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N.Y.C.'s Efforts to Reduce Absences Also Boosted Grades, Study Finds

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School leaders can implement all of the shiny, time-tested, research-based interventions they want, but none of those efforts will make a bit of difference to a student who is never actually in the classroom.

The effects of chronic absenteeism are pretty well known to educators. But a new study that explores the effectiveness of an aggressive New York City effort to get kids back in the classroom shows just how big of a difference attendance makes in academic achievement and student discipline. Calling New York's interagency efforts a model for other cities, the study by the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University school of education also found that some of the simplest strategies, like mentoring and evaluating attendance data, can make the biggest difference.

Nationally, many schools do a poor job of tracking chronic student absences, which is surprising because of their obvious impact on classroom performance. Many schools may not realize the extent of the problem because high rates of average daily attendance, the most common measure, often mask small groups of students who are missing repeated days for social, behavioral or family reasons, the study said.

"The extent of chronic absenteeism and its impacts, particularly in communities that educate large numbers of low‐income students, are so great that educators and policymakers cannot truly understand achievement and graduation gaps or evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to close them without factoring in the role of chronic absenteeism. This is because far too often the very students we are trying to help are not in school regularly enough to adequately receive the intervention being implemented and measured. Moreover, there is also clear evidence that, especially during early and mid‐adolescence, chronically absent students are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system."

The study measured the effects of the work of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism & School Engagement between 2010 and 2013. That group "connected dots" between district leaders and community organizations to help drive down numbers of students who were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent of class days, or more than 20 days in an academic year.

Tested schools collected more nuanced attendance data related to the attendance patterns of individual students. That data was used to flag students at risk of chronic absenteeism, and it was incorporated into progress reports and accountability metrics used to measure the overall success of a school.

Strategies the group employed to boost class time included mentoring; connecting students to community resources to aid them with social problems that may contribute to absences, like poverty and health; making "rapid responses" to every absence, usually a phone call home, to show students school leaders were paying attention; providing gift cards to places like Starbucks as incentives for improved attendance; and staging a citywide awareness campaign that included advertisements and wake-up calls recorded by celebrities and role models to about 30,000 students. Celebrities included Magic Johnson, Yankees players, and John Legend.  (Sadly, Beyoncé is not among them.)

Those strategies were piloted in 25 schools the first year, 50 schools in year two, and 100 schools with over 60,000 students in year three. Pilot schools were matched with comparison schools to test the effectiveness of strategies. The key elements of those strategies are being rolled out to schools beyond the pilot this year.

And those schools were fertile ground for testing new strategies. In the 2012-13 pilot schools and in demographically similar schools set aside for comparison, 40 percent of chronically absent students had been considered chronically absent for at least four consecutive academic years, missing an average of 194 days of school (the equivalent of an entire school year!) between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years, the study said.

Researchers found students with mentors showed the biggest attendance gains, gaining an average of about two weeks of class days over the year researchers measured their baseline attendance levels. Students in poverty, a high risk group for absences, were 15 percent less likely to be chronically absent at tested schools than at control group schools, the study found, and students in temporary shelters were 31 percent less likely to miss class than their peers who did not receive the interventions.

And improved attendance also led to improved grades, the study found:

"Students who become chronically absent see declines in average GPA (from 72% to 67%, dropping from a C to a D) while those who exit chronic absenteeism see improvement (from 72% to 73%), a statistically significant difference given that these are cumulative GPAs which are harder to move. GPAs of students who continue to not be chronically absent continue to improve in the second year after exiting chronic absenteeism."

The report is packed with all kinds of other data and well worth a read for those interested in the impacts of attendance issues and the effects of collaborative interventions.

Researchers point to strengths of the New York effort they say could be modeled in other school systems: strong use and sharing of data; Bloomberg's leadership, which made the issue a priority for all involved; and cooperation between public and private groups.

Any measure of success in a school system the size of New York is worth studying. It would be interesting to see similar strategies employed in a smaller school system. More information about New York's efforts is available on this website. And maybe other cities could recruit some new celebrities for their wake-up calls. (Did I mention Beyoncé?)

Photo: An advertisement created by the Ad Council to promote school attendance in New York City.

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