Strategies for Reducing Student Absenteeism in Philadelphia
Publication date: August 2020
Authors: Rachel Comly, Jason Fontana, and Anna Shaw-Amoah
In Philadelphia, almost one in three (31.8%) students were chronically absent from school during the 2015-16 school year. This chronic absenteeism rate was nearly twice the national average of 16% and the third highest among cities with at least 500,000 residents. Even higher numbers of Philadelphia’s students classify as “truant” or “habitually truant” from school. Despite positive signs of improvement in recent years, far too many students do not attend school for long periods of time.
All School District of Philadelphia (SDP) schools have set clear goals associated with improving student attendance. Yet in the District’s 2018-19 School Support Census, nearly 90% of principals or school leaders reported that their schools need support to reach these goals. Over a quarter of leaders in those schools ranked attendance and truancy as their school’s most critical need.
Solutions to absenteeism are not one-size-fits-all. The root causes of truancy can vary substantially, and identifying the right strategies to address them should involve input from all stakeholders. This brief opens with an outline of the current attendance policies in PA and the School District of Philadelphia. Summarized below, the brief then goes on to discuss common barriers to attendance and provide a range of potential solutions that Philadelphia students, parents, teachers, district office staff and school and community leaders can consider as they work together to reduce absenteeism.
Barriers to Student Attendance
Identifying the underlying barriers to consistent attendance can inform appropriate prevention and intervention strategies. Barriers to attendance can be related to the individual child, the child’s parent/family, the child’s peers, the school, and the larger community:
Child factors include physical and mental health, grade retention, extensive work hours outside of school, and trauma.
Parent/family factors include family mental health and substance use disorders, homelessness, poverty, family responsibilities, family conflict, family transitions, and family relationships with school and school personnel.
Peer factors include bullying, peer pressure, and low levels of participation in extracurricular activities.
School factors include school climate, teacher attendance, attendance monitoring, policies and consequences, inadequate, irrelevant, or tedious curricula, student-teacher relationships, and school-based racism and discrimination.
Community factors include neighborhood safety, available transportation and walking routes, economic factors, social and educational support services, and structural and environmental barriers (e.g., unemployment rate, poverty rate, racial segregation index, and population change).
Strategies to Reducing Student Absenteeism
Because absenteeism can be caused by a range of factors and varies by grade, individual schools can tailor attendance supports to overcome specific attendance barriers to effectively reduce absenteeism. Common strategies fall into six overarching categories:
Community Awareness Campaigns - These campaigns often include public service announcements, publicly posted advertisements, and distribution of informational materials that highlight the benefits of attendance and consequences of absenteeism and have demonstrated promise in supporting a culture of attendance.
Robust Attendance Monitoring and Data Use - Consistent and effective attendance monitoring practices at the school level are those that seek to understand barriers to attendance, connect students and families to necessary services, and ensure that students understand that presence or absence is noticed.
Family Engagement – Schools can engage with families to understand the factors that may challenge attendance and to inform families about attendance policies and issues.
Relationship-Building – Ensuring that students have strong, trusting relationships with adults and with other students is an important strategy for improving school attendance
Reliable and Safe School Transportation – Students with reliable and safe methods of getting to school have been found to have higher attendance.
Community-wide Coordination – Community-based organizations, local government agencies, and individual schools can all play a role in a community-wide effort to mitigate complex variety of barriers to attendance.
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