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Perspective | Back to school, where attendance could not be more important for learning and reading success

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Amazingly, as we have made our way past mid-August, the first days of school are happening every day, along with lots of preparation for those new beginnings. Back-to-school organizing and shopping. First day of school photos. Crisp new notebooks, pencils, and backpacks. Different clothes and shoes for growing bodies and minds. All keys to preparing for the new school year. Something else we should be mindful of is supporting all students being present at school.

With attention to showing up for school, we’d like to call attention to September being Attendance Awareness Month. Good attendance is even more essential to student achievement and graduation because of lost learning opportunities that have occurred as a result of the pandemic and economic hardship to families. 

Attending school regularly is essential to students gaining the academic and social skills they need to succeed. Reducing absenteeism is a simple, cost-effective, but often overlooked strategy for improving academic performance. Starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, chronic absence — missing 10% of the academic year — can leave third graders unable to read proficiently, sixth graders struggling with coursework, and high school students off track for graduation. 

Chronic absence is especially problematic among students living in poverty who are most likely to have poor attendance over multiple years and least likely to have the resources to make up for the lost time in the classroom. In some communities, chronic absence affects more than one out of four children.

Attendance affects reading, academic achievement, and graduation

Regular attendance is essential to grade-level reading, academic achievement, and graduation. Attendance puts children on track for becoming proficient readers by the end of third grade, decreases their likelihood of being retained, and supports the development of social-emotional skills needed to persist in school. The NC Department of Public Instruction reports that, at the end of the 2020-21 school year, the average North Carolina fourth grader needed seven months of additional school time to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Reading well in the early grades predicts a child’s academic and career success. Research shows that improving third grade reading takes a coordinated birth-through-age-eight approach with aligned policies and practices that focuses on:

  • Children’s health and development, beginning at birth.
  • Supported and supportive families and communities.
  • High-quality birth-through-eight learning environments, with regular attendance.

Two initiatives of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation — Pathways to Grade-Level Reading and the NC Campaign Grade-Level Reading — prioritize the importance of regular school attendance for student success. 

The Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework provides North Carolina with a path forward on the areas stakeholders identified for action first — children’s social-emotional health, high quality early care and education, and regular school attendance.

Since 2015, the foundation has served as the state lead for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in North Carolina. The national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has mobilized 300 communities across the country to ensure that more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career, and active citizenship. It is a collaborative effort by foundations, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, and government agencies supporting children’s school readiness, summer learning, and regular school attendance.

National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Focus Areas, Courtesy Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

Many factors influence students showing up

Unfortunately, many schools and communities don’t realize the extent of the problem because districts don’t look at all the right data. They’re paying attention to how many students show up every day and how many skip school, but not how many miss so much school in excused and unexcused absences that they’re at risk academically.

The good news is chronic absence can be significantly reduced when schools, families, and community partners work together to monitor data, nurture a habit of regular attendance, and address hurdles that keep children from getting to school every day such as lack of access to health care, unhealthy environmental conditions, unreliable transportation, housing instability, or the lack of safe paths to school. One of our national partners, Attendance Works, has a number of resources to support school attendance. Check out the new Attendance Works toolkit online

Improving attendance and reducing absenteeism takes schools, families, and community partners working together to identify and address factors contributing to students missing school, particularly a lack of digital access, mental and physical health services, and access to basic economic supports, including food and housing. 

As proven in a number of success stories, tackling chronic absence is a smart strategy for improving your community and reaching goals. Attendance is a simple, common sense metric already recorded by teachers and understood by parents. It’s essential to other education reforms, and it’s a winnable strategy. Schools, districts, and communities that work together to reduce chronic absence often see attendance increase quickly.

Let’s support families getting those kids at school for learning every day.

Lindsay Saunders

Lindsay Saunders is the marketing and communications director at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.