Tackling Chronic Absenteeism through Continuous Improvement

Three districts discuss how Proving Ground helped them gain back instructional days.

Like many districts nationwide, Syracuse City School District in New York was challenged by chronic absenteeism. With over 8,000 students missing one month of school or more in a single school year, the district had a few hypotheses for why their students weren’t consistently coming to school. After launching a number of tactics to move the needle on student attendance, Syracuse called for a closer examination of their strategies.

Meanwhile, two groups in Ohio faced similar attendance problems. Roughly 60% of students in East Cleveland City Schools were chronically absent, a contributing factor to the district’s third straight “F” on the Ohio School Report Card. Neighboring Maple Heights High School battled chronic absenteeism as well and assumed that because the high school only offered transportation to some students with special needs (whereas K-8 students in the district who lived over two miles away did receive busing services), their attendance problems were linked to the lack of busing.

A complicated issue with a constellation of causes, chronic absenteeism has serious implications for students. Students with higher rates of absenteeism in Syracuse, for example, were shown to have lower test scores in both math and English. And while leaders often recognize the urgency in addressing this issue, many school leaders struggle to know where to start.

While leaders in Syracuse, East Cleveland, and Maple Heights all faced seemingly unique challenges, the first step in solving the problem would be the same for all three groups—these districts needed to understand the root causes of their attendance problems.

Proving Ground uses an evidence-based continuous improvement process to quickly trace a problem to its roots then implement efficient and impactful solutions. “Before doing this kind of root cause analysis,” noted Shay Price, Maple Heights High School Principal, “a lot of energy was going into this idea that if we just had buses for our high school students, absenteeism would improve. But after we got our historical analysis and did the root cause analysis with Proving Ground, we saw that most of the students who were majorly absent lived within two miles of the school or closer. We really saw the danger in making assumptions about a problem’s cause.

After providing Proving Ground with 3-4 years of longitudinal data, leaders in East Cleveland also hoped for helpful insights.“The reasons for chronic absenteeism in our schools run a gamut,” noted Tom Domzalski, Director of Data Research and Assessment at East Cleveland City Schools. “We saw a range of causes from lack of awareness and lack of infrastructure in the home to fragile medical or trauma-filled situations.” However, Proving Ground was able to reveal spikes in absenteeism in Kindergarten and 9th grade, giving East Cleveland an opportunity to focus their efforts.

Leaders in Syracuse had conducted a root cause analysis prior to their work with Proving Ground to test their hypotheses for student absences. Patterns of absenteeism in this district were pervasive, with high rates in grades K-1, middle school, and high school. With data, these leaders linked student absences to certain geographic areas (students on the west side of the district tended toward more absences) as well as personal situations (homeless students were almost 24 percentage points higher in chronic absenteeism.)

Once these districts better understood the nature of chronic absenteeism of their students, the next step was to envision what high-yield, low-investment interventions could look like. In short, they looked for the low-hanging fruit.

In Maple Heights, they decided to increase awareness of the importance of attendance in parents through robocalls. “Many parents don’t realize how absences add up in terms of loss of instruction,” said Meghan Shelby, the district’s Director of Special Pupil Services. “So we devised a plan to reach out to parents via phone once a student missed three days of school in a school year.” While this simple intervention wouldn’t likely move the needle for the school’s most chronically absent students, the school did see success in increasing attendance for a subset of students who simply didn’t realize the value of consistent attendance.

Syracuse City School District, who already had a background in digging into root causes, was surprised when Proving Ground revealed that a widely-supported intervention didn’t, in the end, work. “Home visits were something we had done for years in our district, so we continued to make them to tackle chronic absenteeism in the first year of our partnership with Proving Ground,” explained Nicole Brec, District Data Liaison in Syracuse. A heavy lift for those involved, these home visits took place over the summer and targeted the previous year’s chronically absent students. “The way Proving Ground helped us monitor the data for this intervention allowed us to determine that the intervention wasn’t yielding the results we wanted or needed.”

Thus, Syracuse changed course and developed an awareness campaign similar to that of Maple Heights, sending postcards to the families of students in grades K-2. “The postcards were low effort, but high impact,” continued Nicole. “When a student missed a day of school, the teacher would send a postcard home by mail. We were surprised to see the impact postcards could have on attendance.”

For these three districts, tackling chronic absenteeism was not a small hill to climb. “The greatest impact of our work with Proving Ground was learning how to think critically and creatively about the problems we face and their causes,” said Henry Pettiegrew II, East Cleveland’s CEO and Superintendent. “At the time, our district was data rich but information poor. We’d look at the data and admire the problem, try some things, then admire the problem again. What Proving Ground did was give us a framework for thinking critically about the problem and finding solutions that were as high impact and low effort as possible.

Because of this framework, these districts, among many others in the Proving Ground network, are moving the needle on chronic absenteeism across the country. East Cleveland quickly devised and executed two effective messaging interventions: postcards to parents of elementary students and robocalls for secondary students. Maple Heights also saw success with robocalls, and Syracuse improved their attendance through postcards, energy-bill-style letters and, later, mentorships. Working together with Proving Ground, districts in the Proving Ground network have saved a total of 154,000 instructional days.

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