How My School Is Fighting the Surge in Chronic Absenteeism (Opinion)

As a current principal, I have noticed that one of the most underdiscussed challenges in returning to in-person learning has been chronically absenteeism. Although the issue of chronic absenteeism is not new in K-12 education, we need a new way of addressing it in the aftermath of pandemic disruptions. A new way that I have found successful is leveraging culturally responsive school leadership. I will be sharing what I did specifically, how I did it, and what other principals can do moving forward.

Along with the typical day-to-day demands as a school principal, I have wrestled with the complex nature of addressing the level of student disconnect and disengagement since the return to in-person learning. In my school, this disengagement has manifested as chronic absenteeism, which is defined in my state as a student missing 10 percent or more of the school year.

Since the return to in-person learning, schools have experienced an uptick in chronic absenteeism from prior years. I refer to this as post-pandemic chronic absenteeism. Nationally, Black students were already disproportionately more likely to be chronically absent than white students before the pandemic, and this gap has only grown. Deep-rooted historical inequities in K-12 education often leave Black students feeling disconnected and disengaged from their schools. In my school, where more than 4 out of 5 students are Black, this troubling disparity prompted me to take a more targeted approach to absenteeism.

Before the pandemic, I had taken a traditional approach of monitoring student attendance, meeting with students who have missed five or more days of school, and developing standard intervention plans for those students to prevent them from being chronically absent.

This school year, I decided that our traditional approach needed to be coupled with behaviors and practices that not only responded to the needs of all students but also eliminated racial disparities in chronic absenteeism by more specifically evaluating and affirming the cultural identities of my students.

This new approach was informed by culturally responsive school leadership, a set of leadership behaviors and practices that seek to validate and affirm the cultural identities of all students through four broad domains: self-reflection, instructional leadership, promoting inclusive environments, and community engagement. I was first introduced to culturally responsive practices through the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, which then led me to the work of Christopher Emdin, Bettina Love, and Muhammad Khalifa.

At the start of this school year, my school’s equity team of teacher leaders and I focused exclusively on promoting an inclusive environment to address disconnect and disengagement as the root causes of chronic absenteeism. Promoting inclusive environments involves creating welcoming school cultures that are affirming of all students.

We first conducted listening audits and focus groups with students to leverage their voices to capture their feedback for how we could make them feel more connected to the school. The process revealed that we needed to exercise more empathy for our students. We also learned that our building aesthetics—including classroom decorations, inspirational signage, and décor around campus—needed to better reflect the cultural identities of our students.

Instead of recognizing and rewarding just those that made perfect attendance quarterly, we recognized any student who demonstrated progress or improved attendance.

Next, when we returned to school after winter break, we revamped our attendance incentives to recognize a broader range of students. Instead of recognizing and rewarding just those that made perfect attendance quarterly, we recognized any student who demonstrated progress or improved attendance. This allowed us to engage more than 350 students who would otherwise have gone unrecognized for their progress in attendance and would have become further disengaged.

At the same time, we revamped our disciplinary practices to note the culturally subjective nature of conduct infractions that entail “defiance and disruption.” Historically, these two categories of offenses have been subjectively defined by educators.

Cultural norms inform interactions between culturally contrasting groups daily in schools, often creating a disconnect when students behave in ways that reflect acceptable cultural norms and values ​​in their communities and homes but conflict with the values ​​and norms of the dominant culture in school held by educators. Without greater cultural competence, educators too often interpret this cultural incongruence as students being defiant and disruptive.

Instead of taking a prescriptive approach with automatic suspension as a response, our school committed to bridging these cultural disconnects with restorative practices. This change decreased our rate of out-of-school suspensions—a significant contributing factor to chronic absenteeism—by more than half.

I have learned that promoting inclusive environments through culturally responsive school leadership alone can make students feel connected, engaged, and valued. I hope that my fellow principals explore creative ways to infuse these leadership approaches to not only address post-pandemic chronic absenteeism but its root causes as well.

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