Chronic Absenteeism, Poverty and How Community Schools Can Help

Guest blog by Nicole Mader, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School.

All school leaders know that children have to be in school to learn, but fewer are aware that their school's rate of chronic absenteeism can reveal a wealth of information about the school and the community around it. Our new report Building a Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About NYC's Lowest-Income Elementary Schools, demonstrates that schools with persistently high rates of chronic absenteeism face, on average, a higher burden of community- and school-level risks such as child maltreatment, homelessness and teacher turnover. In this way, chronic absenteeism serves as a powerful warning sign to help identify schools and families with the greatest need.

A student is considered chronically absent if she misses more than 10% of a school year, or about one day every two weeks. Missing that much school can have a lasting, detrimental impact on her academic achievement as well as that of her classmates, even in the early grades. While the consequences of chronic absenteeism are clear, the causes are many and varied. To turn around chronic absenteeism at a school, its leaders need to be able to sleuth out the root of the problem. At some schools, the problem may be rooted in the school environment, such as a culture of bullying, punitive discipline or low expectations, and armed with that knowledge a school can work to turn that around. But at other schools, poor attendance stems from larger issues that schools need help identifying and addressing so that all kids can come to school ready to learn.

Traditionally, schools receive additional support such as Title I dollars when enough of their students meet the income threshold to qualify for free or reduced lunch. The Center's research found that this metric fails to capture the volume and nature of the challenges that many schools in New York City face. To dig deeper, we looked at a variety of neighborhood and school-level risk factors commonly mentioned in the academic literature. We matched up school catchment zones with their respective census tracts and analyzed responses from the 2007-2010 American Community Survey, internal data from the NYC Administration for Children's Services, and publicly available data from the Department for Homeless Service and the NYC Housing Authority. We layered in data from the city and state education departments on students, teachers and school climate. We found that the following 18 variables were strong predictors of both Common Core test scores and chronic absenteeism.

1. Students eligible for free lunch (2012-13)
2. Students known to be in temporary housing (2012-13)
3. Students eligible for welfare benefits from the Human Resources Administration (2012-13)
4. Special education students (2012-13)
5. Black or Hispanic students (2012-13)
6. Principal turnover (2008-2013)
7. Teacher turnover (2011-12)
8. Student turnover (2010-11)
9. Student suspensions (2011-12)
10. Safety score on the Learning Environment Survey (2012-13)
11. Engagement score on the Learning Environment Survey (2012-13)

12. Involvement with the Administration for Children's Services (2010)
13. Poverty rate (2010)
14. Adult education levels (2010)
15. Professional employment (2010)
16. Male unemployment (2010)
17. Presence of public housing in a school's catchment (2011)
18. Presence of a homeless shelter in a school's catchment (2011)

This full range of data paints a better picture of poverty than any one indicator on its own. To illustrate, the school with the highest free lunch rate out of all 748 elementary and K-8 schools in our dataset, PS 291, faces only a somewhat high "Risk Load" with above average figures in nine of the above factors. Another elementary school in the Bronx, PS 42, has a slightly lower free lunch rate but has above average numbers in all 18 factors. It should come as no surprise, then, that test scores at PS 291 are almost four times as high as test scores at PS 42. At a school facing such a tremendous number of challenges, it requires more than rewards for good attendance or calls home to parents to turn chronic absenteeism and test scores around. It requires mobilizing all the assets within that community to engage families, support their health and well-being and provide enrichment and academic help for all ages.

This is the logic of Mayor Bill de Blasio's new School Renewal Program, under which 94 schools will receive $150 million to extend their school hours, offer academically focused summer programs and become community schools. This represents a dramatic shift from the Bloomberg administration, which dramatically cut school-community ties through increased school choice and over 160 school closures. De Blasio's desire to rebuild those ties and meet the needs of these schools and their families is supported by a growing body of research. The 94 Renewal schools join 45 new community schools selected from a city competition earlier this year and would place New York City on the map as the largest system of community schools in the nation.

But with the eyes of community school advocates and critics around the country looking to de Blasio's initiative, it will be important to get this right. Expert community school partner organizations like the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park and the Children's Aid Society will tell you that they are most successful at schools where principals, teachers, parents want to do this work with them. You cannot force it upon them, nor can you see the payoff of their collective efforts in only two or three years. Schools in de Blasio's first batch of 45 community schools were chosen amongst hundreds of applicants who want to do this work. By contrast, the 94 Renewal Schools will have this work foisted upon them, and will be subject to increased oversight and accountability that could still end in school closure if no improvements are made in three years.

If a school really wants to meet the needs of its students and families enough to raise student achievement, it needs more than additional funding. It has to be willing to share its building, time, resources, and leadership with others and embrace a completely different vision of what schools can and should accomplish.

For new and developing community schools, turning the dial down on chronic absenteeism can be a proving ground for more systemic, community-level change. This is why it is one of the short-term indicators in the Coalition's Framework for Student Success. A school-family-community partnership that is able to identify chronically absent students, coordinate strategies to get them coming to school more, and track improvement over time is building the essential foundation needed to achieve more far-reaching goals.