Federal Funds & Philanthropy Can Help Get Chronically Absent Kids Back in School

Jordan: Absenteeism didn’t start or end with COVID. But the work districts do with ESSER funds in the next 2 years could model how to turn it around

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Two months into the new school year — with few quarantines, fewer masks, and the flu and respiratory illness replacing COVID as the biggest health issues — student attendance still lags behind where it was before the pandemic.

Like achievement scores, attendance rates appear unlikely to return to normal without some extra effort and spending. And, as with achievement scores, normal wasn’t that great.

About 16% of students missed nearly a month of school in excused and unexcused absences pre-pandemic. That rate likely doubled in the chaotic 2021-22 school year, an analysis of state chronic absenteeism data shows.

Chronic absences take a severe toll on student achievement, starting as early as kindergarten. And if schools can’t get students back into the classroom regularly, federal COVID relief money spent on tutoring, afterschool programs and new curriculum won’t make much difference.

About 10% of school districts are earmarking part of their federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Refund (ESSER III) funds explicitly to improve attendance. Many others are investing in initiatives, such as family engagement, community schools, mentoring and school climate improvements, that research shows can bring students back to school and keep them coming.

But how can districts sustain these programs after the ESSER money is spent?

The first step is to put funding that districts receive from existing federal programs toward efforts to curb absenteeism. This includes what’s allotted in the Every Student Succeeds Act, such as:

  • Title I, which provides support for high-poverty schools and students, a population more likely to be chronically absent and to lose ground because of missed days than their more affluent peers.
  • Title II, which funds teacher professional development, including training on how to track and respond to student absences.
  • Title IVa, which provides Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to pay for technology to track attendance and school climate initiatives needed to create a welcoming environment.
  • Title IVe, which supports family engagement grants to build the relationships key to getting students to attend school regularly.
  • Title IVf, which provides funding for full-service community schools, a model proven to improve attendance.

The Biden administration has sought to increase the federal investment in education, with proposals for doubling the Title I budget and dramatically increasing the dollars set aside for community schools. But Congress will not necessarily fund these efforts.

Schools can also tap federal programs supporting homeless and foster students and those with disabilities, groups that typically have high rates of chronic absenteeism.

There are also some new sources of money that could help improve attendance. The Safer Communities Act, which Congress approved after the Uvalde school shooting, provides $1 billion in grants for safer and healthier learning environments, with a focus on evidence-based practices. These Stronger Connections grants are intended for high-needs local education agencies, and the criteria include high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Beyond federal dollars, school districts can make the case to their state and local governments that the attendance investments launched with ESSER dollars are worth continuing.

In Fort Worth Independent School District, it’s a matter of financial benefits. The district hired 100 family engagement specialists to ensure students return to school and keep coming regularly. This is particularly important in Texas, where the state funds schools based on average daily attendance rather than one-day enrollment snapshots. The new program resulted in nearly 3,000 students improving their attendance. These family engagement positions cost the district $3.2 million last year, but the increase in daily attendance meant the district received an extra $18.2 million in state funding.

Other places are banking on strong research results to demonstrate the value of their efforts. In Dallas, district leaders are breaking down student test scores by chronic absenteeism rates. And in Connecticut, the state is closely tracking the impact of an ESSER-funded home visiting program, with initial results expected by the end of the year.

Each state also has a service commission that can help provide AmeriCorps workers to serve as mentors and tutors. Local philanthropy can often support stipends for these workers. What’s more, a new public-private project, the National Partnership for Student Success, aims to put 250,000 tutors, mentors and student success coaches into schools.

In the Pittsburgh area, for instance, the Richard King Mellon Foundation donated $2 million to introduce the community schools model to four public schools, to provide attendance clerks at 13 charter schools and to help one school district monitor attendance trends and launch a system of “attendance nudges.”

Likewise, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading considers reducing chronic absenteeism one of the key pillars for ensuring that every child masters reading by the end of third grade. The campaign pulls together cross-sector collaborations in more than 350 communities, which often bring local foundations into the mix.

The need to address student absenteeism didn’t start or end with the pandemic. But the work that school districts do with federal ESSER funds in the next two years could demonstrate how to turn around attendance and persuade public and private funders to keep supporting that work.

A version of this essay originally appeared at the FutureEd site.

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