Come to Class, Win a Toyota: Districts Launch Campaigns to Boost Attendance

After absences reached perilously high levels during COVID, many leaders are going to great lengths to incentivize daily school-going in 2022-23

One or more families in San Antonio Independent School District will win a new Toyota Rav 4 at the end of this year for posting high attendance rates or improved attendance over last year. Judy Geelhoed, director of the charitable trust that supports the district, speaks at the podium. (SAISD)

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Across the country during the last two pandemic school years, the rate at which students missed class skyrocketed. In the nation’s two largest districts, New York City and Los Angeles, some 40% of students were chronically absent last year, meaning they missed at least 18 days, putting them academically at risk, experts say. In many school systems in between, rates also reached perilously high levels.

Now, to correct the troubling pattern in the new academic year, some school leaders are launching attendance campaigns in hopes of luring more students into the classroom. The techniques include an “Attendance Spirit Week” in Charlotte, North Carolina; gift card raffles and new bikes in a district outside Kansas City — and, in San Antonio, the possibility of winning a new Toyota Rav 4.

“Not only is it a chance to win something amazing for your family, but it also shows our families and our students, we really want you in school every day, that your attendance matters,” said Judy Geelhoed, executive director of the San Antonio Independent School District Foundation, which coordinated the campaign.

Whether induced or not by incentives such as the prospect of new wheels, early signs show students coming to school at higher rates this year than last, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. She works with educators across the country and has been encouraged by their anecdotes.

“I actually am hearing folks saying this year is better,” she said. “Everyone I speak to is like, ‘This is almost like a normal school here. Fingers crossed.’”

Preliminary attendance data for the new school year will not be released in most school districts for several weeks or months. But in Oakland Unified, one of the few school systems that publishes absenteeism figures in real time, the numbers are hopeful. So far, just 25% of students have been chronically absent, compared to 45% last year.

That’s a good sign for the rest of the year, said Chang, because “absences in the first month of school … predict absences later in the school year.” 

Last year was particularly difficult, she noted, because the start of the fall and spring semesters each aligned with a COVID surge: first Delta, then Omicron. With most districts having ditched hybrid learning at that point, students forced to quarantine often found themselves more than a week of content behind before they even began the semester.

But as leaders seek to reverse the trend this year, experts doubt whether attendance incentives are the most effective strategy. 

“Both learning and attendance … they rely on your intrinsic motivation,” said Jing Liu, a University of Maryland education professor who researches absenteeism. “I don’t think this is a very good approach to solve this issue. You might see a bump of attendance in the short run, but I don’t think it can work in the long term.”

Academic research indicates that financial incentives tend to be effective in motivating young people only when they reward behaviors students feel they can control; for example, how thoroughly they prepare for a test as opposed to how well they score once they sit down to take it.

Schools can, however, adjust their incentive structures to reward even students who may face more challenges showing up to class, the Attendance Works director pointed out. 

That’s exactly what San Antonio, with its Toyota challenge, has done. Students will earn raffle tickets every marking period not only for high attendance levels, but also for posting rates that improve on their attendance from the 2021-22 school year. 

“We wanted to give an incentive to folks [for whom] … things were holding them back. Sometimes there’s issues happening in the family and we wanted to give families an incentive to say, ‘I’m going to do my best to get my student there every day,’” Geelhoed said.

The $28,000 cost of the car, which the Foundation director noted would be more expensive on the showroom floor, will be covered by sponsors Frost Bank and Cavender Toyota. 

But while a ribbon-adorned shiny SUV may be a tantalizing prospect for many, she knows “this kind of incentive can’t mitigate all the challenges that our students may have.”

The district also deploys specialists to monitor chronically absent students and assist them in getting to campus, including home visits when they aren’t able to contact families, communications manager Laura Short said in an email. They analyze data across the school system to identify which students might be most at risk, she added.

“We believe it takes a whole-district approach to work on student attendance.”

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