Jordan: What LeBron James Can Teach Us About Chronic Absenteeism — and What Schools Can Do About It

LeBron James addresses the media after the opening ceremonies of the I Promise School on July 30, 2018 in Akron, Ohio. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Amid the fanfare over the public school that NBA star LeBron James opened last year in Akron, Ohio, came a poignant interview acknowledging a problem he faced as a student: chronic absenteeism. Moving from home to home with his mother, living across town from his school with no car or bus route to get him there, James missed 83 days in fourth grade.

“Anytime I would show up at school, the teachers would tell my mom, ‘He’s one of the best students that we have. We just hope that he can show up more.’ We just couldn’t do it at that point in time,” James recounted.

James’s experience underscores the barriers that many students face in getting to school every day. Unreliable transportation, poor health and the churn that comes with unstable housing can keep many students, especially those from low-income communities, out of class. His story has a happy ending, with caring adults helping him turn around his absenteeism and succeed academically. But many chronically absent students never connect with anyone at school and end up failing classes and dropping out.

Given the strong link between regular attendance and graduation rates, the federal government is now requiring states to report on chronic absenteeism levels at every school. In addition, 36 states and the District of Columbia have begun using the attendance metric in their accountability rubrics for assessing schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

That means education policymakers and practitioners need solutions to a problem that affects nearly 8 million students from pre-K through 12th grade nationwide. They’re looking for proven, research-based strategies that can be adapted to state and local circumstances and implemented quickly and cost-effectively under ESSA’s deadlines.

James’s story offers some clues as to how that can be done, with interventions that help students overcome barriers to getting to school and that create a supportive, welcoming culture that makes children want to come every day.

The first step is to make sure students and families know the importance of attendance and are engaged with their school. “School didn’t mean anything to me, obviously, back then…” James recalled in a news conference. “It was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school.”

Students are considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of the school year. In most districts, that’s 18 days, or about two days a month. Some parents don’t realize how quickly that adds up.

Many schools send letters and texts letting parents know how many days their children have missed so far. Others are developing message campaigns with billboards, robocalls and slogans like Cleveland’s “Get 2 School. You Can Make It.” Or they’re creating incentives, ranging from an attendance bulletin board for kindergartners to classroom competitions in high school.  Another proven approach is sending teachers to visit students and families at home. This gives educators a stronger connection with parents and a sense of the challenges students face.

These challenges can often determine whether kids attend school on a regular basis. Some, like James, have no reliable or safe way to get to school. Others suffer from asthma or other chronic conditions that keep them home sick. Some are too embarrassed to come to class with dirty clothes.

Schools and districts are deploying a range of interventions to help students overcome these barriers. That can take the form of a campaign to deliver flu shots, a telehealth program to reach remote areas or a program teaching children how to manage their asthma. It can mean providing free transit passes or creating safer walking routes for students who encounter dangerous traffic or violence in their neighborhoods on their way to school. Some schools are using rideshare services developed specifically for children. Others are installing washers and dryers to make sure students have clean clothes.

One of the most successful strategies is assigning mentors to students who are missing too much school. In James’s case, it’s easy to imagine basketball coaches taking a particular interest in a talented young player. In schools across the country, community volunteers, school staff members and older students are building connections with at-risk kids and helping them improve attendance.

These connections are part of broader efforts to improve school climate and create a sense of belonging for students. Essentially, the drive to reduce absenteeism aligns with the movement to promote the social and emotional aspects of learning.

A warm greeting at the door by a teacher or principal can help families feel welcome. So can restorative practices that allow students to talk through problems or conflicts. Youth engagement programs that focus on managing emotions or regulating behavior are connected to strong gains in attendance.

Ultimately, the best strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism are also steps that improve the educational experience of all students. Instruction that’s more relevant to students’ lives is important not only for encouraging them to come to class but also for promoting academic achievement. A welcoming school climate can bring more students to school on a regular basis, and it can mitigate the trauma in many students’ lives. Stronger bonds between students and teachers are associated not just with good attendance but also with student success.

Phyllis W. Jordan is editorial director of FutureEd, an independent, nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. She is the author of Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism, released by FutureEd and Attendance Works.

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