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SXSW EDU: Focusing on Equity to Address Chronic Absenteeism

Student at a City Year School raises their hand

What does it take to reduce chronic absenteeism? Practices that address educational inequities and ensure students feel seen, heard and valued by their school community show promise, City Year’s District Learning Network will share this spring at one of the largest education conferences of the year, SXSW EDU.

Building equitable practices to improve attendance was a focal point last year for the network, which brings together school district leaders to tackle an issue facing public education by sharing their successes and failures and collaborating to improve schools.

Meralis Hood, executive director of City Year Milwaukee, and network member Dr. Quentina Timoll, assistant superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish Schools in Louisiana, will share some attendance strategies during a talk at SXSW EDU on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Find out more by reading an essay below by Dr. Timoll and other members of the District Learning Network’s 2018-2019 cohort initially published in Sept. 2019.


United by our commitment to address chronic absenteeism, seven of us—all with senior leadership experience in school districts across the country—gathered to share local perspectives and strategize possible solutions to increase student attendance.

Convened by City Year’s District Learning Network—an initiative that brings together leaders from City Year’s partner school districts to develop and refine strategies for improving student outcomes–we set out to explore the root causes of chronic absenteeism.

Based on our decades of combined experience working in schools that experience high rates of chronic absenteeism, we believe that in order to dramatically improve attendance, we must create more equitable and welcoming learning environments where each student can build on their strengths, take ownership of their learning and thrive.

Building equitable learning environments to improve attendance

Chronic absenteeism—defined as missing at least 15 days of school in a year—plagues school districts across the country. The U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reported that more than 7 million students were chronically absent in the 2015-2016 school year. Chronic absence often has adverse consequences for academic achievements and particularly affects children who live in poverty, have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or experience homelessness or housing instability.

There are various causes of chronic absenteeism, many of which are rooted in systemic inequities that shape our institutions and limit access to critical services such as transportation and healthcare, which makes it harder for students to arrive in school on time and ready to learn. We believe that among the largest barriers to attendance are the implicit biases and microaggressions that many students experience in schools. These barriers include school cultures that do not acknowledge and value the diverse cultural, racial and linguistic voices of our students, which can lead students to feel like they’re not seen nor valued as members of their school community.

To increase student engagement and attendance, our experiences have shown that schools should focus on building equitable learning environments for all students—and that strategies must be responsive to local context. Some strategies that we’ve tried include:

1. Using data to illuminate inequities and drive improvement

School districts should adopt data-driven accountability systems. By tracking evidence-based Early Warning Indicators that signal if a student is on track to graduate—specifically in terms of attendance, behavior and course performance—school teams can identify students who need customized support and implement interventions early and often. Further, schools should share attendance data with students and families and engage them in discussions to better understand the resources they need.

In the Sacramento City Unified School District, we used a new early warning system (the Early Identification and Intervention System) to identify students who needed attendance support. Site attendance teams met regularly to review student data, discuss attendance intervention strategies, and identify who would provide the supports.

At subsequent meetings, attendance teams reconvened to study the impact of the interventions and adopt, adjust or abandon the intervention. Coupled with other effective practices, this helped schools like John Cabrillo, Tahoe and Bret Harte Elementary schools reduce their chronic absenteeism rates by up to seven percentage points.

2. Ensuring every student has a positive relationship with an adult at school

Having at least one positive developmental relationship with an adult at school increases student connection to and engagement in school, research shows. Through these relationships, schools can understand the unique perspective, experience and background of each student, ensuring they feel known and valued. To provide the necessary adult capacity for relationship building, we’ve partnered with organizations such as City Year and 100 Black Men.

In Columbus, we established the Senior Success Mentorship Program to help seniors meet attendance and graduation requirements, matching them with volunteer mentors from the community. Mentors build strong, positive relationships; provide guidance and connection to resources; and develop post-graduation action plans with their mentees. Since 2015, the mentorship program has supported over 750 seniors. The average graduation rate over the past four years is 10 percentage points higher for students who participated in the program (88.1%) when compared to the district’s overall graduation rate (78.1%).

three students are working at computers in the library, while an AmeriCorps member works with one of the students

3. Elevating student voice

Students who attend systemically under-resourced schools are often keenly aware of inequities that exist between their schools and others–from a lack of Advanced Placement courses to healthy lunch options. Engaging students and including their voice in decision making through student meetings, student councils and family engagement activities can help increase student investment and improve school culture and climate.

In Milwaukee, we launched a superintendent’s council–a group of students that met monthly with our superintendent. Through direct conversations and surveys, we learned that students are more motivated to attend school when they have access to programs that meet their interests. Based on student input, we implemented advanced placement courses for every high school using telepresence and introduced a variety of programs to increase student motivation, including music, culinary arts and cheerleading.

4. Providing culturally responsive curricula

For all students to feel welcome at school, districts should provide culturally responsive curricula that centers students’ diverse experiences. Teaching that values students’ backgrounds builds on students’ prior knowledge and experiences and empowers them to take ownership of their learning. Culturally responsive teaching also creates environments that are characterized by respect and care, which increases students’ sense of belonging.

In East Baton Rouge, McKinley High School has seen success with Humanities Amped, a student-centered curriculum that integrates current events, social justice issues and civic engagement projects. Last year, participating students conducted 87 action research projects and attended three national conferences, including one at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Data from 2016 and 2017 show that 94% of seniors enrolled in Humanities Amped graduated on time—27% higher than students not enrolled in the program.

5. Eliminating exclusionary discipline practices

By incentivizing attendance improvements, schools can ensure more students remain in school. Research shows that exclusionary discipline disproportionately punishes students of color and does not lead to improved attendance and student outcomes. Schools can move away from harmful, zero-tolerance discipline policies and reduce suspensions and expulsions by investing in training for restorative practices.

The Milwaukee Community Schools Partnership uses restorative practices to improve school climate in 10 schools. This approach helps students own their mistakes, make it right for those they hurt, and involve the community in helping both victim and offender. By introducing restorative conversations and community-building circles, students learn how to resolve conflict, problem solve and build healthy relationships. Students have also begun to lead restorative practice groups, further elevating student voice and agency.

Our vision for student success

There is no one-size-fits all approach to address chronic absenteeism, but we’ve learned that it’s critical to create environments where students feel safe, supported and have opportunities to thrive. This requires asking for and listening to student input on what matters to them and addressing the obstacles that make it hard for many students to come to school. When we start to listen to our students, our families and our communities we will see a different outcome—one where they feel valued and engaged. As educators, we must be willing to try new approaches, share strategies, and move beyond the status quo to ensure student success.


The co-authors are all members of City Year’s 2018-2019 District Learning Network convened by City Year and in partnership with external facilitators Bryan Hassel, Co-President of Public Impact and Virgel Hammonds, Chief Learning Officer for KnowledgeWorks:

Tonya Adair is the chief impact officer for United Way for Southeastern Michigan and former chief innovation officer of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Dr. Hilaria Bauer is the superintendent of Alum Rock Union Elementary School District.

Marvin Burton is the associate superintendent for high schools at Little Rock School District.

Rodney Harrelson is an education consultant and former chief innovation and improvement officer of Columbus City Schools.

Doug Huscher is the assistant superintendent of student support services at Sacramento City Unified School District.

Dr. Richard Rhodes is an education consultant and former assistant superintendent of School District of Philadelphia.

Dr. Quentina Timoll is the assistant superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish Schools.

Learn more about how the District Learning Network is approaching equity in schools and its newest cohort of school district leaders

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