These printable handouts have calendars and tips to help families track their children’s school attendance. “The calendars are a big asset,” Kallin says.
One critical element of Haverhill’s approach is ensuring their campaign is accessible to all families. So during the campaign, they pushed out attendance awareness materials in several languages. “That’s important—sharing this information with families who come from other countries with different educational norms and making sure they’re aware of our expectations,” Marotta says.
Haverhill Promise also engages students and families at in-person events, from handing out flyers at book giveaways to discussing the importance of going to school at local farmers markets or the annual River Ruckus festival. “We’re trying to weave this thread throughout what we’re already doing,” Kallin says. “We always try to point out that missing just two days a month is chronic absenteeism, and we share how families can help their students succeed.”
When Missouri’s Springfield Public Schools held their communitywide State of the Schools event in August 2023, their new approach to promoting attendance awareness stole the show. After buckets of balloons were emptied over her head by school board members, Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan announced a districtwide attendance challenge. If the district can raise their daily average attendance rate by two percentage points over the course of the school year, those buckets will be filled with Gatorade at next year’s event. “I’m willing to do anything to help our students improve their academic outcomes,” Lathan tells us.
On top of the buzz this event created, Springfield is always working to encourage improved student attendance. “We’re spotlighting schools’ attendance improvements from month to month, and we take around traveling trophies for every division—elementary, middle, and high school,” Lathan says. “We have an outstanding team, and they have really been able to get buy-in with this whole concept.”
Springfield’s leadership team has also been highlighting best practices around attendance and positive behavior throughout the year. They encourage their community to be a part of raising awareness. “If you have a marquee or social media…remind them that attendance is crucial,” Lathan told the crowd after announcing the challenge. “We are educating your future workforce. You have skin in the game just like we do.”
Keeping this top of mind, Springfield recently gave out attendance awareness yard signs to local businesses. “This is a very collaborative community,” Lathan says. “It’s a community that supports our public schools, and they want to do whatever they can to ensure we are successful—because that means our community will be successful.”
Respond to your families’ needs.
For California’s Roseville City School District (RCSD), efforts to promote better school attendance hit a wall post-pandemic. In the past, many districts have tried focusing their communications around school funding—reminding families that sending their kids to school was necessary to keep districts up and running. But they didn’t have much success.
“It’s a terrible marketing strategy,” says Jessica Hull, the district’s executive director of communication and community engagement. “We have found that it has the reverse impact, often guilting parents, and it actually may cause them to care less about attendance.”
Looking for a new approach, Hull utilized years’ worth of data gathered after surveys and focus groups with families from across the state and nation. It showed that the pandemic had fundamentally changed the way families think about school attendance. “We’ve had to completely change our perspective because of what happened during those years,” Hull says.
The first hurdle to clear was the confusion around school attendance that the shutdown and remote learning had exacerbated. Now families were unsure of the rules around attendance—like whether their child should come to school with a cough or runny nose, or how long they should wait to return after a positive COVID test.
Secondly, the pandemic had changed the way some parents and guardians viewed experiences outside of school, like vacations or trips to see extended family. “Since the pandemic, we’ve seen a shift where people believe that family experiences are more valuable than anything else, including attending school,” Hull says. As a result, many families no longer consider school attendance a top priority, opting instead to take trips during the school year or let their kids miss class for family time.
Finally, Hull has spoken with many families with young children who have developed the mindset that missing school doesn’t matter much. “Because school isn’t mandatory until age 6, our transitional kindergarten and kindergarten families especially didn’t realize that these initial grades are so important to learning,” Hull explains. “This is when students learn the building blocks for fundamental skills like reading.”
In response to this confusion, RCSD created a new attendance campaign called “Every Day Matters.” This initiative aims to ensure that all district families have the information and resources necessary to address whatever challenges are prohibiting positive attendance behavior.
As part of the campaign, the district shares vital information to drive home the importance of attendance. This information is pushed out in the form of infographics, fact sheets, and advice for families on how to encourage and track their children’s attendance.
“Our focus is that students need to be in school because they need to be learning,” Hull says. “They need to be in a healthy environment; getting breakfast and lunch provided to them if they need it; getting social-emotional support in a safe, happy place like our schools.” One thing the campaign never mentions is school funding. “That money piece is for districts to worry about—it’s not the responsibility of parents or guardians,” Hull adds.
The crux of this campaign is the district’s “Every Day Matters” webpage, which can be found through a header link on their homepage. This comprehensive page details the importance of attendance and the dangers of chronic absenteeism while also connecting families to vital resources they may need—all organized by topic. Sections such as Nutrition, Transportation, and Counseling point families toward supports from the district or community. There’s even a glossary to help parents better understand RCSD’s attendance notices and policies. The site also lists Hull’s contact information and encourages families to reach out if they have more questions.
So far, “Every Day Matters” has been a success. By listening to their community’s needs and addressing them head-on, RCSD is helping more kids regularly show up to school. “We are increasing attendance, which means students are in school. They’re learning and getting the supports they need,” Hull tells us. “I’m really excited that we can continue to see growth and that other districts can utilize these same resources to hopefully increase their own attendance.”
Showing Up Together
In our conversations around attendance, a vital theme kept emerging: community. When it comes to addressing our country’s chronic absenteeism problem, the task can’t fall solely on the shoulders of students, families, or schools. If you want to make sure kids have the resources they need to get to school every day, it’s crucial to empower your entire community with an understanding of the importance of attendance.
By creating awareness around the negative impacts of chronic absenteeism, your schools can begin to combat this complex and troublesome issue. And by listening to your community and giving them the information and resources they need, you can empower families and students to understand why showing up matters.
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