Tackling Chronic Absenteeism Is a Crucial Investment in the Future

Our guest authors are Kate Suchomel, the Lead Development & Communications Officer, and Jim Davnie, Executive Director, of the Minnesota Alliance With Youth.

This week, Minnesota Alliance With Youth had the opportunity to engage in conversations at the White House around addressing the issue of chronic absenteeism in our schools. At the “Every Day Counts Summit: Addressing Chronic Absenteeism and Increasing Student Engagement," Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden, along with state Governors and local leaders, highlighted the many efforts to increase student attendance and engagement and help students come to school every day.

The Alliance was invited to participate and share successes from our AmeriCorps Promise Fellow collaboration with the Check & Connect Student Engagement program in Minneapolis middle and high schools- a long standing collaboration that has resulted in significant attendance gains for Minneapolis students (the results of which are highlighted as a district-level example in the new Digital Backpack of Resources to Address Chronic Absenteeism in Your Community released by the National Partnership for Student Success).

Chronic absenteeism has become a critical issue for K-12 schools across the country, and Minnesota is struggling with exceptionally elevated rates in recent years. Statewide data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates a dramatic increase in the percentage of Minnesota schools with high or extreme chronic absenteeism, rising from 34% in 2017/18 to a staggering 71% during the 2021/22 school year.

Missing school means missing out on much more than a few days of classroom instruction. The consequences of chronic absenteeism are far-reaching, impacting student learning, engagement, and the likelihood of on-time high school graduation. And, while all student groups have seen an increase in absenteeism over the past few years, young people from low-income backgrounds, Indigenous communities, and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by chronic absenteeism.

A multitude of factors contribute to students missing school, including family-, school-, community-, or student-specific factors. Students in younger grades are more likely to miss school due to family or caregiver circumstances, while older students are more likely to be absent due to student and school factors, such as disengagement, fear of bullying, and low academic performance. Individual negative or unsupportive experiences with school can also be a contributing factor. For example, a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that “disparities in school absence due to safety concerns may be due, in part, to greater exposure to violence victimization and interpersonal violence at school experienced by sexual minority students than by their heterosexual peers.”

While the issue is complex and requires a multi-pronged approach, schools across Minnesota are deploying effective solutions to improve student engagement and reduce chronic absenteeism. As a convener and collaboration in the education space, Minnesota Alliance With Youth sought to highlight these effective solutions in order to address chronic absenteeism and compiled the most promising work through our recently released report: "Chronic Absenteeism: A National and Local Challenge

While not an exhaustive list, the following approaches being implemented in Minnesota schools and districts are having a positive impact on school attendance and deserve attention:

Positive School Climate/Multi-Tiered System of Supports: Aitkin Public School District in North Central Minnesota utilizes Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) programming districtwide to address the growth and achievement of students. Their District Strategic Plan prioritizes several critical areas of growth, including Student Growth and Achievement, Student Development and Support, and Safe Learning Environments. According to Aitkin Public Schools Superintendent, "Our district has taken a team approach to work within our MTSS framework to not only focus on academics, but to also build relationships with students across the board. We know and believe that students who have positive relationships within their school will do better both academically and socially. Currently, the priority areas are data and student support, with staff intervening by building relationships with our chronically absent students.” The district’s robust MTSS framework has led to promising results; Aitkin Secondary’s graduation rate in 2022 was 86%, with an additional 6% continuing their education to pursue high school graduation in more than 4 years (compared to the state average graduation rate of 83.6% with 7.8% continuing.

Data-Driven Early Warning Systems: In Northfield, Healthy Communities Initiative (HCI) “identifies objectives, develops systems to collect meaningful program data, implements evaluations to measure impact, and produces data-driven evaluation reports for stakeholders and funders.” The initiative supports the TORCH program, which supports and empowers students in graduating from high school and pursuing future goals, with an intentional focus on partnering with Northfield’s students of color, youth from low income families, and first-generation college attendees. TORCH staff work with students to improve their education outcomes through grade checks and goal setting, tutoring and homework help, push-in support, and college and career exploration. In 2022, an astounding 98% of TORCH program seniors graduated on time, and overall, Northfield High School reported a 95.9% graduation rate.

AmeriCorps Promise Fellows: Increased Caring Adults and Mentors: A 2022 independent study of Minnesota Alliance With Youth’s own AmeriCorps Promise Fellow program, a caring adult intervention program based on the Early Warning System, showed significant attendance gains for students served by Promise Fellows. The program implements evidence-based interventions in three areas: Caring Adults, Service and Service-Learning, and Out of School Time Supports. Activities range from phone calls home when the student is absent to homework help, class push-in support in key subject areas, lunchtime small groups, to connections to after-school activities and clubs. The study found that, on average, students that participated in the program attended an additional week, or roughly five days of school, relative to students that did not participate in the program. Some student groups saw even greater increases–as much as two or more weeks of attendance gain, a substantial increase that can reverse a student’s absenteeism trajectory.

Check and Connect Model: Check & Connect was developed at the University of Minnesota in partnership with the Minneapolis School District in 1990. The district uses the Check & Connect model in partnership with a team of AmeriCorps Promise Fellows and full-time Check & Connect monitors to build strong relationships with each student. The monitors implement supports to keep students involved in their education, monitor grades, credits and attendance, offer academic support, and facilitate collaboration between the school, home and community services to ensure educational success. Research on the model has shown that students served through the Check & Connect model experience increases in attendance, persistence in school, increased accrual of credits, and higher school completion rates.

Chronic student absenteeism is the result of a number of complex and interconnected barriers facing students and families, and necessitates a proactive and comprehensive response. By investing in targeted solutions that address the underlying causes of absenteeism, we are not just improving attendance rates; we are fostering an environment where every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential. This investment goes beyond the classroom walls, contributing to the development of well-rounded, educated individuals who are engaged in their school environments and will contribute positively to our communities. The benefits of tackling chronic absenteeism extend far into a student’s life, including into the broader social and economic realms, making it not only a wise but a crucial investment for the future of our schools, students, and society. Schools, districts, communities, and legislative bodies must prioritize and support successful initiatives like these that ensure every child has the chance to learn, grow, and thrive in their educational journey.


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