Perspective | AttendaNCe Counts: Personalized early outreach improves regular attendance

Midway Elementary School principal Robbin Cooper believes that attendance challenges are best solved by intentionally engaging parents as partners.

She’s right. Approaching early stage chronic absence as a problem to be solved in partnership among children, families, and school staff has been shown to be effective. Providing personalized early outreach is one of five Attendance Works best practices to help schools and communities develop targeted strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism.

This is the fourth in a series of monthly perspectives to highlight connections between those five best practices and a report published in the fall by the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) in partnership with EdNC.org — AttendaNCe Counts: How Schools and Local Communities are Reducing Chronic Absence in North Carolina. The perspective series aims to support local schools and community organizations in identifying where they need support and developing the interventions that are most appropriate to their student populations and community needs.

Check out our previous posts on engaging students and parents, monitoring data to boost attendance, and the importance of celebrating attendance.

School and community perspectives

The report surveyed 1,500 North Carolina parents, preschool staff, elementary school staff, volunteers, and community providers who shared their impressions of their local attendance policies and practices. Respondents rated their schools’ policies and practices (strength, OK for now, could be better, or urgent gap) on two questions related to provide personalized early outreach to students and their families.

  • Family Engagement: Our school staff reaches out to families and engages them as partners in problem-solving.
  • School District Policy: Our school district attendance policies promote taking a problem-solving approach that includes all staff, students, families and partners at our school.

Family Engagement

Half of the respondents feel that engaging families as partners in problem-solving is a strength for their schools, and another 30% report that it is OK for now. A handful (3%) report that it is an urgent gap, and 16% report it “could be better.”

  • Strength or OK for now: 80% of respondents
  • Could be better or urgent gap: 16% of respondents
  • I don’t know: 3% of respondents

Disaggregated results are shared below. 

Note: Where percentages do not add to 100%, a small percentage of respondents answered “I don’t know.”

By role

Preschool teachers and administrators are the most confident about their schools’ ability to engage families in problem-solving — 67% of them report this is a strength.

Parents and staff from community-based organizations working in the schools are more likely to report that family engagement is an urgent gap for their schools — at 4% and 6%, respectively — than are elementary school-based staff. Three percent of teachers and 1% of principals report that it is an urgent gap.

However, a higher portion of parents than school-based staff also see family engagement in problem-solving as a strength for their schools — 51% of parents report it is a strength, and fewer than half of elementary school teachers, principals, and attendance staff feel the same. Community-based organization staff report that the schools they work in have room for improvement on family engagement — only one-third report that it is a strength.

  Head Start, NC PreK, preschool teacher or admin ParentElem. school principal/ vice- principalElem. school teacherAttendance staff at elem. School* Other staff at elem. school Community organization involved in elementary school**
Strength/ OK for now 91% 79% 81% 79% 79% 71% 45%
Could be better/ Urgent gap 8% 18% 19% 20% 21% 26% 45%

* This analysis is drawn from a sample size of 38 attendance staff members.

** This analysis is drawn from a sample size of 33 community providers.

By urban vs. rural

Respondents from suburban school districts are slightly more confident in their schools’ family engagement efforts than are their colleagues in urban and rural districts, but around 50% of respondents from each of the three types of districts report it as a strength, and around 3% report it as an urgent gap.

  Urban Suburban Rural
Strength/OK for now 78% 82% 79%
Could be better/Urgent gap 21% 16% 20%

By race

A higher percentage of Black respondents report family engagement in problem-solving as a strength than white respondents — 56% and 48%, respectively. Hispanic respondents were more likely to report family engagement in problem-solving as a strength in their schools than were non-Hispanic respondents — 56% vs. 50%.

Note: There were not sufficient sample sizes for respondents of other races or linguistic groups to make any further analyses.

  Black White Hispanic* Non-Hispanic
Strength/OK for now 83% 80% 81% 80%
Could be better/Urgent gap 16% 18% 19% 18%

* This analysis is drawn from a sample size of 36 Hispanic respondents.

School District Policy

Survey respondents were not confident that their local school district’s attendance policy promotes taking a problem-solving approach that includes all staff, students, families and partners at the school. Only a third of the respondents name this a strength, and another 30% report that it is OK for now. Five percent report that it is an urgent gap, while 19% report it “could be better.” More respondents (11%) replied that they “didn’t know” to this question than others.

  • Strength or OK for now: 65% of respondents
  • Could be better or urgent gap: 24% of respondents
  • I don’t know: 11% of respondents

Disaggregated results are shared below. 

By role

This question was not asked of parents and school volunteers, since they weren’t likely to know the details of their school district’s attendance policy. Preschool staff, elementary school principals and attendance staff are comfortable answering this question — only 6%, 3%, and 3% of them, respectively, report that they don’t know — while between 10% and 32% of other school-based staff, teachers, and community-based staff report not knowing. Preschool staff are most optimistic, with 49% reporting that their school district policy’s problem-solving approach is a strength. One-third of principals feel the same, along with about one-quarter of attendance staff and teachers. Seven percent of principals and teachers and 6% of attendance staff feel this is an urgent gap.

  Head Start, NC PreK, preschool teacher or admin. Elem. school principal/ vice- principal Elem. school teacher Attendance staff at elem. school* Other staff at elem. school Community organization involved in elementary school**
Strength/ OK for now 80% 72% 53% 66% 68% 42%
Could be better/ Urgent gap 13% 25% 31% 31% 22% 26%
I don’t know 6% 3% 16% 6% 10% 32%

* This analysis is drawn from a sample size of 35 attendance staff members.

** This analysis is drawn from a sample size of 31 community providers.

By urban vs. rural

Respondents from rural school districts are more comfortable answering this question and are more confident in the problem-solving approach of their districts’ attendance policies than are their colleagues in urban and suburban districts — 38% of rural respondents say this is a strength, versus just 30% of urban and suburban respondents. Urban respondents are the most likely to report this is an urgent gap, at 6%. The aggregate percentages in the table below suggest that suburban respondents are the least satisfied with their district policies’ problem-solving approaches.

  Urban Suburban Rural
Strength/OK for now 64% 59% 67%
Could be better/Urgent gap 23% 26% 25%
I don’t know 13% 15% 8%

By race

A higher percentage of Black respondents report that their district attendance policies promote a problem-solving approach than white respondents do — 42% and 33%, respectively. Hispanic respondents were more likely to report this as a strength than were non-Hispanic respondents — 48% vs. 35%.

Note: There were not sufficient sample sizes for respondents of other races or linguistic groups to make any further analyses.

  Black White Hispanic* Non-Hispanic
Strength/OK for now 71% 63% 81% 65%
Could be better/Urgent gap 21% 26% 19% 25%
I don’t know 8% 11% 0%10%

* This analysis is drawn from a sample size of 27 Hispanic respondents.

Recommendation

Survey data suggest that parents are both more likely to report family engagement in problem solving as a strength and as an urgent gap than are school-based staff, which suggests that parents have a wide range of experiences in dealing with their schools. One way to learn from families is to do a needs assessment to better understand from them the barriers they face in getting children to school every day and what would support them to do that.

School staff seem to agree that their local school districts’ attendance policies could do a better job taking a problem-solving approach that includes all staff, students, families, and partners at the school. These data suggest that it may be time to rewrite district attendance policies to focus more on supporting students and families to attend school regularly, which has been shown to be an effective approach, rather than punishing them for absences.

National Bright Spots

Across the country, schools are focusing their attendance policies on engaging students and families at risk of chronic absence through personalized early intervention. Here are a couple examples:

  • Social Worker Support for Students at Risk of Chronic Absence. In 2016, Ontario and Seneca counties in New York held community-wide meetings with each school in the district to discuss student attendance. Schools were encouraged to review attendance records for each student on a monthly basis and intervene with at-risk students by pairing them with social workers or community programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. Ontario Public Schools raised awareness of chronic absenteeism through its community meetings and ensured that students at risk of chronic absenteeism met regularly with social workers at each school to determine the root causes of absences.
  • Learning from and Supporting Families. The District of Columbia Public Schools developed an Early Childhood Education Division in 2015 to address chronic absenteeism in prekindergarten. District officials met with students’ families to identify the top reasons for student absences in prekindergarten. They also provided guidance and training to teachers around executing home visits throughout the school year for children at risk of chronic absenteeism.

North Carolina Bright Spot

Midway Elementary is a Title I school in Sampson County, North Carolina. Seventy percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged. Principal Robbin Cooper has spearheaded Midway Elementary School’s initiative to combat absenteeism since 2016, but the project is a team effort.

Cooper strongly believes that “parents’ understanding that attendance is important even at the elementary school level is crucial. Because if you start missing school at the elementary level, you are going to be years behind.” In this effort, she is supported by her school staff, including a data manager, a social worker, a counselor, and teachers.

Midway has defined intervention tiers based on the number of instructional days a student misses.

  • Fewer than nine days calls for a Tier 1 intervention — the school counselor speaks with the child to try to understand the reasons behind the absence. A counselor also contacts the family to begin to problem-solve. The school targets its response based on feedback from this meeting, including sending wake-up calls through the Blackboard mass communication system if waking up for school is a barrier.
  • As a student misses more days, the intervention tiers increase, and with 10 to 17 missed instruction days, a student is considered at risk of chronic absenteeism. The social worker then sends a letter to parents to schedule a conference and draft a formal attendance plan.
  • After 18 to 35 absences, Midway considers the child to be in the “moderate chronic absence” category, and the social worker schedules a home visit to collaborate with parents.

Principal Cooper believes that most parents want to improve their children’s attendance, so she and her team work hard to collaboratively solve attendance challenges with parents as partners.


Next month’s perspective will delve into current North Carolina school-level policies and practices around developing programmatic responses to address chronic absence, and we will share some bright spots from around the country and right here in North Carolina where that work is being done well. Check out NCECF’s AttendaNCe Counts series of reports to learn more about current state, district and school and community-level policies and practices around regular school attendance in North Carolina.

Mandy Ableidinger is the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Policy and Practice Leader.

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