Stop Blame Game, Keep an Open Mind: Alaska District Fights Chronic Absenteeism

Educator's view: Implementing technology and personalized learning, ending expulsions and working with families help keep students in class & engaged.

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Almost every school in the U.S. is struggling with an absenteeism epidemic that was brought on by the pandemic, but is continuing for reasons that are often beyond a district’s control.

For any district, it’s difficult keeping students engaged all school year. However, when those students are spread out in 48 schools across an area the size of West Virginia, the challenge of ensuring continuity of learning feels even more overwhelming.

During the 2021-22 school year, half of the students in my district, Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District were chronically absent, requiring educators to jump into action so students could remain connected and on track to a successful future. By thinking creatively and merging policy changes with innovative ed tech solutions, educators can confidently help every student succeed, no matter where and how they learn.

First, we realized we had to stop the blame game and keep an open mind. The reasons behind attendance problems are as diverse as the students the district serves, and because of its location, Mat-Su has its own, unique issues. For instance, Alaska’s vast geography means that student athletes may be away at games three or four days out of the school week, and families often travel, hunt or camp for a week or two at a time. In addition, transportation constraints are an ongoing problem, as are inclement conditions ranging from snowstorms to earthquakes.

Until the pandemic, the district operated with the same attendance policy that had been on the books since the 1990s: Students with 10 unexcused absences a semester were immediately unenrolled. This essentially closed the doors on the young people who needed support the most — those with learning difficulties, instability at home and social, emotional and mental health concerns.

Today, online learning platforms offer the district a holistic view of each student’s grades, behavior and attendance, allowing school staff to easily identify red flags in attendance and use the data to prompt discussions with families and caregivers. Building these relationships has allowed the district to analyze the root causes of absenteeism and intervene with personalized solutions attuned to each student’s needs. 

Whether connecting families to wraparound resources that address mental health, transportation or trauma-related issues or working with staff and teachers to create a hybrid environment that allows students to learn both virtually and in person, the district strives to prevent a few absences from evolving into a chronic problem. We also no longer unenroll a student after 10 absences, but instead bring the family and stakeholders together to coordinate care in the event of a crisis.

Second, in its mission to ensure no student falls through the cracks, the district has taken a collaborative approach, developed by teachers, support staff and administrators, to clearly define learning standards and construct relationship-centered educational environments. This brings everyone together so we’re all on the same page.

Since the pandemic, the district has shifted away from the Carnegie Unit, which conflates time and learning, toward a more personalized, adaptive and mastery-based, standards-based system. While credits and grades are still identifiers of student progress, they’re no longer the primary criteria for evaluation. Educators have established standards in all subjects to ensure students’ mastery of knowledge and skills before they can progress to the next lesson. Through a combination of one-on-one instruction and virtual learning, teachers can help students revisit and hit learning targets they may have missed. As technology evolves, educators are working in sync to provide students with the academic support they need.

In addition, every high school student is enrolled in the district’s 4Cs program, which helps support their Credit, Career, College and Community Goals. Students are assigned an adult mentor who works with their teachers, counselors and families to help foster their success and growth. They also participate in weekly goal-setting and spend class each week working on reading, writing and mathematical skills. Because connectedness is a driver of regular school attendance, these relationships have been critical in engaging students in their schools.

Third, the district is integrating ed tech to align education with how and where a student learns best and to make sure that those learning from home because of transportation issues, illness or injury will receive the same enriching experiences as their peers in the classroom. 

All 19,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade receive Chromebooks loaded with educational tools that build on what they’re learning during the school day. In addition, the district has helped close learning gaps through guided online tutorials and the Academy of Blended Learning Education program, which assists with credit recovery for juniors and seniors. Taking full advantage of technology has been especially beneficial for rural schools that often have a smaller staff, fewer courses and higher absenteeism than their suburban and urban counterparts closer to the Anchorage metropolitan area.

Watching chronic absenteeism rates soar across the U.S. is incredibly disheartening for educators who want nothing more than to see students thrive. Until there’s a miracle solution that fixes every transportation issue, controls the weather and cures all illnesses, students will always be absent. It’s up to districts to move from penalizing students for missing school for reasons beyond their control to mitigating the impact of chronic absenteeism on their academic success. 

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